The Guston Foundation confirms that this lot will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Philip Guston.
“I got sick and tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories” (P. Guston quoted in A. Kingsley, “Philip Guston's Endgame,” Horizon, June 1980, p. 39).
“I have an uneasy suspicion that painting really doesn’t have to exist at all...unless it questions itself constantly” (P. Guston, quoted in L. Norbet, Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat., London, 1982. p. 50).
Heralded as one of the most innovative figurative artists of the 1960s and 70s, Philip Guston’s late period exhibits a mysterious, bold style that is exquisitely captured in the striking Alone. Painted only a year after his sudden turn to representation, this work sets the stage for his later canvases with an emphasis on personal iconography, perplexing narratives, and a rosy hue. The artist once quipped, “I have an uneasy suspicion that painting really doesn’t have to exist at all...unless it questions itself constantly” (P. Guston, quoted in L. Norbet, Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat., London, 1982. p. 50). By turning from the dominant mode of Abstract Expressionism and wholly embracing his convictions, Guston made it clear that he was looking toward the future of painting and not relying on past success.
Rendered in bold black lines, a white hooded figure comes into stark contrast in front of a heavily stylized brick wall. Holding aloft a black cigarette in two gloved fingers, the mysterious individual peers through two vertical slits in its cloak. The brushwork is painterly and expressive, making visual reference to Guston’s previous abstract style. However, the lines have more in common with Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff (of which the artist was especially fond when he was a child) than the ecstatic spills of Jackson Pollock or the frenzied strokes of Willem de Kooning. Though the work is titled Alone, it is interesting to note a second figure exists on the right side of the composition as not much more than an apparition in the underpainting. This phantasm meets the lonely figure’s gaze through the backdrop, creating an eerie tension not noted upon first glance. By visually emptying the space around the figure in the foreground, Guston brings focus to its bizarre countenance and urges the viewer to peer deeper into the canvas.
First making a name for himself as one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism, Guston’s practice took a striking turn at the end of the 1960s when he returned to figuration. Although he had experimented in representative painting during his years working for the WPA, Guston had shifted entirely to gestural abstraction when he and colleague Jackson Pollock helped to instigate what would become known as the New York School. Pollock and Guston had been high school classmates, and an art teacher had introduced them early on to the work of Pablo Picasso and the enigmatic work of Giorgio di Chirico. The latter’s sense of surreal subjects and tense staging stuck with Guston and made a resurgence when the artist entered his later figurative phase. Instead of continuing his questioning of formalist Modernism, Guston turned toward narrative, noting bluntly, “I got sick and tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories” (P. Guston quoted in A. Kingsley, “Philip Guston's Endgame,” Horizon, June 1980, p. 39). Paintings like Alone exhibit a keen descriptive structure that is at once plain to read but difficult to fully grasp. Whereas di Chirico or René Magritte’s influence might be felt in the inscrutable nature of Guston’s later period subjects, the choice to perform an about-face and leave his well-worn path of abstraction might be also be compared to Picasso’s turn to Cubism after his more traditionally realist Rose period. At the time, Guillaume Apollinaire proclaimed that Picasso had succeeded in “carrying out his own assassination with the practiced and methodical hand of a great surgeon” (G. Apollinaire, “Les Peintres Cubistes,” in H. B. Chip, ed., Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, Berkeley, 1968, p. 232). After 1968, Guston’s practice veered dramatically from the critically-lauded Abstract Expressionism he had produced to date. However, this seemingly career-killing move produced some of the most personal, dynamic work of the artist’s oeuvre to date.
Although not immediately clear in works like Alone, the same figure is shown in The Studio, also from 1969. Holding a cigarette with two fingers in both examples, the latter displays all of Guston’s artistic accoutrements. The ubiquitous bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, the easel, brushes, and palette all signal that this is a self-portrait as he lays down the initial strokes of another masked portrait. Speaking to this effect when considering the political turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s, Guston exclaimed, “American art is a lie, a sham, a cover up for a poverty of spirit—a mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself. A lie to cover up how bad one can be” (P. Guston, quoted in Philip Guston: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2004, p. 54). By referencing the ills of society and choosing to depict them as intertwined with, instead of separate from, the art world of the day, Guston brought real life into his art and changed the face of late 20th century painting.