Outdoors surges with a deliberate, raw aggression fresh to the artist’s oeuvre. Working in a restrained and somber color palette, Guston overlays fleshy pinks and airy blues with a torrent of hasty gray brushstrokes, against which weighty black forms hover and ebb, curiously revealing and then denying the impression of defined form within an abstract, atmospheric landscape. Speaking to the reduced palette adopted during this period, Guston states: “I did this very deliberately [because] painting became more crucial to me. By crucial I mean that the only measure now was precisely to see whether it was really possible to achieve – to make without any seductive aids like color, for example. Now I’ve become involved in images and the location of those images, usually a single form, or a few forms.” (Philip Guston in “Philip Guston’s Object: Conversation with Harold Rosenberg, 1965,” in Clark Coolidge, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, Berkeley, 2011, p. 47). Far from restrictive, within this limited palette “other things open up which are unpredictable, such as atmosphere, light, illusion – elements which do seem relevant to the image but have nothing to do with colors.” (Ibid., p. 32)
To create the densely layered crosshatched surface and nuanced hues of grey that illuminate these paintings, Guston would begin with black paint and, working over the still-wet paint with new layers of fresh white paint, would end up with gray through this process of addition and erasure. Guston explains: “this form is black, and since you’re working wet on wet all the time – it all has to happen at once, you know – it’s gray. You scrape out and put white over the black.” (The artist cited in Ibid., p. 47) While Guston describes these grays as the product of “erasure” within his practice, this process is equally one of addition as Guston builds up the surface through thick layers of impasto. The paradox that surfaces here – that of both addition and elimination, emergence and disappearance – is vital to this body of work. Guston states: “It’s a question of locating the form you’re making. But this form has to emerge, or grow, out of the working of it, so there’s a paradox. I like form against a background—I mean, simply empty space—but the paradox is that the form must emerge from its background…you are trying to bring your forces, so to speak, to converge all at once into some point.” (Ibid., p. 48) The emotive power of these paintings rests within this paradox.
Capitalizing on the conflict between abstraction and figuration to forge new ground, Outdoors suggests through a frenzied patchwork of agitated brushstrokes the softly illuminated horizon of a darkened landscape while also possessing a weightiness and tangible corporality that foreshadow the artist’s later figurative paintings, the central black orb broadly insinuating the cartoonish cyclops heads that would become Guston’s recurring visual element. Drawing from his Color Field contemporaries, Guston paints with a visual density and prophetic, atmospheric quality that recall the work of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. The painterly facture and non-hierarchical structure adopted here also attests to Guston’s study of the Post-Impressionist masters, particularly Paul Cézanne, whose signature taches of paint and experimentations with color and form informed the artist’s investigation into the plasticity of paint and image-making alike. Outdoors is framed by a Cézanne-inspired white border; along the composition’s edge, thick gray brushstrokes resolve and give way to a border of bare, exposed canvas. A testament to Guston’s painterly mastery, the surface of Outdoors reverberates with heightened formal intrigue as enigmatic, shadowy shapes seemingly shift before the viewer’s eyes, intimating at the monolithic structure of object, and yet simultaneously recoiling as form disappears again into the recesses of the canvas.
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