Zone is a famous and quintessential work in Guston's early abstract oeuvre, which demonstrates in its exquisitely sculpted surface, highly structured composition and radiant coloring, exactly why Guston was so lauded by his contemporaries as one of the finest Abstract Expressionist painters alongside Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Zone belongs to an extremely rare body of almost square-shaped paintings executed between 1952 and 1956, most of which are in museums, including Painting, 1954 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), The Room, 1954-55 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and Dial, 1956 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York).
Guston was an artist's artist; a painter who continuously questioned the very nature of image-making, regardless of whether his process led to representation or abstraction. He began his career as a mural painter in the 1940s but quickly abandoned this figurative style for abstraction in the 1950s. However, Guston was never one to be tied to any singular style and in the late 1960s he would be attacked as a virtual traitor for his rejection of the non-representational language that he and the leading Abstract Expressionists had long fought to establish. Instead, he adopted a crude and aggressive figurative language that he would embrace for the remainder of his career.
But in the early 1950s, abstract painting would become a place of mystery and contradiction for Guston. The act of painting was a wrestling match with chaos, "a contest between a subject and the plastic forms it will result in." What he sought was a new subject, a sense of forms that were not merely shapes of color but were objects capable of a mysterious interaction with one another.
The avant-garde composer, John Cage, described paintings like Zone as "that beautiful land", as much for their sublime beauty as for their organic structure and animated presence. Lush clusters of sensuous parallel brushstrokes are quilted across the surface of Zone, creating a hazy spaciousness of reds, pinks and steely grays, like the sun setting over water in a Monet landscape. "Everything here is hushed and softened, the tender strokes of the brush are barely afloat; color is weightless, like odor; the picture is an after-image of a flower garden fading on the inside of closed lids" (L. Steinberg, Other Criteria, New York 1972, pp. 282-283).
The actual painting process of Zone was both intuitive and methodical. While "Action" paintings by Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline seem to come into existence all at once in a burst of energy and gesture, Zone evolved slowly, with an intense layering of strokes and intermingling of colors. Guston's working method was one of private contemplation coupled with periods of deliberate creativity; he would often take a month or more to complete a work. "What is seen and called a picture is what remains--an evidence. Usually I am on a work for a long stretch, until a moment arrives when the air of the arbitrary vanishes and the paint falls into positions that feel destined. The very matter of painting--its pigment and spaces--is so resistant to will, so disinclined to assert its plane and remain still. In this sense, to paint is a possessing rather than a picturing" (cited in Americas, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1956. p. 36).
Zone is imprinted with the weight and emotive power of the artist's hand, as he virtually sculpts his impasto onto the surface. Guston achieved a wide range of textures in his brushwork with varying degrees of density and volume. He demanded that we see paint for what it is, as a physical and material presence. Guston weaves the colors again and again throughout his composition until they radiate off the canvas with an almost mystical light.
Guston looked to the example of Piet Mondrian to provide the inherent structure for Zone, especially influenced by the organization of Mondrian's "plus and minus" paintings, with their small precise counter-plays between vertical and horizontal marks. Guston similarly used short strokes as the building blocks and scaffolding for Zone, although in his hands the superstructure would not be an ideal static diagram, but would shift and bend in search of a form in space. Guston's working method is more clearly seen in the ink study, Drawing Related to Zone, 1954, where Guston choreographs the thickness and weight of the calligraphic lines in order to build up an architectonic framework. "These structural suggestions in Drawing Related to Zone find their completion in the materiality of paint that becomes an ambiguous but assertive form in the painting Zone" (M. Auping, "Impure Thoughts: On Guston's Abstractions", exh. cat., Philip Guston Retrospective, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2003, p. 43).
As one moves closer to the center of the canvas, the individual brushstrokes of Zone become increasingly dense until they coalesce to form a core of energy which seems as though it could be set in motion at any moment. There is a tension that exists between these central fleshly amorphous forms and the framing edges of the canvas, which seem to fade into the fog of gray. "Look at any inspired painting," Guston told a Time reporter in 1952, "It's like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation."
It was because of the shimmering facture of the surface in Zone and its atmospheric presence that Guston was often called an "Abstract Impressionist" and his work compared to late Monet and Pissarro. But Guston himself had little affinity with the goals of the Impressionists and their desire to record a particular moment of light in a landscape. He wanted to create a reality of his own with paint and gesture, which alluded to, but was not based on nature. Dore Ashton tells a story of a visit to Guston's studio by the composers Morton Feldman and John Cage. Confronted with the ethereal presence of a painting like Zone, Cage exclaimed. "My God, it's possible to paint a magnificent picture about nothing" To which Feldman replied, "But John, it's about everything." (D. Ashton, Yes, But - a Critical Study of Philip Guston, New York 1976, pp. 94-95).