PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
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Cancellation under the EU Consumer Rights Directiv… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION
PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)


PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
acrylic on panel
30 x 32in. (76.2 x 81.3cm.)
Painted in 1968
The Estate of Philip Guston, New York.
David McKee Inc., New York.
Private Collection.
Hauser & Wirth, Zurich.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2016.
B. Schwabsky, ‘'The Real Situation': Philip Guston and Mark Rothko at the End of the Sixties’, in Arts Magazine, December 1986 (illustrated in colour, p. 47).
M. Mayer, Philip Guston, London 2021, p. 63 (illustrated in colour, p. 62).
The Guston Foundation, The Philip Guston Catalogue Raisonné, digital, ongoing, no. P68.020 (illustrated in colour).
Special notice

Cancellation under the EU Consumer Rights Directive may apply to this lot. Please see here for further information.
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Tessa Lord
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Lot Essay

Painted the year of Philip Guston’s groundbreaking return to figuration, Untitled (1968), is a refined triple vision of the artist’s iconic ‘hoods’. Outlined in graphic black amid a hazy field of fuchsia, three of the triangular white characters stand in line, as if politely queuing. Dotted squares make their fabric look stitched and patched, like well-worn Halloween costumes; their slot-like eyes are cartoonishly expressive. Pentimento traces of larger ‘hoods’ hover faintly in the background. These figures were part of a unique formal lexicon through which, from 1968 onwards, Guston—until then known as an Abstract Expressionist—explored violence and complicity in the act of painting. He debuted his new figuration in a 1970 exhibition at Marlborough Gallery, which was met with dismay by many critics. The great New Yorker critic Harold Rosenberg was one of the few to recognise the paintings’ bravery and importance. ‘Guston is the first to have risked a fully developed career on the possibility of engaging his art in the political reality’, he wrote (H. Rosenberg, ‘Liberation from Detachment’, The New Yorker, 7 November 1970, p. 141).

Guston had made his name alongside his friends Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the 1950s, with shimmering, lyrical abstract paintings so serene his style was dubbed ‘Abstract Impressionism’. The following decade, living a relatively isolated life away from New York City in upstate Woodstock, he effected a dramatic shift. He began to see abstraction as false, escapist and even cowardly, peddling a myth of autonomy that deliberately sealed art away from the political and racial tumult that was rocking America at the time. ‘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 thought there must be some way I could do something about it’ (P. Guston, quoted in J. Talmer, ‘“Creation” is for Beauty Parlors’, New York Post, 9 April 1977).

Guston resolved to re-engage his art with the messiness and difficulty of the world. To tackle the present, he also looked to his past. As a young political activist in early 1930s Los Angeles, he had exhibited a series of paintings critical of the Ku Klux Klan at a Hollywood bookshop, where they were vandalised by Klan members. It was this memory, said Guston, that inspired the ‘hoods’ some three decades later. His new paintings made the Klan at once sinister and goofy, transforming menacing presences into ambiguous joke-shop ghosts. While they make plain the banality of evil, they also interrogate Guston’s own collusion in the racist society he wished to change. ‘They are self-portraits’, he later explained. ‘I perceive myself as being behind the hood … The idea of evil fascinated me … What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot’ (P. Guston, ‘Philip Guston Talking’, 1978, in Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1982, p. 52).

Guston’s new works were misunderstood even by some of his closest friends. The composer Morton Feldman, a staunch advocate of abstract art, never spoke to him again. Taking a long view of the artist’s life, however, his switch to figuration seems far from surprising. Guston, whose Ukrainian Jewish parents had fled persecution to Canada before his birth in 1913, had a deep-rooted political consciousness. Before his stint in Abstract Expressionism, he had begun his career as a social realist, painting murals for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. In this sense, the ‘hoods’ were a return to form as much as an innovation. Paintings like Untitled engage in rich dialogue, too, with his artistic touchstones. They recall the tensely-staged figures and shadowy plazas of the Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, who had fascinated Guston since his youth; their graphic, narrative quality takes cues from George Herriman’s cult Krazy Kat comics; the Renaissance frescoes of his hero Piero della Francesca echo in their dusty pinks and solid, statuesque forms.

Disavowing the style of the New York School, Guston declared that ‘American Abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover up for a poverty of spirit. A mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself. A lie to cover up how bad one can be … What a sham! Abstract art hides it, hides the lie, a fake! Don’t! Let it show!’ (P. Guston, quoted in M. Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, London 1991, p. 170). Faced with this cover-up, Untitled’s masks make for a sardonic rejoinder: they picture an open display of concealment, cowardice and villainy. The fog of indeterminate rose-blushed space, meanwhile, seems to enact Guston’s ambivalence towards the abstract work he had left behind—work as vaporous, beautiful and idle, he now felt, as smoke dissipating into air. The trio of hoods intrude with bold, comic-strip clarity. We cannot look away.

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