This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by David Mckee dated 14 January 1999.
"I feel now that I'm painting; I'm not drawing anything or even representing non-objective art. A lot of abstract artists are just representational painters. And a lot of figurative artists are very abstract. I don't feel as if I'm doing that. I feel more as if I'm shaping something with my hands. I feel as if I've always wanted to get into that state. Like a blind man in a dark room had some clay, what would he make? (Dialogue with H. Rosenberg, Philip Guston, Recent Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., Jewish Museum, New York, 1966, n. p.).
The Wall II is a raw and powerful work that belongs to the last 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 and Goya, ultimately seems not only to make sense of, but also to transcend all the work that went 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 non-objective painters of the Abstract Expressionist generation fused together into a remarkably powerful, strange, new 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, over the next few years, 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 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." (Quoted in Phillip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, London, 1982. p. 50.)
Radically altering course, Guston moved away from his painstakingly ordered abstract 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 reality of the objective world. "I knew I wanted to go on and deal with concrete objects." Guston remarked, but,"I got stuck on shoes, shoes on the floor. I must have done hundreds of paintings of shoes, books, hands, buildings and cars, just everyday objects. And the more I did 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." (Philip Guston Talking, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Kirstin Stiles and Peter Selz. University of California Press. 1996.p.250.)
Soon Guston's new-found obsession with the mysterious unreality of the physical world developed in him an existential awareness that began to be manifested in increasingly strong and ugly paintings. He began to depict the world as a Samuel Beckett-like landscape of the everyday and the absurd. Concentrating on discarded objects as if such flotsam was the foundation of some future post-apocalyptic world, Guston's objects began to merge into bizarre whole landscapes or body-like forms. His books and shoes and bricks and bottles merge together in bizarre forms that trouble the mind and ultimately defy definition. In The Wall II, a Stonehenge-like collation of these objects huddle together on the horizon line of a red-brick wall like a strange forest or city skyline - a landscape in which the clumsy bug that crawls in the foreground, can, and indeed does, thrive. Bugs and insects became a key subject in Guston's late work, representing the continuation of life in this brave new world.
In paintings such as The Wall II, Guston was attempting to fulfill what he described as " a powerful desire though an impossibility, to paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet." (Ibid. p. 52.) Inevitably, Guston could not remove his own self from this new vision. He would often incorporate his own bodily image into the work, merging his artist's one-eyed all-seeing head with the shoes, books, bottles and bricks, emphasizing that it too is an integral part of this strange and desolate world. The artist's self-portrait is absent from The Wall II but not the human presence nor the sense of the human figure. Looking like a fleshy conglomeration of body parts, Guston's objects vaguely assemble into the form of a reclining figure. In this way, Guiston formally merges the traditions of landscape, cityscape, figure and still-life all into a one attention-grabbing but ultimately ambiguous painting. As Henry Hopkins recalled on first seeing these powerful late paintings, "Whatever psychological dam had been blocking Guston's creative surge had burst. 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." (cited in Philip Guston, exh. cat. MoMA San Francisco, 1980, p. 47).
Fig. 1 Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, The pilgrimage of San Isidro, 1820-1823, oil on canvas, Prado Museum, Madrid
Fig. 2 Philip Guston in his studio, 1969, photograph by Frank Lloyd
Fig. 3 Giorgio de Chirico, The Melancholy of Departure, 1916, oil on canvas, The Tate Gallery, London