Philip Guston's career was impressive not only for its surprising duration, but also for his ability to endlessly push his work to new heights and considerations. He began making figurative works in the 1930s and shifted to abstraction in the late 1940s. Guston's thoughts towards abstract painting and especially abstraction were, much like his art, enigmatic and often contradictory, "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art—that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually define its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is 'impure.' It is the adjustment of impurities, which forces painting's continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden." Guston's abstract style developed from the late 1940s until the 1970s, when he shocked the art world and even his close friends by debuting a series of figurative, cartoon-like paintings.
Untitled, from 1954 is one of the great abstract preparatory drawings Guston made at this early moment in his career, all of which are black and white and at a similar scale. These studies reveal Guston's attempt at achieving depth through fitful expression and the layering of violent gestures. This work's unique concentration of ink in the upper-right hand corner of the sheet defies gravity and upends a notion of centeredness in Guston's earlier abstract work. The trademark delicate brushwork of Guston's abstractions can be seen here, translated into ink. The historian Leo Steinberg saw a grim humanity within these works, which he elegiacally described as being "slow and hauled up from unspeakable depths of privacy... It is as if the hollow of man's body—scarred and stained with sin and hunger, pain and nicotine—were flattened like an unrolled cylinder and clothes-pinned to the sky."
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