Executed circa 1953, Untitled is an historic abstract work by Philip Guston dating from the height of his friendship with John Cage. It was during this period that both Cage and Guston were living near each other, and a range of the other pioneering figures of the day, in New York. Indeed, together they had been attending the lessons of Zen master D.T. Suzuki at Columbia University, New York, which were to prove so important both to Cage's music and to Guston's abstract pictures. In Untitled, there is a rhythmic, almost calligraphic quality to the way in which he has, in an almost ritualistic process and in the absence of any figurative motif, amassed these darting ink-marks on the surface. This picture has a pulsing, swirling sense of movement, and its musicality, so apt in a work owned by Cage and Cunningham, is summed up in Guston's own words: "Look at any inspired painting. It's like a gong sounding. It puts you in a state of reverberation" (P. Guston quoted in M. Auping, 'Impure Thoughts: On Guston's Abstractions', pp. 37-52, Auping, Philip Guston: Retrospective, exh. cat., Fort Worth, 2003, p. 44).
When Cage was taken by their mutual friend, composer Morton Feldman, to Guston's studio in the early 1950s to see some of his recent works, he exclaimed: "My God, it's possible to paint a magnificent painting about nothing!" This perspective partly prefigures his subsequent friendship and collaborations with Rauschenberg and Johns; however, Feldman rejoined, "But, John, it's about everything" (J. Cage and M. Feldman quoted in M. Auping, 'A Disturbance in the Field', pp. 28-46, Philip Guston: Gemälde, exh. cat., Bonn, 1999, p. 36). Cage's own statement was telling in that Untitled and its contemporaries can be seen as paintings about painting itself, reflecting Guston's own intense interest in the gesture, in the brushstroke. This had been heightened by his love of Phaidon books on the Old Masters, which often featured close-up details of the paintings of yore, each mark shown out of context and in its own right. Certainly, Untitled can be seen as an assemblage of gestures. Yet it also has a profoundly poetic sense of wholeness, of evoked meaning. The picture shimmers before us, causing recollections and contemplation, teetering on the brink of recognisability while also functioning as a vortex of marks and movement in its own right, perfectly demonstrating the truth of Cage's own comment that a work such as Untitled is, "a beautiful land" (J. Cage quoted in M. Auping, "Impure Thoughts: On Guston's Abstractions", pp. 37-52, Auping, Philip Guston: Retrospective, exh. cat., Fort Worth, 2003, p. 45).