Property from the Collection of Marvin and Florence Gerstin
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The amalgamation of objects that Guston brings together in Poised includes many of the signs and symbols that became the central feature of his late paintings. Jars, jugs, collections of paintbrushes, cigarettes, ashtrays and other detrital objects often found in an artist’s studio are brought together in an empty space, teetering on the edge of an ominous black abyss. Painted in Guston’s signature style, his fluid brushstrokes not only render these objects in fevered fashion, but also seem to imbue each object with its own distinct personality—each object becoming an actor in Guston’s unique personal narrative.
Central to the composition, both physically and metaphorically, is a large, sturdy jug containing well-used paintbrushes. With its robust, physical presence and apparent artistic references, this vessel can be read as a clear reference to Guston himself, a metaphor reinforced by the existence of a half-smoked cigarette butt perched precariously on the jug’s lip. Propping up this container are more tools of the artist’s trade, holding back the weight of the jug and its contents; almost preventing it from plunging into the dark void. In addition to the jug, more objects—including paint tins resting on their side, ashtrays and even the upturned soles of the artist’s shoes—are brought together in a distinctive combination of figuration and abstraction. Although each object is created as an individual piece, they are bound together in some mysterious union, resulting in a mechanized creation—a painterly production center that threatens to overwhelm the artist himself.
But perhaps the most important part of the composition is almost the most easily overlooked—that is the large black void upon which the rest of the composition perilously perches. This cavernous space already seems to be consuming some elements of the composition, as several objects appear to tumble into the void. The dark, seemingly unending nature of the empty space is one factor that scholars have said contributed to the unnerving nature of Guston’s paintings. Many have likened this aspect of his paintings to those of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, whose dark forbidding floor planes and empty shadows exude a powerful sense of emptiness. In his essay “Philip Guston and Metaphysical Painting,” John Clark notes that, “In Poised (1978)…the profoundly pessimistic notions of the void disturbs because it evokes such futility as everything literally or metaphorically will end up there. It is like a metaphor for the end of Western civilization itself. De Chirico’s nostalgia is for the rich achievements of past Italian culture that he can only partake of vicariously. His sardonic sunsets illuminate the end of that culture. In a similar way as the hidden emptiness is metaphorical in the work of both artists, Guston’s debate between alternatively depicting and obliterating objects may also be a metaphor for ‘loss’ in a wider sense. Conceptually this loss could be an expression of the strange alienation of form and content which is peculiar to twentieth century art (J. Clark, “Philip Guston and Metaphysical Painting,” Artscribe, no. 30, August 1981, http://ccca.concordia.ca [accessed August 25, 2014]).
Despite their formal, objective nature, Guston’s works from this period are also inherently autobiographical. After moving away from his abstract work of the 1950s, in 1968 Guston made a conscious decision to return to figuration. Living a relatively isolated life in upstate New York, over the next decade Guston grew troubled by the inappropriateness of his art amidst the increasingly traumatic political climate in America. “I was feeling split, schizophrenic,” he recalled, “The [Vietnam] 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” (P. Guston, quoted in Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 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 recognized, 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,” Berkeley, 996, p.250).
Intellectually rigorous, yet intensely personal, Poised presents Philip Guston’s enigmatic amalgamation of signs and symbols and belongs to a suite of paintings that are regarded by some influential critics to be one of the most important junctures in the history of modern paining. A response to the gestural proclamations of abstraction and the intellectual discipline required of Minimalism (in addition to Guston’s own struggles to find continued relevance in his paintings), these late works mark not only the artist’s return to figuration, but also the zenith of a remarkable prolific and noteworthy career. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Guston lived long enough to witness the remarkable journey that American art made through the later part of the 20th century. From Figuration, to Abstraction to Minimalism and back again, Guston witnessed the struggle that art went through to stay continually relevant in the age of mass communication. As such, Poised is a visionary work, intensely reflective, yet remaining powerfully relevant to a new generation of artists, and Guston plays out across the surface of this canvas his very personal allegory of the vanity of the struggle for human artistic endeavor.