Painted during Philip Guston’s prolific final decade, Language I, 1973, is a vibrant example of the artist’s unmistakable figurative idiom. Brick- and ladder-like forms, blushing with Guston’s characteristic rosy pink hues and boldly outlined, are stacked into a wall. Some blocks are arranged in fleshy flights of steps, which seem to lead nowhere; others hang in the pale sky beyond. To the right, several take the form of hobnail boots and studded soles. A schematic orange sun glows from the edge of the picture. In the foreground, next to a golden ashcan lid, looms a tall orange and green shape punched with four black holes: Guston’s icon for the adjustable back of an easel. Vivid and inscrutable, these gathered forms appear like the sculptural remnants of some lost civilization, a Tower of Babel in an existential landscape revealed to the artist as he peers over his canvas. Guston had reached great acclaim as part of the Abstract Expressionist vanguard in 1950s and early 1960s New York, and confounded critics with his sudden turn to esoteric figuration in 1968. Partly a response to the increasingly turbulent political climate of America, these late works were also philosophically concerned with painting’s capacity for narrative, and saw Guston take an almost linguistic approach to the objects he saw around him and incorporated into his pictures. Language I relates closely to major works like Painter’s Forms II, 1978 (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas), in which a formal vocabulary of leg- and shoe-like shapes spill out of a giant open mouth. ‘I got sick and tired of all that purity’, Guston said. ‘I wanted to tell stories’ (P. Guston, quoted in A. Kingsley, ‘Philip Guston’s Endgame’, Horizon, June 1980, p. 39). The final six years of Guston’s life – until a heart attack in 1979 forced him to slow down – were the most feverishly productive of his career. In a letter to the poet Bill Berkson in July 1976, he wrote: ‘I’ve been painting around the clock, 24 hours or more – sleep a bit and then go back – it is totally uncontrollable now’ (P. Guston, quoted in M. Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, New York 1988, p. 179). Language I stands as a powerful emblem of this great creative outpouring.
‘I must have done hundreds of paintings of shoes, books, hands, buildings and cars, just everyday objects’, Guston said in 1978. ‘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’ (P. Guston, ‘Philip Guston Talking’, 1978, in Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1982, p. 52). It is precisely this dreamlike transformation – the shift from the familiar to the mysterious – that makes Guston’s late paintings so compelling. They are formed from fragments of his world, and populated with enigmatic ciphers for the artist himself: hooded figures and cyclopean heads wander abstracted, sleep-deprived wastelands littered with easels, brushes, boots, cigarettes, bottles, lightbulbs and clocks. With a typical resistance to closure, Guston never claimed any final meaning for his ambiguous armada of glyphs. They do, however, suggest certain personal and historical allusions, taking on a new creative life far beyond mere studio clutter. The shoe motif, for example, is shadowed by the Depression-era photography of Walker Evans, and the chilling footage of Holocaust victims’ piled-up footwear that Guston had seen. A deeply socially conscious artist whose own Ukrainian Jewish parents had fled persecution to Canada before his birth in 1913, he had a longstanding interest in these images. The graphic, comic-strip flavour to his painting, meanwhile – Edward F. Fry has called it ‘a homely almost caricature-esque style that renders each image at once both clearly recognisable yet also clothed in a fresh and unforgettable strangeness’ (E. F. Fry, ‘Freedom, modernity, humanism: the late works of Philip Guston’, Philip Guston: the Late Works, exh. cat. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 1994, pp. 19-20) – lends each picture a sense of Beckett- or Kafka-esque absurdity, offsetting any bleakness with a subversive humour.
Guston was a great admirer of the early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca (1416-1492), and his description of Piero – so seemingly detached and distinct from other Old Masters – helps to illuminate the alienated quality of his own late paintings. ‘A different fervour, grave and delicate, moves in the daylight of his pictures’, wrote Guston. ‘Without familiar passions, he seems like a visitor to the earth, reflecting on distances, gravity, and positions of essential forms’ (P. Guston, quoted in J. Rishel, ‘The Culture of Painting: Guston and History’, Philip Guston: Retrospective, exh. cat. Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth 2003, p. 75). Guston, too, was working with ‘essential forms’: for all that they make the everyday profoundly strange, these works were less about disengaging from the real world than reassessing its possibilities with fresh eyes. Guston, after all, had begun his career as a social realist, painting murals for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s before his stint in Abstract Expressionism. His late figurative works were something of a synthesis of these two earlier phases, a full-bodied and deeply personal engagement with the mysteries of paint in an attempt to bridge, or at least muddy, the traditional boundary between art and life. Carnal, ambivalent, ominous and playful, works like Language I are born of a unique project to reframe the very purpose of painting. ‘Certain artists do something’, Guston reflected, ‘and a new emotion is brought into the world; its real meaning lies outside of history and causality. Human consciousness moves, but it is not a leap: it is one inch. You can go way out, and then you have to come back – to see if you can move that inch’ (P. Guston, ‘Faith, Hope and Impossibility’, XXXI Artnews Annual 1966, October 1965, p. 153).