Philip Guston’s Branch exemplifies his work from the period when the artist liberated himself from the confines of figuration and began to explore the boundless realms of abstraction. Through a matrix of frenetic brushwork, Guston composes a range of amorphous and semi-geometric forms that convey the artist’s abdication of the traditional means of modeling and shading to render representational imagery. Subtle gradations of color and background muted tones filter through dark and richly textured red, blue and green coalescing units, which dominate the center. The complex networks of layered color become balanced by the artist’s rhythmic brushstrokes. Fractured and swift, each stroke clearly distinguishes the artist’s physical gesture, revealing the anatomy of Guston’s painterly process of constantly applying and removing areas of paint. The resulting dynamic surface infuses an extraordinary sense of central gravity and an enduring vivacity within the normally static grid.
As a result of Guston’s improvisation and spontaneity, Branch emerges as an eruption of expression in its purist and most instinctive form. For Guston, "The desire for direct expression finally became so strong that even the interval necessary to reach back to the palette beside me became too long; so one day I put up a canvas and placed the palette in front of me. Then I forced myself to paint the entire work without stepping back to look at it" (P. Guston, quoted by R. Storr, Guston, New York, 1986, p. 25).
The atmospheric and painterly qualities of Guston’s abstract paintings have often been compared to the Impressionist masterpieces by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Yet, it is perhaps more discerning to parallel Guston’s questioning vigor with the bold innovations of Paul Cézanne. Similar to Cézanne, Guston creates an all-over effect through a non-hierarchical structure. A radical painter in style and theory, Cézanne’s cast doubt on the materiality of objects in his still life works and of nature in his landscapes through his signature taches of paint. Advancing this approach, Guston questions the essential plasticity of image-making by privileging color, line, and form above all else.
In the late 1950s, Guston joined major Abstract Expressionist painters in New York such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. Like his contemporaries, Guston’s abstract paintings from this period possess an architectural quality in the nuanced colors and forms that articulate the horizontality and verticality of the composition. Distinct of Guston’s approach to painting, however, is his consideration that the act of painting is a transformative means of expressing the internal struggle involving the painter’s creative will pitted against the aesthetic principles of traditional image-making.
Painted during a profound period of creativity in Guston’s oeuvre, Branch embodies the central theme of Guston’s abstract period in that it is determinedly non-referential and yet, still retains an inherent underlying content. As critic Dore Ashton recalled from a visit to Guston’s studio with composers John Cage and Morton Feldman, Cage exclaimed, "My God, it's possible to paint a magnificent picture about nothing," to which Feldman responded, "But John, it's about everything" (D. Ashton, Yes, But - a Critical Study of Philip Guston, New York, 1976, pp. 94-95). As Guston explained, painting is “an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see. I don't know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint? It might be things, thoughts, a memory, sensations, which have nothing to do directly with painting itself. They can come from anything and anywhere" (P. Guston, Philip Guston: Retrospective, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum Fort Worth, 2003-2004, p. 37). Branch exemplifies Guston’s vision of painting’s mystic in the wealth of gestures and textural brushstrokes, which only begin to allude to the deep imagination of its creator.