In the willfully raw figuration of the late works, exemplified in Legs, Rug, Floor, Guston’s legacy as one of the most innovative painters of the twentieth century is indisputable. Enacting a complete and radical departure from abstraction, Guston’s late works replace the meticulous layers of grey, blue, and pink abstract forms that had made his name with unapologetically cartoonish scenes of absurd forms and surreal post-apocalyptic cityscapes. Yet while the artist’s late work is now regarded as the brilliant expression of a liberated creative spirit, the artist’s initial unveiling of his new works at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970 was met with shock and trepidation by artists and critics alike; wholly counterintuitive to the reigning dogma of Abstract Expressionism, the revolutionary simplicity of the new works constituted a complete break from the accepted artistic doctrine of the day. Instead, abandoning abstraction as an aesthetic no longer groundbreaking and fertile, Guston explored a newfound visual lexicon which could, in its collision of the quotidian and the uncanny, successfully engage the trauma and anxieties of the modern psyche. Scholar David Anfam describes: “The effect was that of a ventriloquist uttering a message from elsewhere or deep within. I see Guston’s tidal wave of imagery – a veritable tsunami, if you like, both destructive and generative, emerging with a similar force. Such dynamism reflects the pulse of psychic energy: its blockage, outpouring, dwindling, then resurgence. Certainly, it issued from very deep inside Guston.” (Exh. Cat., Edinburgh, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Philip Guston, Late Paintings, 2012, p. 25)
For all that the riotous figuration of these paintings constituted a radical break with the restrictive canon of Abstract Expressionism, Legs, Rug, Floor testifies to the enormous affinity and inspiration Guston found in the work of the Italian Renaissance and Modernist masters of earlier centuries. In their sculptural plasticity, emphasized and made absurd against a stage-flat background, the looming limbs of Legs, Rug, Floor invoke the weighty forms of Piero della Francesca and Michelangelo, both Old Master painters whom Guston greatly admired. Indeed, Guston’s own description of Piero della Francesca in a 1965 ArtNews article is, in hindsight, uncannily evocative of his own late work; Guston reflects: “[Piero] is so remote from other masters; without their ‘completeness’ of personality. A different fervor, grave and delicate, moves in the daylight of his pictures. Without familiar passions, he seems like a visitor to the earth, reflecting on distances, gravity, and positions of essential forms.” (The artist cited in “The Culture of Painting: Guston and History,” in Exh. Cat., Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Philip Guston: Retrospective, 2003, p. 75) Illuminated as if by spotlight within the austere room, the tangled limbs and worn soles of the present work are not intrinsically strange, but are made so by the emphasis with which Guston treats them; fixed upon the sparse square of carpet as though by some otherworldly gravity, the clustered forms achieve a resolute formal balance that is in acute conflict with the absurdity of the everyday subject matter depicted within. Describing this effect in Guston’s late work in relation to the work of Italian Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, Anfam notes: “What Guston shares supremely with de Chirico is an awareness of the intrinsic strangeness of things in their selfhood… it becomes so odd in its reality that it’s stranger than in the strangest fictions of Surrealism.” (Exh. Cat., Edinburgh, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Philip Guston, Late Paintings, 2012, p. 31) Anfam continues: “This is how Guston imagined that Piero [della Francesca] and Rembrandt saw the world. They too looked at reality as if for the first time and Guston said he wanted to be like a caveman. A caveman who nonetheless has the whole history of painting in his head. Those recurrent extremes are in motion – to paint as if for the first time while drenched with an awareness of the past, of tradition. The collision of the two limits makes the flavor of the culminating works so idiosyncratic.” (Ibid., p. 31) A painting immersed in the dialogue between past and present, Legs, Rug, Floor is a testament to Guston’s knowledge of and affinity for art history, achieving a deft balance between the influence of prior masters and the groundbreaking innovation of the artist’s own, radical style.
At once sinister and oddly comic, the motif of bunched legs and clustered soles is amongst the most iconic and familiar from Guston’s late works; as in the present work, the image confronts and confounds in equal measure, the banal forms made alien by their inclusion within the artist’s unfamiliar realm. Upturned legs and shoes had long held sway within Guston’s symbology, even featuring in some of his social realist paintings from the 1940s; re-appearing in several of the earliest figurative works of the late 1960s, the clustered shoes of the present work oscillate between opposite extremes of quotidian banality and fictive absurdity. In their lushly variegated scarlet tones, the specter of Guston’s earlier abstractions is here, now used to render forms with a visceral Francis Bacon or Chaim Soutine-like fleshiness. Arranged upon the steeply raking floor, the shoe-clad feet are twisted to an impossible angle to face the viewer, revealing the neat rings of exposed nails encircling each sole. As described by Guston of his oft-Surrealist organizations of space: “At times the forms are seen bunched together, closely affecting each other. They can cause each other to shrink, enlarge, absorb, repel, or seem to swallow one another. In intimate contact, they determine the shape of their existence; a mutual feeding is going on, before they move apart. The locations of the forms in space must give the sensation of existing only temporarily.” (“Philip Guston – Random Notes,” June 29, 1972, Dore Ashton Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington, D. C., p. 5) Indeed, alongside the hooded figures and disembodied heads which also populate the artist’s paintings of the 1970s, the clustered limbs and shoes operate as a quasi-human presence within the late works, recurring throughout various scenes like a revolving cast of characters in a shifting narrative. Scholar Edward Fry describes: "Shoes became yet a third alter ego, displaced image of selfhood. They gather in strange clusters, legs, knees tangling together in silent hordes... Guston depicts them with a style that is not a style, a homely almost caricature-esque style that renders each image at once both clearly recognizable yet also clothed in a fresh and unforgettable strangeness, as though one were rediscovering one’s own world.’’ (Exh. Cat., Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Philip Guston: the Late Works, 1994, pp. 19-20) For all their absurdity, the tightly knit cluster of limbs here conjures an altogether darker image: the piles of shoes, confiscated from their owners, a vision that indisputably stands as amongst the most visceral and disturbing visual records of the Holocaust. The son of Jewish immigrants who fled Russia amidst the violent prelude to the Russian Revolution of the early twentieth century, there can be little doubt that such images weighed upon Guston’s psyche; emerging from the depths of collective visual memory, the specter of historic trauma resurfaces in the present work as cartoonish, simplified caricatures of human violence and vice. By burying such horrors in sardonic and absurd figuration, the canvas of Legs, Rug, Floor provides a fictive arena in which the darkest corners of history and humanity can be explored without consequences. Filtered through a style at once art historical and wholly innovative, the late paintings granted Guston a remarkable platform upon which to tell psychologically complex and acutely intense narratives. One scholar reflects: “The artist populates his canvases with figures that alternate between autobiography and history. His icons contain personal and collective meanings; they conflate layers of differing and at times competing texts on the picture plane. Yet the artist’s individual struggle is the starting point for all his narratives.” (Exh. Cat., Boston, Boston University Art Gallery, Philip Guston, 1975—1980: Private and Public Battles, 1994, p. 9) Poised in the background of the painting – the huddled forms clustered before it, as though in contemplative reverence—the blue clock of Legs, Rug, Floor provides the final reminder that Guston and his painting operate within and outside of linear time, narrative, or movement, powerfully embodying the insurgent genius which defines Guston’s last, radical masterworks.
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