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Philip Guston (1913-1980)
Painting on Floor
signed 'Philip Guston' (left edge); signed again, titled and dated 'PHILIP GUSTON "PAINTING ON FLOOR" 1978' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60 1/8 x 52¼ in. (152.7 x 132.7 cm.)
painted in 1978
David McKee Gallery, New York.
Private collection, North Canton; sale, Christie's, New York, 12 May 2004, lot 180.
Jan Krugier, acquired at the above sale.
Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny--Musée Maillol, Le feu sous les cendres: de Picasso à Basquiat, October 2005-February 2006, pp. 2 and 146 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Philip Guston's poignant painting of a canvas propped up against the wall of a deserted studio is a hauntingly powerful image by an artist who, despite considerable critical success, was still plagued by personal self-doubt and concern over what it meant to be a painter in a time of social and political upheaval. Painted in 1978, towards the end of his life, Painting on Floor acts almost as a self-portrait--a physical manifestation of the inner turmoil that the artist felt dealing with the creative process. The painting--turned to face the wall--acts as a pictorial metaphor for the frustrations of the artist's life; hours, sometimes days, spent striving for creativity only to be followed by the disappointment that often comes with the physical process of realization. This theme is reinforced by the emptiness of the room, devoid of the usual accoutrements that populate an artist's studio, encapsulating Guston's feelings of frustration, both artistically but also increasingly towards the social upheaval of post 1960s America that had come to dominate the best examples of his work at this time.

Leaning against the studio wall, the wooden stretcher projects a sense of loneliness and isolation. Indeed, although the work is called Painting on Floor and Guston painstakingly details the staples attaching the canvas to the stretcher, he also enigmatically depicts the back of the canvas in the same rich red pigment as the wall against which it rests--rendering it almost transparent--becoming a further metaphor for the artist's emotions. The striations of the bare, wooden floorboards and the sparseness of the wall against which the painting rests all work to focus attention on the canvas stretcher itself. This motif, and the associations that it conjures up, was one of Guston's most important in the final years of his life. He included it in various forms in a number of his important paintings of the 1970s including The Canvas and The Frame. In doing so, these paintings become what Dore Ashton calls an autocritique. "The painter critically scrutinizes himself and his caste. He depicts himself as Picasso did later in life, as a creature of foolishness and fooling, faute de mieux, but also as one whose destiny is to create images. To reveal" (D. Ashton, A Critical Study of Philip Guston, Berkeley, 1976, p. 180).

Philip Guston navigated through four distinct idioms in a career that spanned fifty years. Like others of his generation who came to be known as Abstract Expressionists, Guston was inspired by the muralists, Josée Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera. He produced his earliest works in this format, and was part of the New Deal WPA Art Project. The shift to easel painting took place in the realm of Social Realism, a logical segue from the deeply political arena of the mural. From there to abstraction was a more complicated transition, but one which earned Guston a reputation among the finest painters of that moment. Clement Greenberg identified Guston, alongside Arshile Gorky, as personifying the "romantic idea of the artist" (R. Storr, Philip Guston, New York, 1986, p. 83).

The decisive change in Guston's style came after a show at the Jewish Museum in 1966. Living a relatively isolated life in upstate New York, over the next decade Guston grew troubled by the inappropriateness of his art amidst the increasingly traumatic political climate in America. "I was feeling split, schizophrenic," he recalled, "The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything--and then going to my studio to adjust a red to blue? I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid... wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt...I knew that I would need to test painting all over again in order to appease my desires for the clear and sharper enigma of solid forms in an imagined space, a world of tangible things, images, subjects, stories, like the way art always was... I have an uneasy suspicion that painting really doesn't have to exist at all... unless it questions itself constantly" (P. Guston, quoted in Philip Guston: Paintings, 1969-1980, exh. cat., London, 1982, p. 50).

Radically altering course, Guston moved away from his painstakingly ordered nonobjective painting by attempting to paint, without thinking, whatever he could see. Beginning by painting all the flotsam lying around his attic, Guston soon recognized, like Giorgio de Chirico and Max Beckmann before him, the bizarre metaphysical power of reality and the objective world. "The more I painted," he remarked, "the more mysterious these objects became. The visible world, I think, is abstract and mysterious enough, I don't think one needs to depart from it in order to make art" (P. Guston, quoted in K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds., "Philip Guston Talking" in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, Berkeley, 1996, p. 250).

Following what he described as a "powerful paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet," Guston's new-found obsession with the mysterious unreality of the physical world he had discovered soon developed into a profound existential awareness that started to manifest itself in his increasingly strong and ugly paintings (P. Guston, quoted in op. cit., London, 1982, p. 52). Guston's new paintings began to depict the world as a sparse and often desolate, Beckett-like landscape, translating the raw ordinariness of the everyday into fascinating and troubling metaphors of the absurd. By miraculously and asserting the unnerving, and stubborn facticity of objects Guston used the realism of the ordinary and the banal as the foundation of a new art. Rendered by Guston, in an unaffected, raw, coarse and even cartoon-like way that, materially and abstractly, employed all the painterly precision, accuracy and painstaking care that he had lavished on his earlier abstract paintings, Guston's ordinary forms outlined a potent new vision that bridged realism and abstraction. "Where Guston's clue images used to be masked by paint," Thomas B. Hess wrote of this work, "now his equally important pictorial intentions--his delight in virtuoso handling, in translucencies and viscosities--are masked by narrative" (T. Hess, quoted by R. Storr, Philip Guston, New York 1986, p. 66).

The structure and spatial dynamics of these later canvases is also what makes this particular work so compelling. After abandoning his early abstract style and then confining himself to a period of self-imposed painterly exile between 1966 and 1968, he emerged with a body of figurative paintings that became one of the great late styles of the twentieth century. Like Mark Rothko's late work Painting on Floor is expansive and frontal. The scene is split into two by a strong, horizontal line which acts to push the foreground forward whilst anchoring it firmly to the background.

It is for this reason that Guston's work from this period has been likened to the dark, somber landscapes of Francisco de Goya's Black Paintings. As in Goya's work, there is a tension that exists between the metaphorical nature of the images and the subject of the artist's imagination. Though clearly autobiographical in nature, Painting on Floor also speaks to the artist's remark that paint "was only colored dirt." By placing himself (in the form of a painting) between the foreground and the background, Guston becomes "trapped" in his composition and in doing so begins to question his own mortality. Painted in the last few years of his long and productive career, Painting on Floor becomes the artist's very personal allegory of the vanity of the struggle for human artistic endeavor.

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