PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
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PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Depth of Field: The Alan and Dorothy Press Collection
PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)

Bricks

Details
PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
Bricks
signed 'Philip Guston' (lower right); signed again, titled and dated 'PHILIP GUSTON "BRICKS" 1970' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
32 1/2 x 76 1/2 in. (82.6 x 194.3 cm.)
Painted in 1970.
Provenance
McKee Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 2000
Literature
D. Bonetti, “Still Krazy after all these years,” San Francisco Examiner, 10 January 1997, p. C-23.
Philip Guston: Retrospective, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2003, p. 70, fig. 15 (illustrated).
R. Slifkin, Out of Time: Philip Guston and the Refiguration of Postwar American Art, Berkeley, 2013, pp. 163-164, fig. 72 (illustrated).
The Guston Foundation, The Philip Guston Catalogue Raisonné, digital, ongoing, no. P70.011 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Malborough Gallery, Philip Guston: Recent Paintings, October-November 1970, no. 31.
San Francisco, Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery, Homage to George Herriman, January-February 1997, p. 2 (illustrated).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

“When the 1960s came along, I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines…and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.” -Philip Guston

On an ordinary autumn evening in October 1970, Philip Guston unveiled thirty-three of his new paintings at Marlborough Gallery in midtown Manhattan. In an unexpected and shocking volte-face, Guston abandoned the elegant abstractions of the prior decade in favor of figurative imagery painted on a massive scale and cloaked in soft, pastel tones and rendered in a naive, cartoon-like style. Chief among them was Bricks, a panoramic painting stretching over six feet, and depicting a hooded figure hurling a barrage of bricks and other blunt objects. “This simple account of the simple-mindedness of violence,” as the art critic Harold Rosenberg described these paintings, “had—and still has, today—disturbing implications,” which the artist’s daughter, Musa Meyer, recounted in 1988 (M. Mayer, “Philip Guston and the Privilege of Writing Badly,” Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, No. 13, 1988, p. 3). Indeed, Guston’s Hood paintings are his most divisive, conjuring up painful memories of collective trauma, and reminding us that true evil, when left unchecked, can easily veer into the banal and ordinary.

The Hood paintings are an evocative amalgam of imagery, including the Klansmen that had terrorized Guston’s youth in Los Angeles as well as the violence and hatred of the pogroms that his family had narrowly escaped in Odessa at the turn of the century. So, too, did Hoods represent the widespread police brutality against civil rights activists in America and the senseless war in Vietnam. Guston’s mute and dumb thugs are all the more sinister because they never actively harm anyone; instead, they drive around looking for victims. They carry bully sticks and bricks. They smoke cigars, they plot and plan. Guston paints them in soft pastel hues, with cartoon-like features that border—precariously—on sweetness, with the levity of cartoon violence. But Guston’s cartoon style is deliberate-meant to ridicule his subject, to render it anonymous and dumb. As the British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has explained, “If his work resembles a cartoon…that is because the same mistakes and the same atrocities are repeated throughout history with cartoon-like predictability” (A. Graham-Dixon, “A Maker of Worlds: The Later Paintings of Philip Guston,” in M. Auping ed., Philip Guston: Retrospective, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2004).

“If his work resembles a cartoon…that is because the same mistakes and the same atrocities are repeated throughout history with cartoon-like predictability." - (A. Graham-Dixon, “A Maker of Worlds: The Later Paintings of Philip Guston,” in M. Auping ed., Philip Guston: Retrospective, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2004).

Painted in 1970, likely just months before its debut at the seminal Marlborough exhibit, Bricks has been described as “the most panoramic” of the series, and indeed, Guston has taken full advantage of the painting’s six-foot expanse, to present an enigmatic creation that verges on the surreal. Here, a sinister figure cloaked in a white sheet has cocked back his left arm as if to hurl a brick at maximum speed. In what appears to be a riot or melee, other bricks are already being heaved at their target. They vary in size and weight; some of them take wing while others hover and float. This is a surreal, dreamlike vision of violence, of a violence so extreme that it transcends reality and enters into the realm of nightmare. And yet it’s painted with such tender care, with a soft palette of rose-tinged white and pinkish-reds, which belies the violence of the scene. 
Cloaked in a white hood, Guston’s figure is marred all over with red marks, but it is unclear if these are flecks of red paint or blood. In his essay in Philip Guston Now, the artist Glenn Ligon refers to the “stains” of systemic racism, raising the question of whether “living in a country built on white supremacy could leave one unmarked; that it didn’t splatter or stain, or that there were clear distinctions to be made between those who upheld notions of racial superiority and those who didn’t” (G. Ligon, “In the Hood,” in Philip Guston Now, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2020, p. 117).

In 1966, a major exhibition of Guton’s paintings at the Jewish Museum was received as another triumph for the artist, where he displayed about eighty of the abstract paintings that had brought him acclaim as an important painter of the New York School. These subtle paintings, with their gestural brushwork and hovering rectangular forms, retained an ethereal elegance that made them darlings with critics of the day, including Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. When the exhibit closed, however, Guston felt himself to be at an impasse. Rather than continue onward with the paintings his critics had come to expect, he felt drawn in the opposite direction, and began working on a series of figurative drawings and paintings. Soon, ordinary objects began to emerge. He painted coffee cups, shoes, a light bulb, a clock, and all manner of ordinary things. “From 1967-69 I painted like mad,” Guston recalled. “The paintings came so fast I had to make memos to myself, at a table drinking coffee. ‘Paint them.’ I felt like a movie director, like opening a Pandora’s Box and all those things came out” (P. Guston, quoted in R. Storr, Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting, New York, 2020, p. 113).

“From 1967-69 I painted like mad. The paintings came so fast I had to make memos to myself, at a table drinking coffee. ‘Paint them.’ I felt like a movie director, like opening a Pandora’s Box and all those things came out.” - Philip Guston

As the myth reminds us, Pandora’s Box unleashed all the evils known to mankind, and it is perhaps not surprising, then, that the hooded klansman re-emerged in Guston’s work at this time. As a young political activist in the early 1930s in Los Angeles, Guston had painted a series of paintings that were critical of the klan. He wanted to raise funds to support the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine Black boys falsely accused of rape in Alabama, but the paintings were raided by the Los Angeles Police Department’s “Red Squad” who used their weapons to shoot them out. 

In the mid-to-late ‘60s, Guston began to conflate his early fears of the Klan with what he felt to be an increasingly dire situation in the U.S. Created in response to the televised police brutality toward protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and…possibly spurred by the 1963 Klan-led bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four children, Guston’s paintings of Klansmen appear to have been fundamentally shaped by the history of racism in the United States,” writes the art historian and Guston scholar Robert Slifkin (R. Slifkin, “Ugly Feelings,” Artforum, January/February 2021, p. 112).

While they illustrate the banality of evil, the Hood paintings also interrogate Guston’s own collusion in the racist society he wished to change. He even went so far as to describe the hooded figures as self-portraits, saying: "They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind the hood” (P. Guston, “Philip Guston Talking,” 1978, in Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1982, p. 52). If the Hood paintings were indeed self-portraits, what does it mean that Guston painted himself under the hood? Again, the art historian Robert Slifkin has acknowledged that their meaning remains ambiguous, writing, “Yet if the Marlborough works were an indictment—of America and its deep-seated racism, of what Guston called the ‘cover up’ of abstraction, of his own complicity in these intertwined histories—their target remains fundamentally ambiguous, as unresolved as the passages of paint that constitute their representational imagery” (R. Slifkin, op. cit., p. 113).

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