Ominous Land: Philip Guston’s Striking Depiction of Injustice
Executed in 1972, Ominous Land dates from Guston’s radically innovative and highly regarded late corpus of figurative painting. Displaying some of the most iconic motifs from his oeuvre, Ominous Land demonstrates a brilliant fusion of politically charged iconography and self-reflection. When first unveiled at David McKee Gallery in 1974, Ominous Land was immediately lauded by acclaimed critic Roberta Smith in Art Forum. Acquired directly from the gallery, the present work has since been held in the esteemed private collection of Gabriele and Robert Lee. In 1980, Ominous Land was included in the first landmark retrospective of Guston’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1980, and it has been featured in the artist’s most significant museum exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Denver Art Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, amongst others. Notably, the sister painting of the present work, Multiplied from 1972, is highlighted in the acclaimed collection of the Albright-Knox Gallery.
The hooded Klu Klux Klan figure is arguably the most iconic character in Guston’s oeuvre. As articulated by the artist and scholar Steve Locke, “Guston made a choice to reengage in the world and to image its circumstances. He took on his own whiteness and complicity and silence and showed them to the public….He pointed the finger at himself and made it clear that whiteness carries a legacy of violence of which he was a beneficiary.” (Steve Locke. “Guston, Whiteness, and the Unfinished Business of the Vile World.” Artforum, December 2020).
The full, emanating sun is also present in the sister composition to the present work, Multiplied, which is held at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo New York.
The treatment of paint and rich impasto in the present work is reminiscent of his earlier, luminous abstract works for which the artist was widely acclaimed.
Both absurdist, alien and highly redolent the tightly knit cluster of limbs and upturned soles evokes the specter of historical trauma, namely piles of shoes confiscated from their owners during the holocaust, a powerful and visceral recurrent motif in Guston’s symbology.
“The canvas is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury, and judge. Art without a trial disappears at a glance: it is too primitive or hopeful, or mere notions, or simply startling, or just another means to make life bearable”
Ominous Land features three of Guston’s most iconic motifs: radiant orange sun, the encroaching hooded figure, and entanglement of legs and feet. Repurposing the dynamic brushwork and palette of fleshy pinks, mauves, cherry reds, and electric oranges that characterized his abstract paintings of the 1950s, Guston eerily enlivens the seemingly quotidian in Ominous Land. Evoking the perspectival dynamism of Pablo Picasso’s Cubist works, a jumble of rigid legs jolts up from a fluid red field, reaching almost beyond the painted space. In the lower foreground, Guston renders abstract brick forms, another key motif of the period, suggesting perhaps the building blocks of life or a form of concealment. Hovering above, a wide sun releases sweeping rays, casting the entire landscape in a rosy glow. And all the while, a single ghost-like hooded figure drifts on the outskirts of the composition, in a manner that is at once sinister and yet oddly comic.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Guston concentrated on Social Realist works which contended with real and make-believe forms of terror. It was in that time that imagery of both masked children playing war in paper hats and helmets as well as hooded figures began to surface in his works, a motif which would reappear decades later in the present work and throughout his final series. The motif of the hooded figure provided a means to grapple with the fear incited in his surroundings as well as to confront the concealed darkness and complicity of society. Guston eventually moved to New York and transitioned to abstraction where he produced more emotive and gestural paintings, working alongside artists such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. By 1968, after over a decade working in the New York School and a three-year hiatus from painting, Guston was disillusioned by the vapidity and so-called “purity” of abstraction and reclaimed a vanguard figurative practice that embraced complex socio-political questions and current events. The artist was profoundly affected by the crises of the century: two world wars, despotic dictatorship in Latin America, the struggle of civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the social unrest associated with it all. Although the initial reception of this period in Guston’s career was controversial, it is now considered his most celebrated contribution to the field of Contemporary Art. As articulated by artist and scholar Steve Locke,
“Guston made a choice to reengage in the world and to image its circumstances. He took on his own whiteness and complicity and silence and showed them to the public. He could have kept making the luminous abstract paintings for which he was known, but he had the unfinished business of the vile world to address.”
Ominous Land’s Illustrious Exhibition History
Through a composition which at first seems comic – even beautiful, in a warm, rose-colored and crimson palette – Guston utilizes the capacity of figurative art to raise the most challenging questions of contemporary life and inspire self-reflection in the viewer. Reemerging in his new stage of figuration, the pile of shoes, confiscated from their owners, is a vision that indisputably stands as amongst the most visceral and disturbing visual records from the Holocaust. The son of Jewish immigrants who fled Russia amidst the violent prelude to the Russian Revolution of the early twentieth century, Guston appears to engage with this historic, generational trauma through a seemingly ordinary vignette. Guston concerned his practice with the anonymous brutality that characterized the twentieth century world. For the artist, the hood provided a symbol for the complex and, at times, veiled evil and inhumanity of society and the transgression of complacency and inaction, which rings particularly pertinent today. His wholly innovative, sardonic style of figuration granted a remarkable platform upon which to express the most psychologically complex and acutely intense narratives that were largely ignored by his peers in the New York School.
Unique amongst his contemporaries, Guston was also greatly inspired by the work of Italian Renaissance masters and European Modernists, spending an extended period in Rome just prior to painting Ominous Land. The present work distinctly invokes the compositional balance, pouring sunlight, and burnt red hues of the magnificent paintings of the Italian Renaissance paintings, namely that of Pierro della Francesca. In addition, Guston’s rich brushwork, palette, horizontal centrality of composition, and use of negative space recalls the painterliness of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes; while the psychological weight of his composition conjures the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. Even the beating orange sun, which appears recurrently throughout his oeuvre, may suggest the sun-filled oculus of the Pantheon, which he studied during his travels to Italy. Amidst the terror depicted in Guston’s work, the recurrent appearance of sunlight may provide a source of hope for the future.
Both the crude simplicity and art historical nuance with which Guston approached his late stage of abstraction afforded him the imaginative potency necessary to communicate the sentiment of contemporaneous social and political turmoil evacuated from his abstract works. In 1970, esteemed critic Harold Rosenberg remarked of Guston’s brave return to figuration:
“Abstract Expressionism liberated painting from the social consciousness dogma of the thirties; it is time now to liberate it form the ban on social consciousness. Guston has demonstrated that the apparent opposition between quality in painting and political statement is primarily a matter of doctrinaire aesthetics. He has managed to make social comment seem natural for the visual language of postwar painting…. Guston is the first to have risked a fully developed career on the possibility of engaging his art in the political reality”
A lauded example from his most important period, Ominous Land aptly demonstrates Guston’s power to engage with and dissent from the course of art history in order to assert necessary aesthetic, intellectual, and social realizations for the public. Guston’s pioneering approach redirected the course of Contemporary Art and continues to be relevant today as an evident predecessor to the inventive works of artists such as Dana Schutz, Cecily Brown, Jonas Wood, and Stanley Whitney. Discourse on his paintings skyrocketed in recent years after the artist’s long-awaited retrospective was suddenly postponed to 2024 over concerns of the subject matter of his work. The exhibition will triumphantly open in May 2022 following support from key figures in the art world. Ominous Land uniquely captures the amazing modality of Guston’s painting – deftly incorporating the gesture of his abstractions, imaginatively resurfacing the concerns of his early painting, and powerfully embodying the insurgent genius which defined Guston’s final masterworks. Skillfully composed and psychologically stirring, Ominous Land boldly captures the audacious liberation, psychological profundity, and boundless inquiry that characterizes the artist’s final decade of production.