Waking Up is a large scale self-portrait of the artist in bed, a recurring theme of Philip Guston's later work. It also is a pictorial metaphor for the struggle each artist's faces--inspiration and its realization. The image of the recumbent artist emerges from the raw unpainted areas at the bottom, becoming more painterly and lush as the eyes moves upward, much like sculpture emerging from an unformed stone, or a person waking from a dream. Floating above the figure of the artist is a red sea, which is itself topped off with a dark collection of shoe-clad feet and heads, suggesting the lingering after-image of a dream or perhaps the waking artist's thoughts.
The artist is lying stone-straight in bed, his feet rigidly vertical and pressing up against the right side of the painting, while his head's one Cyclopean eye is wide open. The figure is smoking, as are most of Guston's painted characters, just as the chain-smoking artist did in real life. The painting shows the artist not at work, but rather sweating it out, waiting for inspiration to strike. Guston is painting his own anguish, (and perhaps his own discomfort at being haunted by such a strange image), but he also might be caricaturing the mythical Abstract Expressionist brooding before his blank or unfinished canvas.
The sixties were a tumultuous decade for Guston and they led to a radical reappraisal of his painting style and ultimately the astounding breakthroughs of his late work. In 1962, he left his long-time gallery dealer, Sidney Janis because he disagreed with Janis' championing of Pop Art (in a curious twist of fate, Guston's later work would be linked to the Pop Art of comic books, like Robert Crumb).
America's political and social upheavals hastened the artist's aesthetic crisis of confidence at this time. With the Vietnam War raging and the civil rights riots tearing the country apart, the artist began questioning the relevance of abstraction. "I was feeling split, schizophrenic. 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 into my studio to adjust a red to a 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" (P. Guston as quoted in Philip Guston: Tableaux/Paintings 1947-1979, Cologne, p. 52).
The artist quit painting between the end of 1965 and 1969, focusing on drawing and working out the ideas and subjects that he would focus on for the remainder of his life. When he emerged from his painting hiatus, Guston had fully embraced figuration and never looked back. As Guston wrote, 'I got sick and tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories' (A. Kingsley, 'Philip Guston's Endgame', Horizon, June 1980, p. 39).
From 1969 until the end of his life, the 'stories' poured out and Guston left behind one of the most impressive late outpourings of any artist of the twentieth century. "He painted in a fury for the rest of the seventies, 'unable to keep up with all the images and situations...flooding in on me. I'm in a place where I literally can't do anything else'" (Ibid, p. 39).
His new muse came at a heavy price--the first New York show of his new figurative work was excoriated in the press. Guston was accused by Hilton Kramer as being a 'mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum' and called his new paintings 'a form of artifice that deceives no one--except, possibly, the artist who is so out-of-touch with contemporary realities that he still harbors the illusion his 'act' will not be recognized as such' (H. Kramer, 'A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum', New York Times, 25 October 1970, D27).
Virtually overnight, Guston went from one of the most respected contemporary artists to a pariah. Criticism continued throughout the seventies, and as late as 1980 an Art News reviewer called his late work 'deliberately crude, ungracious and eminently unlikable, Guston's late work has certain affinities with the drawings of autistic children...whether his later work will outlast the moment or will eventually seem as hoplessly tied to it--as dated--as the socialist realist painting of the '30s remains very much to be seen' (T. Albright, "Philip Guston: It's a Strange Thing to be Immersed in the Culture of Painting", Art News, September 1980, p. 116).
Guston believed in the power of these late works and for his last retrospective in 1980, he wanted only paintings of the last ten years to be shown. Ultimately, the art world would come around to Guston's assessment. The later works are valued, both art historically and in the marketplace, as highly as his classic Abstract Expressionist works of the 1950s. A recent reviewer of his 2003-2004 traveling retrospective wrote, "Decades later, the serious quality of these [late] paintings is generally taken for granted. It is an exaggeration, but not a big one, to say they have had a cultish influence almost akin to that Cézanne had on young painters a century ago, influence here being partly a measure of the permission one artist gives to another, through example, to be free" (M. Kimmelman, "Art Review; Anxious Liberator of an Era's Demons", New York Times, 31 October 2003, section E, p. 37).
Philip Guston, Couple in Bed, 1977, Art Institute of Chicago
Philip Guston in his studio, 1973 Photograph by Barbara Sproul
Philip Guston, Beggar's Joys, 1954-55 private collection
Robert Crumb, Cover of Weirdo, 7, 1983 c R. Crumb