Overview

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Details
Philip Guston (1913-1980)
Untitled
signed 'Philip Guston' (lower right and on the reverse)
oil on canvas
40¼ x 34¼ in. (102.2 x 87 cm.)
Painted in 1951-1952.
Provenance
Acquired directly from the artist by Leonard Bocour for the Bocour Family Collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1998
Exhibited
San Francisco Museum of Art, American Business and the Arts, September-October 1961.
New York, McKee Gallery, Philip Guston, Paintings from the 50's, April-June 1995, no. 4, (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, Manny Silverman Gallery, Philip Guston: Selected Works on Paper and Canvas, November-December 1998.
Sale room notice
Please note this work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by McKee Gallery.

Lot Essay

"The desire for direct expression finally became so strong that even the interval necessary to reach back to the palette beside me became too long; so one day I put up a large canvas and placed the palette in front of me. Then I forced myself to paint the entire canvas without stepping back to look at it" - Philip Guston, 1962


With its luxurious palette of pinks, reds, oranges and flashes of blue, Philip Guston's Untitled celebrates the artist's new found painterly freedom as he renders the canvas with the rich array of color and texture. One of the earliest of his mature paintings, along with masterworks such as The Bell, 1952, and Painting No. 5, 1952 (collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Untitled sees Guston released from the constraints of representational painting that dominated the early part of his career. This newly discovered sense of liberation is clearly visible in the energetic, staccato brushstrokes that make up the dynamic surface of the painting. Guston's abstractions centrally emphasize non-referentiality. In his work from this period, the act of painting is less a vehicle for traditional image-making and more the means to transform and outwardly manifest the struggle between the painter's will and expectations pitted against painting's set values. In Untitled, the muted tonal values of the background act as the foil to the erupting yet subtle color and animated brushwork in the center. The concentrated mass spreads to the edges of the canvas; this is a development from his earlier paintings where Guston coiled the mass more tightly in the center.

Acquired directly from Philip Guston by Leonard Bocour, the pioneer manufacturer of acrylic paints, Untitled was part of his extensive private collection until the present owner obtained it more than a decade ago. In addition to developing his own range of paints, Bocour owned an art supply store in New York, which became a popular meeting place for artists such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, who came there to buy paint and discuss painting. Over several decades, Bocour built up an enviable collection of over 400 works, of which Untitled was one of the centerpieces.

With this early abstraction, Guston created a new kind of construct by using the metaphor of the void. His paintings do not illustrate the void per se, but rather, Guston creates them in a void, where external reality bears no influence on them. The void as defined by the French Symbolist poets such as Mallarm and then later by the Existentialists, Sartre and Camus, was a metaphor for creating something entirely new, solely dependent upon the nature of the art form and its intrinsic properties. It is interesting to note that Guston - who grew up in Southern California, and even attended high school with Jackson Pollock - has often been regarded as a solitary figure within the New York School. This characterization conjures up a mythic image of the artist as the alienated genius facing the void; coincidentally, similar interpretations have been made of other artists from the untamed, Wild West, namely Pollock and Still. It is true to some degree that these artists most relished freedom from orthodoxy and were not afraid of shedding bourgeois views of art to acquire radical powers of transformation in their painting. Guston, along with his western compatriots, achieved this by merging strong expressive power and rigorous abstract idiom.

Guston's abstract paintings have been compared to Impressionist paintings by Monet and Pissarro because of their atmospheric appearance and painterly facture. However, Guston's questioning spirit is more aligned with Cézanne. The non-hierarchical structure of Untitled attests to Guston's study of the Post-Impressionist master. Cézanne's inflections of paint do not so much absorb the viewer's gaze as deflect it elsewhere, resulting in an all-over effect. Furthermore, through his signature taches of paint, Cézanne throws into doubt the materiality of objects in his still lifes, or nature in his landscapes. Guston's painting, in terms of color, line and form, privileges these properties above all else so that what is eventually shown on the canvas is the artist's investigation into the plasticity of image-making.

Guston was an artist's artist; a painter who continuously questioned the very nature of painting, regardless of whether his process led to representation or abstraction. Works such as Untitled demonstrate his ability to totally master his medium, resulting in works of refinement and grace. His ability to handle paint in such a distinctive and sublime manner has been matched only by a select group of artists before or since. Dore Ashton tells a story of a visit to Guston's studio by the composers Morton Feldman and John Cage. Confronted with the ethereal presence of a painting like Untitled, Cage exclaimed. "My God, it's possible to paint a magnificent picture about nothing" To which Feldman replied, "But John, it's about everything" (D. Ashton, Yes, But - a Critical Study of Philip Guston, New York, 1976, pp. 94-95).

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