Philip Guston (1913-1980)
Property of an Important Swiss Collector
Philip Guston (1913-1980)


Philip Guston (1913-1980)
stamped with the Estate of Philip Guston stamp and numbered '167' (on the reverse)
oil on Masonite
48 x 60 in. (121.9 x 152.4 cm.)
Painted in 1973.
Estate of the artist
McKee Gallery, New York
Timothy Taylor Gallery, London
Private collection, Europe, 2007
Anon. sale; Christie's, London, 09 February 2012, lot 649
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
London, Timothy Taylor Gallery, Philip Guston: Objects, February-March 2006, n.p. (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

In Untitled from 1973, Philip Guston capitalizes upon the tradition of the rebus, a pictorial puzzle that originated in medieval Europe in which letters, words, and pictures are arranged in such a manner to be decoded by their reader. Arranged across this large canvas, a series of familiar and some more ambiguous objects are laid out like clues to an unresolved mystery. A boot, the sole and heel of a shoe, a green glass bottle, and an open tin can lie scattered as if discarded by their previous owners. The sense of mystery continues with a tablet at the top edge of the work engraved with what appears to be letters from the Greek alphabet. This collection of objects is carefully watched over by the cycloptic eye of one of Guston’s iconic hooded figures from this period. These figures are among the most important motifs in his later paintings. Enigmatic and haunting, they recall those presented throughout art history, ranging from the religious figures in Piero di Cosimo’s sixteenth-century frescos to the blank faces of de Chirico’s later paintings. Guston would have been aware of the religious nature of these images from his time in Italy, but unlike these historic figures, Guston’s figures have developed a distinctly contemporary resonance.

At first glance the rich array of seemingly innocuous objects laid out across the surface of Philip Guston’s painting seems to be a collection of rejected objects, abandoned by society and left as a reminder of the increasingly disposable nature of our modern consumer culture. But in fact these apparently neglected objects act as a pictorial metaphor for Guston’s life—motifs that have personal significance for the artist, and are presented like a hieroglyphic code to be deciphered and decoded to reveal their deeper, inherent meaning. Indeed, some have detected Guston’s own obliterated initials in the gold block on the lower edge of the composition. Guston’s feelings of frustration, not only artistically but also increasingly towards the social upheaval of post 1960s America, an emotion which had come to dominate the best examples of his work from this time. The artist sought a different style of painting as a way of dealing with the intensity of these feelings.

Living a relatively isolated life in upstate New York, Guston grew troubled by the inappropriateness of his art amidst the increasingly traumatic political climate in America. Guston’s return to this new abstracted form of figuration was the result of the artist’s increasing concern and frustration at the political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Guston said of his own transgressions of styles of painting, “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... [I] 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 L. Norbet, Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat., London, 1982. p. 50).

By 1973, Philip Guston had successfully transitioned from his former life as an Abstract Expressionist into a figurative painter, through Guston would never be a representational painter in the traditional sense of the genre as the complex schematic system in this Untitled painting demonstrates. A high school art teacher had introduced Guston and fellow classmate Jackson Pollock to the magical realism of Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico and the abstraction of Spanish polymath Pablo Picasso. Those early lessons would have long lasting influence on the artist who would continue to draw from and respond to de Chirico and Picasso, adding German painter Max Beckmann in his own highly figurative, social realist period in the 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s, Guston would segue from the representational into the abstract, when he and Pollock would develop the style of painting known The New York School, or Abstract Expressionism. By the late 1960s Guston would return to figuration, but this time in a looser, more cartoon-like style like the one on full display in Untilted. A color palette of fleshy pinks and reds combined with a highly symbolic personal language including disembodied eyes, hooded klansman, cigarettes, shoes, cans and other objects from current events and daily life are reorganized into a highly scripted puzzle.

Following what he characterized as a powerful desire to paint things as if one had never seen them before, Guston’s new-found obsession with the mysterious unreality of the physical world soon developed into a profound existential awareness that started to manifest itself in his increasingly strong painting style. Guston said of this new process “The more I painted 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).

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