Painted in the first year of Philip Guston’s groundbreaking return to figuration, Untitled (1968) is a refined vision of one of the artist’s iconic alter-egos: the hooded figure. In a pale composition – a hint of reddish underpainting glows behind the white background – the triangular head is described in graphic black line, emerging from a rounded, platform-like body dappled with dark red. A black revolver protrudes to the right. He gazes through tiny, cartoonish eye-slits at a blank square, whose shape seems to reflect in the back of his head as a dotted outline. Taking cues from the stark geometries of Mondrian as well as the artist’s own deeply personal iconography, this work witnesses Guston forging his unique figurative idiom: a lexicon of forms and characters that allowed him to explore the ambivalence and complicity of the act of painting with caustic, ambiguous humour. Having made his name as an Abstract Expressionist, Guston effected a dramatic shift while living a relatively isolated upstate life in Woodstock, away from New York City. ‘I was feeling split, schizophrenic’, he recalled. ‘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 to my studio to adjust a red to blue. I thought there must be some way I could do something about it’ (P. Guston, quoted in J. Talmer, ‘“Creation” is for Beauty Parlors’, New York Post, 9 April 1977). The hooded surrogate in Untitled was a key part of his solution. As a young political activist in Los Angeles, in the early 1930s Guston had exhibited a series of paintings critical of the Ku Klux Klan at a Hollywood bookshop, where they were vandalised by Klan members. It was this memory, said Guston, that inspired the ‘hoods’ some three decades later. ‘They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind the hood. In the new series of “hoods” my attempt was not really to illustrate, to do pictures of the Ku Klux Klan, as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me … What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot’ (P. Guston, ‘Philip Guston Talking’, 1978, in Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1982, p. 52). In Untitled, the ‘hood’ is a comically absurd figure; his narrow eyes and empty head make him seem harmless, even endearing. But as he appraises an artwork, pistol at the ready, the threat of mindless violence hangs uneasily in the air. Provocative, unstable and witty, Untitled displays Guston engaging with the thorniest responsibilities of image-making, unafraid to make art that tackles the danger and darkness of real life head-on.
Having achieved great success alongside his friends Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning with his shimmering, lyrical abstract paintings of the 1950s, Guston saw his move to figurative work as a way of exploring the limits of the medium from a vital new angle. ‘I knew that I would need to test painting all over again’, he said, ‘in order to appease my desires for the clear and sharper enigma of solid forms in an imagined space, a world of tangible things, images, subjects, stories, like the way art always was ... I have an uneasy suspicion that painting really doesn’t have to exist at all … unless it questions itself constantly’ (P. Guston, ‘Philip Guston Talking’, 1978, in Philip Guston: Paintings 1969-1980, exh. cat. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1982, p. 50). Indeed, there is an ominous tension running through these works that undermines any coherent narrative, seeming to probe the paintings’ very right to exist; Guston is constantly asking what painting is for, and what it should communicate. By the late 1960s, he had begun to see abstraction as false, escapist and cowardly, peddling a myth of autonomy that deliberately sealed art away from the political and racial tumult that was rocking America at the time. Disavowing the prevailing style of the New York School, he declared that ‘American Abstract 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 … What a sham! Abstract art hides it, hides the lie, a fake! Don’t! Let it show!’ (P. Guston, quoted in M. Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, London 1991, p. 170). Works like the present see him enlisting the impurity and ambiguity of images, both personal and drawn from the wider world, as a mode of radical honesty to society and himself. Untitled, in which Guston openly dons his own mask, might even be said to enact his view of the non-representational art he had left behind: its empty square – a space of quite literal whitewash – seems to figure an art void of purpose, the artist’s hooded stand-in facing it unmoved and uncomprehending.