"It is the bareness of drawing that I like. The art of drawing is what locates, suggests, discovers. At times it seems enough to draw, without the distraction of color and mass"-Philip Guston
In 1975, Philip Guston was commissioned to produce a cover for Fire Exit, a Boston-based poetry magazine started by Fanny Howe and Bill Corbett. To adorn their cover, Guston fashioned one of his simple yet eerily beautiful pen and ink drawings. Ostensibly a self-portrait, this drawing depicts a head with his bloodshot eyes and half-smoked cigarette hanging from his mouth together with a veiny hand pointing towards a pile of debris that inhabits the corner of his studio. Despite the enigmatic nature of the various motifs, they are incredibly personal for the artist with each of the objects having some direct relevance to an aspect of his life, as curator Magdalena Dabrowski points out "His personal feelings are reflected in the selection of imagery that defines the mood of the works. The floating heads seen in the mid-seventies-some just above the level of the water, others half-submerged and sinkingexpress the despair that haunted him anew when he came to the end of what had been a euphoric painting streak during the early part of 1975" (M. Dabrowski, The Drawings of Philip Guston, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988, p. 39).
One of the qualities that mark out this drawing as an exemplary example of Guston's works on paper is the delicacy of his line. Inspired by the brush paintings of the Chinese Sung period, Guston allows the fluidity of his line to flow freely across the surface of the paper. In Fire Exit Guston gives equal weight to each element of the composition, with each component interacting without prejudice to create a landscape that exists in more of mental state, rather than in physical sense. These drawings were a significant part of Guston's development as an artist, both in terms of providing valuable opportunities for evolving his artistic nuances and also helping to smooth the various aesthetic transitions that took place throughout his life. This particular work acts as the culmination of sorts of a period of intense creativity for Guston and one that resulted in some of the most important works of his career. Fire Exit can be seen as an assemblage of gestures, yet it also has a profoundly poetic sense of wholeness, of evoked meaning. The narrative of the work unfolds before us, causing recollections and contemplation, teetering on the brink of recognizability, while also functioning as a vortex of marks and movement in its own right.