PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
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PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)


PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
oil on panel
26 x 40 in. (66 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Estate of the artist
McKee Gallery, New York
Private collection, Woodstock, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2010
R. Storr, Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting, London, 2020, p. 118, (illustrated).
Philip Guston: Now, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 2020, p. 105, pl. 115 (illustrated).
S. Bertrand, Contemporary Curating, Artistic Reference and Public Reception: Reconsidering Inclusion, Transparency and Mediation in Exhibition Making Practice, Abingdon, 2022, p. 157, fig 6.1 (illustrated).
The Guston Foundation, The Philip Guston Catalogue Raisonné, digital, ongoing, no. P69.047 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

I have an uneasy suspicion that painting really doesn’t have to exist at all...unless it questions itself constantly. Philip Guston

Leveraging a striking new visual vocabulary rife with allusions to the subconscious and the undercurrents of postwar American society, Philip Guston carved a singular niche for himself in the latter half of the twentieth century. Painted in 1969, Untitled is an important early example of his seismic shift from Abstract Expressionism to his own unique figurative style. A heady blend of everyday objects, surreal imagery, and references to his own childhood, Guston’s return to representation proved his unwavering interest in pushing painting to its very limits. “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,” he once explained, adding, “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). Taking this thinking to heart, Guston reversed course in his final few decades and traded purity of form and material for stark figures, bare bulbs, floating eyes, and hooded antagonists. By doing so, he cut ties with the critical trajectory of Modernism and the status quo and proved that he still had a realm of painting left to explore.
Upon an incongruous pink ground, a variety of objects and figures are laid out in ambiguous fashion . The composition is fully frontal, offering little sense of illusionistic depth except where three hooded individuals overlap the items behind them. These figures, their heads marked by two vertical slits for eyes and square stitching where ears would reside, appear oblivious of their surroundings; on the right, two figures seem to be in conversation, their pointing hands gesticulating as they face each other, while on the left, a third figure appears poised to leave the frame as it nears the edge. Behind the trio, bags hang from straps amidst various painted squares while a clock on the wall reads 2:55 or 11:15; the exact time is unknown as the hands are the same length, a detail that serves to further obfuscate the painting’s true meaning. The entire tableau appears like a single frame of a comic strip with all the dialogue bubbles removed, and these haunting figures would remain central to Guston’s work as mute denizens of his visual meanderings that connect otherwise disparate scenes with a web of unease.

In the late 1960s, Guston’s oeuvre underwent a momentous shift. With it, he upended the course of American art and helped to usher in a growing turn toward representation. Known up until that point for his lyrical abstraction, his new body of work returned to figuration with a decisive split from what came before. He began to develop a singular visual vocabulary that took into account all manner of items and ideas from his life, dreams, and memories as they coalesced into a strange personal vision. “The more I painted,” he once 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: Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, p. 250). Drawing upon everything from childhood memories to the items in his studio, plus the societal upheaval that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Guston forged an eccentric iconography with which he explored the nuances of painting. Often rendered in bodily red, white, or the mottled pink prevalent in the current example, his compositions made reference to traumatic events from his early life while also grasping at the artist’s own struggle with politics, self-identity, and the art world.

The specter of Surrealism often haunted the early canvases of those painters that would usher in the era of Abstract Expressionism. Among them, Guston and Jackson Pollock were introduced early on as high school classmates to the magical realism of Giorgio de Chirico. An interest in the inner workings of the mind, so important to Pollock as he grappled with the transition from more symbolic compositions to his now legendary actions with house paint on canvas, also made itself known in Guston’s abstractions. Adding in the influence of Pablo Picasso and the German painter Max Beckmann, the latter’s representational works of the 1940s and 1950s presaged a full-fledged commitment to the development of the New York School. This evolved into a thorough investigation of the purity of form in abstraction which afforded the artist much critical acclaim. However, just a few decades later, Guston returned unannounced to his Surrealist-tinged roots with a new style and a full understanding of material and space. The airless, hypnotic canvases like Untitled are exemplary of the freedom learned in nonobjective painting applied to a vast web of introspectively-charged imagery. "Whatever psychological dam had been blocking Guston's creative surge had burst,” noted Henry Hopkins upon seeing Guston’s first new works. “Self-revelatory, self-deprecatory, urgent, tormented, dumb, sad, humorous, anything and everything but pretty, the hand and the heart were moving with a will of their own I felt that I knew what had happened. Guston was finally revealing himself as what he is, the wandering Jewish intellectual carrying everything of value in his massive head. For a lifetime, the chains of knowing had entwined him like those of Marley's ghost in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. And now he was throwing them off." (H. Hopkins, cited in Philip Guston, exh. cat. MoMA San Francisco, 1980, p. 47). No longer encumbered by the strictures of tradition, Guston was finally able to express himself in the most individual, poignant way he knew how.

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