Late September is a striking and enigmatic work, part of Guston's last important series of non-representational paintings, before he reevaluated abstraction. Evidently grappling with his desire to reveal tangible form, Late September's intuitive and organic unfolding of mass and line prefigures the aesthetic tug-of-war that would eventually compel Guston towards painting simplified figurative images at the end of the 1960s. In Late September, the dense, viscous paint marks, occasionally set free in wispy trails, reveal his unwillingness at the time to conform to any formal structure or definitive imagery.
Guston's pressing need to paint with unobstructed immediacy meant he avoided making preparatory studies and would generally work on one painting at a time. His work was completed only when he felt an instinctive certainty that a balance had been resolved in the tension between color, form and ground, pushing the paint until it "falls into positions that feel destined" (P. Guston, quoted in G. Braziller, Phlip Guston, San Francisco, 1980, p. 40). Typical of his later abstractions, Late September features a raw, unprimed border from which Guston was able to watch his painting evolve. The work's palpable spontaneity is controlled toward this outer margin by brushwork swept into rough horizontal and vertical axes that loosely bind the composition into a square format, mimicking the edge of the canvas to contain the mysterious jostling forms within.
John I.H. Baur's inclusion of Guston's work in the 1958 exhibition Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth Century American Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, had encouraged a universalized interpretation of Guston's introspective gestural style by relating his imagery to nature. With the tentative rediscovery of definable forms in his later abstract paintings, it is certainly tempting to read elements of landscape imagery into Late September, with its cylindrical, log-like shapes, and flashes of vibrant green, red and orange evoking the heat of a waning summer. However, Guston continued to reaffirm his interest in non-figurative painting, asserting, "it is not always given to me to know what my paintings 'look like.' I know that I work in a tension provoked by the contradictions I find in painting" (Guston, quoted in R. Storr, Philip Guston, New York, 1986, p. 28).
By 1961, Guston's early lyrical abstractions of thin, tightly controlled, networked brush marks had transformed into the blocky passages of color and suggestive sketchy lines found in Late September. The irregular circular and lumped masses that hover and emerge from fog-like murky greys begin to verge on three dimensionality, suggesting primordial forms on the cusp of being. Writing about this period of change in a review of the 2003 Philip Guston retrospective, Michael Kimmelman observed, "these soulful abstractions search out shapes they can't yet define. They have the rough, barely muffled anger of raised voices approaching from the other side of a closed door" (M. Kimmelman, "Art Review: Anxious Liberator of an Era's Demons," New York Times, October 31, 2003, p. E37). Despite the germination of form in his abstract work of this period, Guston followed his feeling that to reproduce instantly decipherable images of reality removed the aura and attraction of art. Quoting Paul Valery, he maintained that "a bad poem is one that vanishes into meaning" (P. Guston, quoted in D. Ashton, A Critical Study of Philip Guston, California, 1990, pp. 131-132). It is this sense of lyrical mystery that we find in Late September, a painting generated directly from the inscrutable internal workings of the artist's psyche.