"Following his own advice, Guston painted the things that surrounded him; his brushes, the irons he used to smooth out the wrinkles in his canvases, his books. He also painted himself, ceaselessly, in the form of that huge, potato-shaped disembodied head with its great staring expressive eye, which looks like a painter's equivalent to the writer Samuel Beckett's disembodied talking mouth in Not I but could also be a sly backward reference to Cézanne's famous remark about Monet: 'He was only an eye, but my God what an eye!' The bruised Cyclops head confronts loneliness; bends over the bottle of his drink addiction, eye to eye with his own weakness; smokes while eating a plate of thick cut potato fries, lying in bed while his incorrigibly strange art-- in the form of a painting within a painting-- takes shape behind him. As the late work unfolds, in all its raucous, battered majesty, it creates the strong impression that there was really nothing that Guston, at the last, was not prepared to try and incorporate in his work. He had finally found a way of depicting his thoughts, dreams, and aspirations, his anger, his morbidity, and his love. Late, but not too late, he had achieved the wholeness that he sought. He had found a way to create paintings that leapt the boundary of 'painting,' and entered life" (A. G. Dixon, "A Maker of Worlds: The Later Paintings of Phillip Guston," Philip Guston: A Retrospective, exh. cat., London, 2004, p. 63).
Head and Bottle is a raw and powerful painting from the culminating years of Guston's much-celebrated late period. Guston is one of those relatively rare examples in art history of a successful painter whose work underwent a dramatic transformation late in life, shifting into a new and powerful style that, as in the case of the great masters like Titian, Rembrandt or Goya, ultimately seemed not only to make sense of, but also to transcend all the work that had gone before. For Guston, his late work was a period in which the artist's former experience as both a figurative mural painter and as one of the most innovative and influential nonobjective painters of the Abstract Expressionist generation fused together into a new, raw, strange and troubling realism.
The decisive change for Guston came after a show at the Jewish Museum in 1966. Living a relatively isolated life in Woodstock, New York, Guston, over the next few years, grew troubled by the inappropriateness of his art amidst the increasingly traumatic political climate in America. "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 wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid...wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt...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...I have an uneasy suspicion that painting really doesn't have to exist at all... unless it questions itself constantly" (Philip Guston cited in Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat, London, 1982. p. 50).
Radically altering course, Guston moved away from his painstakingly ordered nonobjective painting by attempting to paint, without thinking, whatever he could see. Beginning by painting all the flotsam lying around his attic, Guston soon recognised, like de Chirico and Beckmann before him, the bizarre metaphysical power of reality and the objective world. "The more I painted," he 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" (K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds., Philip Guston Talking. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, University of California Press, 1996, p.250).
Following what he described as a "powerful desire...to paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet," Guston's new-found obsession with the mysterious unreality of the physical world he had discovered soon developed into a profound existential awareness that started to manifest itself in his increasingly strong and ugly paintings (Philip Guston cited in opus cit, London, 1982. p.52). Guston's new paintings began to depict the world as a sparse and often desolate, Beckett-like landscape, translating the raw ordinariness of the everyday into fascinating and troubling metaphors of the absurd. By miraculously and asserting the unnerving, and stubborn facticity of objects Guston used the realism of the ordinary and the banal as the foundation of a new art. Rendered by Guston, in an unaffected, raw, coarse and even cartoon-like way that, materially and abstractly, employed all the painterly precision, accuracy and painstaking care that he had lavished on his earlier abstract paintings, Guston's ordinary forms outlined a potent new vision that bridged realism and abstraction. "Where Guston's clue images used to be masked by paint," Thomas B Hess wrote of this work, "now his equally important pictorial intentions-- his delight in virtuoso handling, in translucencies and viscosities-- are masked by narrative" (T. Hess cited in R. Storr, Philip Guston, New York 1986, p.66).
More than this, however, in revealing the familiar world anew, Guston's paintings came to describe an entire seemingly post-apocalyptic and strangely futuristic world of breathtaking simplicity in which the artist eventually found himself wandering. These wanderings first took the guise of rather comic hooded Ku Klux Klan men-- a seeming anathema to the world in which they found themselves. These bizarre masked figures were ultimately replaced by the haunting one-eyed, stark-naked, all-seeing and equally comic self-portrait-head that dominates Head and Bottle. In this raw and powerful self-mocking, but also sincere self-portrait, Guston embeds the un-masked artist - a naked and pathetic creature whose sole purpose is to see - into his work as both its protagonist and its witness. In this way, Guston illustrates his awareness that his new paintings had grown into fascinating mental landscapes powerfully articulating the inner life and mental wanderings of his own, curious, troubled, courageous and constantly probing mind.
It is in this respect that Head and Bottle establishes itself as not just one of the artist's finest paintings but also one of the artist's bravest and fiercest pictorial statements. Startlingly direct in the raw and simple way in which Guston depicts himself, confronting, literally, his own alcoholism, in the plain hard electric light of the workshop, the painting is a stark and powerful expression of fact. Guston was a painter of the Abstract Expressionist generation. Like Pollock and de Kooning, Rothko or Greenberg, Guston too was a heavy drinker and smoker. Not only his painting, but these habits too were both formed by and a part of the culture in which he and this generation of artists had grown up. Guston recognised this and his Cyclops self-portrait-head is often to be seen in the elemental world of his paintings engaging in the fundamental actions of life, eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping, and, almost always, as the artist, seeing all. In the appropriately starkly titled, Head and Bottle, the red-faced, bestubbled head looks intently at the bottle under a terrifyingly existential light bulb hanging on a cord, every bit as sinister as those hanging in Francis Bacon's alienating spaces. Under the insomniac light of this bulb, this booze-reddened testicular icon of middle-aged masculinity, contemplates and accuses one of the malevolent symbols of his identity - the bottle. Beneath it, that other symbol of his being, the paint brush, lies, like the empty bottle, also discarded. The existential conflict between a man's need for the bottle and for his art has never been so plainly or more forcefully expressed. Through the powerful eloquence of Guston's frighteningly simplistic pictorial language something of the inner torments of the artist's soul are convincingly evoked.
Guston had a traumatic childhood. The son of Jewish immigrants from Odessa, at the age of ten Guston (née Goldstein) discovered his father's dead body hanging from a rope after the despairing Russian immigrant had committed suicide. For years after this the young Philip would often retreat to a closet lit only by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling in order to draw and copy figures from his favourite cartoons such as George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff. In his late paintings, disembodied legs, shoes, noose-like ropes and light-bulbs appear and reappear in his work with a haunting frequency, their heavy and earthy forms contributing greatly to the innate anxiety that permeates almost every aspect of the new world that Guston defined in these late works.
By 1975 Guston, enthralled and dedicated to the new realism of the world, had rejected American Abstraction completely. It is a "lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit," he wrote in his notebook. "A mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself. A lie to cover up how bad one can be. Unwilling to show this badness, this rawness. It is laughable, this lie. Anything but this! What a sham! Abstract art hides it, hides a lie, a fake! Don't! Let it show! It is an escape from the true feelings we have, from the 'raw', primitive feelings about the world-- and us in it" (Philip Guston's notebook, circa 1970, quoted in A. Graham-Dixon, Ibid, p. 54).
Head and Bottle seems also to refer ironically to such abstraction, for it is against the cold existential emptiness of a Rothko-like void and horizon that Guston has placed his figure of the artist and his tools, light and bottle. Seen in this way, it seems almost as if Guston is mocking Rothko's late grey abstractions in this work and ironically exposing a gritty truth about such 'sublime' art. For with a bitter irony and undeniable realism Head and Bottle presents not just an uncomfortable truth about Guston himself but also about the myth of the heroic, macho, god-like figure of the artist that the Abstract Expressionists had both perpetuated and struggled to live up to.
In this respect, this extraordinarily powerful painting expresses a similar sentiment to that made by Guston when he said, "Man is an image maker and painting is image-making. The abstract painters-- what are they telling us? That this is the absolute? Well, all right, so is this beer glass. But what else is man? There are many things that move him" (Philip Guston cited in D. Ashton, Yes, but; A Critical Study of Philip Guston, New York, 1976, p. 159).