Philip Guston (1913-1980) <BR>
Painter's City <BR>
Philip Guston (1913-1980)
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Philip Guston (1913-1980)

Painter's City

Philip Guston (1913-1980)
Painter's City
signed 'Philip Guston' (lower right)
oil on canvas
65 x 77¼ in. (165 x 197.5 cm.)
Painted in 1956-1957.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Isabel and Donald Grossman, New York
McKee Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Philip Guston, exh. cat., New York, 1958, fig. 34 (illustrated).
D. Ashton, Philip Guston, New York, 1960, pp. 25 and 55 (illustrated in color).
L. Alloway, "Notes on Guston," Art Journal, vol. 22, no. 1, Autumn 1962, p. 10 (illustrated).
D. Ashton, Yes, But...A Critical Study of Philip Guston, New York, 1976, pp. 113 and 202, pl. II (illustrated in color); 1990, pp. 196 and 210, pl. IV (illustrated in color).
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Philip Guston, February-March 1958. Mexico City, Instituto National de Bellas Artes, Primera Bienal Interamericana de Pinture y Grabado, June-August 1958.
Kassel, Museum Fridercianum, Dokumenta II, July-October 1959.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Ten American Painters, May-June 1961.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Brussels, Palais des Beaux Arts; London, Whitechapel Gallery and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Philip Guston, May 1962-June 1963, pp. 28, 42 and 70 (illustrated).
Waltham, Brandeis University, Poses Institute of Fine Arts, Rose Art Museum, Philip Guston: A Selective Retrospective Exhibition 1945-1965, February-March 1966, no. 12.

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Robert Manley

Lot Essay

Philip Guston executed Painter's City at an important time in the artist's career, when he was exploring the competing demands of abstraction and figuration. Although the interlocking geometric forms look like the buildings of the painting's title, Guston was well aware that the true subject of painting was painting itself. He was very aware of paint's rich physical and aesthetic qualities, like the other Abstract Expressionists of his generation. He was determined to mine these to the utmost effect, with breathtaking results.

Painter's City is a seminal work in Guston's oeuvre and, as such, has been included in many of his most important exhibitions. It was a major work in his 1958 show at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1958, it was also exhibited a year later as part of Documeta II in Kassel. Its legacy continued to grow, as in 1961 Sidney Janis included it as part of his seminal Ten American Painters exhibition. It also toured extensively in Europe and the United States as part of his retrospective organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Philip Guston's paintings of this scale and date rarely become available as most are in major museum collections such as The Clock, 1956-1957 at the Museum of Modern Art, Fable I, 1956-1957 at the Washington University Art Gallery, St. Louis and Dial, 1956 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Guston loved the hustle and bustle of the city, and the expressive brush strokes and monumental scale of this work conveys all of the urban landscape's energy and vitality. Forms cluster around the composition's center, strongly vertical, almost geometric, recalling the tall buildings of a downtown cityscape, although Guston's early abstractions are emphatically non-referential. Guston's thick impasto gives these forms physical warmth. Their fiery red tones evoke the blazing red and orange of a setting sun reflecting off a building's windows, while Guston casts the rest of the structure in shadow. Accents of green and a kaleidoscope of blue and gray tones add vibrancy to the composition's rich tapestry.

Guston continued to question the fundamental relationship between figuration and abstraction in the period leading up to Painter's City, this debate's "push and pull" manifesting itself with each canvas. Beginning in 1953, more solid forms emerged in his abstracts, which previously had been atmospheric. These increasingly dense arrangements took on more and more recognizable shapes, as snippets of memory played an increasingly important role in his work. He reveled in this process's inevitability. He showed how much he relished the freedom that came with this momentary resolution, writing in 1956, in the catalogue to the Museum of Modern Art's 12 Americans: "Even as one travels in painting towards a state of 'un-freedom' where only certain things happen, unaccountably the unknown and free must appear" (P. Guston, quoted in D. Ashton, Yes, but...: A Critical Study of Philip Guston, New York, 1976, p. 106).

Guston continued to blur the line between abstraction and figuration, and this reached its climax in the mid-1950s when works such as Painter's City signaled a new direction. He focused his energies on trying to a find a "wholeness of mood", and his compositions took on more organized form. The centrality of Painter's City's composition pays witness to this, but Guston still left himself room to explore the canvas's outer edges. Small, but significant devices leave space for the eye to escape the amorphous mass in the canvas's center, devices such as the horizontal gray horizontal form in the left of the canvas and the red striations in the bottom right. We see this restlessness in only a few select works from this period, since the massed forms that dominate Painter's City's composition soon became the direction he would almost exclusively pursue.

Painter's City's palette highlights Guston's signature use of the color red. While scholars have established that Guston looked toward Soutine's fleshy paintings, his other influences include artists from the distant past. The warmth of Guston's colors and the technique of offsetting the warm colors against the cooler tones indicate Guston's study of Venetian painters like Tintoretto and Titian.

For Guston, painting was not simply consecutive steps that culminated in a finished image. Rather, it was a metaphysical journey, on which the artist embarked without knowing the ultimate destination. Like his contemporary Clyfford Still, Guston expressed much on his richly textured canvases, conveying universal human themes. Guston relentlessly sought knowledge, and read extensively in philosophy, religion, and poetry. He shed the extraneous matter from his painting, resulting in an abstraction that was equal parts formal rigor and expressive touch and feeling. During this critical period, he was concerned most with the process of painting a picture. He never had an idea of a finished composition in his mind at the start of the painting process; he explored the exciting range of possibilities as they unveiled themselves to him. The canvas reveals the traces of these discoveries, which result in an immensely layered image, each brushstroke corresponding to another one, built up either in harmony or opposition. The challenge for Guston was to determine when he deemed a work finished, as it was for other New York School painters. In a statement made in 1952, Guston asserted that the work was successfully complete once the painting looked old, not new, as if the forms that took shape had long existed in the mind and hand of the artist.

This painting's monumental scale is rooted in Guston's early admiration for Mexican mural painters. The muralists Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera inspired Guston, as they had many of his generation of Abstract Expressionists. Guston produced his earliest works in this format, and was part of the New Deal WPA Art Project. He shifted to easel painting in pursuit of Social Realism, a logical segue from the mural's deeply political arena. From Social Realism to abstraction was a more complicated transition, but one that earned Guston a reputation among the finest painters of that moment. Clement Greenberg identified Guston, alongside Gorky, as personifying the "romantic idea of the artist" (R. Storr, Philip Guston, Abbeville Press, 1986, p. 83).
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. Painter's City's non-hierarchical structure 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, Cézanne throws into doubt the materiality of objects in his still lifes, or nature in his landscapes, through his signature taches of paint. Guston's painting privileges these properties - color, line and form - above all else, so that what he eventually shows us on the canvas is the artist investigating image-making's plasticity.

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 Painter's City show his ability to master his medium totally, resulting in works of refinement and grace. Only a very select group of artists, before or since, has matched his ability to handle paint so distinctively and sublimely.

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