David McKee Gallery, New York
Martin Browne Fine Art, Sydney
James Erskine, Sydney
Private Collection, London
L&M Fine Arts, New York
Sotheby's, London, 27 February 2008, Lot 45
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Potts Point, Martin Browne Fine Arts, A Selection of Post-War International Painting and Sculpture, July - August 1997, n.p., no. 7, illustrated in colour
Anon., ArtKrush, No. 52, February 2007, illustrated on the cover in colour
Philip Guston, cited in: Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, London 1991, p. 170.
In 1968, disillusioned by the progressively restrictive dogma of Abstract Expressionism, Philip Guston performed an about-turn. Gone were the meticulously layered compositions in grey, blue, and pink that had made his name; in their stead, unapologetically mundane and naively styled images of banal objects began to dominate his production. When these new works were unveiled at Marlborough Gallery in 1970, the critical response was unequivocal. The “high priest of the abstract expressionist painting cult” was tearing into the legacy that he had helped establish (Christoph Schreier, ‘Path to an Impure Painting Style’, in: Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Philip Guston, 1999, p. 9). “Why did you want to go and ruin things?” cried one painter, dismayed at what he considered to be a display of immense artistic hubris and puerility (Ross Feld cited in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Philip Guston, 1980, p. 14). However, ruining the easy, well-trammelled route of Clement Greenberg-endorsed abstraction was precisely Guston’s intention. When Picasso turned from the elegant realism of his Rose period to the harsher, analytical painting of Cubism, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote that he had proceeded in “carrying out his own assassination with the practiced and methodical hand of a great surgeon” (Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Les Peintres Cubistes’, in: Herschel Browning Chip, Ed., Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, Berkeley 1968, p. 232). The same can be said of Guston’s work from 1968 onwards. His 1970 show was suicidal in terms of his career, but has become canonical in its importance for contemporary art and proved the genesis of an immensely rich and varied body of work.
Odessa is a spectacular example of this final phase of Guston’s output. A monolith of jumbled shoes and upturned legs forms an island in the midst of a vibrant blue sea. The form is devotional, with the columnar legs culminating in the cornices of heavily soled shoes, a temple floating in the middle of nowhere. Or is it? The central frustration and pleasure of Guston’s late work is that it is simultaneously deeply enigmatic and unsettlingly explicit. The legs are abominable in their hairy nakedness, the shoes flattened against the picture plane, at an impossible angle to the legs that support them. Does this work indeed refer to Odessa, the province in modern day Ukraine whence his parents fled to Montreal following vicious reprisals against religious minorities in the run-up to the 1905 Russian Revolution, as immortalised in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin? There can be little doubt that as a displaced Jewish immigrant the weight of Guston’s abandoned fatherland weighed heavily on his mind. Although he was born in Canada, according to Ross Feld, a young novelist and critic who became one of Guston’s closest friends following the 1970 show, family mythology had it that Guston was “the issue of a last-minute Odessa romance” (Ross Feld, op. cit., p. 12). The artist himself once mused, “could it be that Odessa is not a fantasy at all – in my blood somehow?” (Philip Guston cited in: William Corbert, Philip Guston’s Late Work: A Memoir, Cambridge, Mass. 1994, p. 13). Odessa figures as a deeply personal locus of belonging, which is hardly anomalous in the context of this later body of work, where self-portraiture, often in the form of cyclopean eyes, lit cigarettes, and the trappings of the painter, plays a major role. This heightened awareness of the Jewish diaspora hardly contradicts the temple-like appearance of the island. Odessa as the promised land, Guston as worshipper.
Although the diasporic/devotional elements of Odessa are specific to this painting, there are various motifs here that form cornerstones of Guston’s highly developed artistic lexicon. Upturned legs and shoes, which had long been part of his art, even featuring in some of his social realist paintings from the 1940s, are particularly notable. In paintings such as Porch No. 2 (1947), which is complete with flattened shoe soles and an upside down figure, the heavy footwear were a classic social identification, “with sturdiness in some relation to virtue” (Ross Feld, op. cit., p. 17). However in his paintings from 1968 onwards any worthy connotation is entirely absent. These are works far more concerned with vice than virtue, and the shoes, raised lethargically towards the heavens, a picture of sloth, are a far cry from the proletarian labourer championed in Guston’s WPA days. The legs that support them emerge from land or sea, with the accompanying body either submerged or absent. This conjures an altogether darker image. Piles of shoes, confiscated from their owners, constitute one of the most horrifying visual records of the massacres at Auschwitz. Particularly given the plight of the Jewish population of Odessa, the significance of this cannot be dismissed. Ominous and looming, the island now bespeaks death and loss, a near-centenary celebration of Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead.
These ostensibly contradictory interpretations – a longing for home, the horror of home, the role of the emigrant – are entirely deliberate. Guston did not believe that any single interpretation of a painting was any more valid than another, and this was the central difficulty of these works for the wider public. They were uncategorisable, in an era of categorisation, existing outside any defined movement and without an immediately legible and definitive meaning. Markedly opposed to Abstract Expressionism, utterly divorced from Minimalism and entirely dissimilar to Pop art, both aesthetically and thematically, Guston’s late work occupied a liminal space between movements. As Harold Rosenberg wrote, in a positive review of the 1970 show, “Abstract Expressionism liberated painting from the social consciousness dogma of the thirties; it is time now to liberate it from the ban on social consciousness… [Guston’s] current exhibition may have given the cue to the art of the nineteen-seventies” (Harold Rosenberg, ‘Liberation from Detachment’, The New Yorker, 7 November 1970, p. 141).
These works are also deeply personal. Simply, as Ross Feld observes, Guston “intends to hide nothing” (Ross Feld, op. cit., p. 23). He pines for a homeland that he has never visited, but even in his presentation of Odessa as a monolithic temple, the lurking horror of WWII and the 1905 Russian Revolution lingers. Abstraction was “a sham” to him because it served simply as “a mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself” (Philip Guston, cited in: Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, London 1991, p. 170). If there is a truth to be found, Guston will search for it, in all its horror. Standing in front of a group of his paintings, Guston once observed: “People, you know, complain that it’s horrifying. As if it’s a picnic for me, who has to come in here every day and see them first thing. But what’s the alternative? I’m trying to see how much I can stand” (Philip Guston cited in: Ross Feld, op. cit., p.29).
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