“...I have an uneasy suspicion that painting really doesn’t have to exist at all... unless it questions itself constantly.” Philip Guston
Painted in 1979, Painter at Night is a self-portrait of the artist at the height of his career yet still challenged by the search for inspiration and the process of artistic realization. In this absorbing canvas, the artist depicts himself deep in thought, with a paintbrush in his hand, thinking pensively as if searching for artistic inspiration. The closely cropped composition is populated by objects and artists paraphernalia that are often depicted in Guston’s paintings from this period, as if to direct our attention to the single-minded focus of the artist and his pursuit of the act of creation. Rendered in a series of painterly brushstrokes, the emptiness acts as a pictorial metaphor for the frustrations of the artist’s life; days, and particularly night, spent striving for creativity only to be following by the disappointment that often comes with the physical process of realization.
Philip Guston navigated through four distinct idioms in a career that spanned half a century. Like others of his generation who came to be known as Abstract Expressionists, Guston was inspired by the muralists Gabriel Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera. He produced his earliest works in this format, and was part of the New Deal / W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) 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 Gorky, as personifying the “romantic idea of the artist” (R. Storr, Philip Guston, Abbeville Press, 1986, p. 83).
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, the artist 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 René Magritte, 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” (K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds., Philip Guston Talking. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, p. 250).
Following what he described as a “powerful desire... to 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 figurative paintings (P. Guston, 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 and raw 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, “now his equally important pictorial intentions—his delight in virtuoso handling, in translucencies and viscosities—are masked by narrative” (T.B. Hess, in R. Storr, Philip Guston, New York 1986, p. 66). In Painter at Night, by placing himself 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, this painting becomes the artist’s very personal allegory of the vanity of the struggle for human artistic endeavor.