The Guston Foundation confirms that this lot will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Philip Guston.
Painted during Philip Guston’s prolific final decade Raoul’s Tools, is a vibrant example of the artist’s unmistakable figurative idiom. Titled after friend and Abstract Expressionist sculptor, Raoul Hague, this work is – like much of Guston’s oeuvre – frankly confessional, questioning his own personal life as well as the seemingly indulgent and mysterious act of painting. By the late 1960s, Guston had begun to see abstraction as false, escapist and cowardly, and started moving towards figurative work as a way of troubling his medium from a keen new angle. Melancholic and ominous, Raoul’s Tools is born of a unique project to reframe the very purpose of painting. In the work, Guston merges elements of figuration with abstraction, a combination which came to define his own iconic brand of painting during the final decade of his career.
True to its title, Raoul’s Tools shows Raoul Hague’s artist studio blushing with Guston’s characteristic rosy pink hues and boldly outlined objects. The tools of the artist’s trade have been arranged within the sloping flat plane of the table, as if standing upon some steeply-graded hill. The clock and hammer are the same color as their respective blue and coral backgrounds, subtly but effectively distorting the work’s sense of depth and perspective. The painting is mysteriously open-ended; the dormant collection of objects in artist’s studio is tinged with a strange and melancholic beauty, leaving us to wonder about the artist missing from the picture. The clock and the tools are some of the most familiar participants in Guston’s final cycle of paintings, and these everyday objects placed on the artist’s working surface speak to the day-to-day realities of the artist’s life, ranging from its most mundane to its most exquisite. Raoul’s Tools is a primary example of Guston’s mastery of ‘essential forms’ – these meticulously modeled relics that make the everyday profoundly strange – creating works that were less about disengaging from the real world than reassessing its possibilities with fresh eyes. Guston remarked, “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.” (P. Guston, quoted in K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds., Philip Guston Talking: Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, p. 250).
Guston had reached great acclaim as part of the Abstract Expressionist vanguard in 1950s and early 1960s New York. He then confounded critics when, in 1970, he turned away from his impressive body of complicated, introverted, and often extremely beautiful abstract paintings to suddenly reinvent himself as a figurative artist. Partly a response to the increasingly turbulent political climate of America, Guston’s later works were also philosophically concerned with painting’s capacity for narrative, and saw the artist take an almost linguistic approach to the objects he saw around him and incorporated into his pictures.
It was in 1968 that Guston made a deliberate decision to return to figuration. Living a relatively isolated life in Woodstock, New York – where Raoul Hague also lived for most of his life and career – Guston turned inward, unplugging his phone for days at a time. Hague and Guston were for many years next-door neighbors in Woodstock, and the former once told an interviewer that Guston was one of the only artists "whose eyes I could trust, and I have used in my development.” (R. Hague, quoted in R. Smith, “Raoul Hague, Sculptor, 88, Dies; Abstract Expressionist in Wood,” New York Times, New York, 1993). Although Raoul’s Tools is one of Guston’s figurative paintings, his earlier abstract work can be tied to Hague’s large-scale graceful wooden sculptures. The exceptional qualities of touch and structure that developed in Guston’s abstract works and were later invested in monumental portraits, still lives, and landscapes, can be seen in Hague’s rugged, expressive wood works. After retreating to Woodstock in the 1970s, Guston embarked upon a sustained and relentless investigation into the objects that populated his daily life and his most significant personal motifs, spending the better part of the decade creating the cast of characters for which his work is now celebrated: the hooded figures, the one-eyed artist, his wife, and the myriad objects of his everyday life in the studio.
Guston’s Raoul’s Tools is a part of a series of works that set out to redraw the map of American art by infusing it with a new sense of direction. Beginning his career as a social realist and then mastering Abstract Expressionism, Guston’s late figurative works were something of a synthesis of these two earlier phase—a full-bodied and deeply personal engagement with the mysteries of paint in an attempt to bridge the traditional boundary between art and life. The final six years of Guston’s life—until a heart attack in 1979 forced him to slow down—were the most feverishly productive of his career. In a letter to the poet Bill Berkson in July 1976, he wrote: ‘I’ve been painting around the clock, 24 hours or more—sleep a bit and then go back—it is totally uncontrollable now’ (P. Guston, quoted in M. Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, New York, 1988, p. 179). Raoul’s Tools stands as a powerful emblem of this great creative outpouring.