“I t has become customary to refer to a sudden shift from abstraction to figuration in Philip Guston’s oeuvre, a dramatic volte-face announced by the exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in October 1970 where the painting Remorse was first displayed,” writes Mark Godfrey, curator and co-organizer of the “Philip Guston Now” retrospective. “The truth is that Guston’s work had been changing in different ways over the decade prior to this controversial show.”
Guston is represented with no fewer than five works across the auctions composing The New York Sales this May. Three of them in particular — Nile (1958), Remorse (1969) and Studio Celebration (1978) — are remarkably illustrative of the ever-shifting nature of Guston’s practice.
Below, hear experts speak about each of these seminal works and learn more about the artist’s influence and evolution.
Philip Guston's Nile: A Landmark Work in Abstract Expressionism
In 1948 at the age of 35 and already a celebrated artist renowned for large-scale figurative murals, Guston dramatically immersed himself in an entirely new language of abstract painting with his radical work Review. The legendary corpus he completed over the next sixteen years, up until Portrait II of 1965, positioned him in the foremost rank of the preeminent art movement of the twentieth century, Abstract Expressionism. The first half of the 1950s saw a gradual evolution of his tastefully nuanced, so-called “abstract impressionism,” almost entirely comprised of subtly modulated monochromes in pinks and reds. However, in 1956 he executed the breakthrough Dial, an intense structure of closely interlocking forms forged in ever bolder color and sheer black, all achieved by his working so closely to the canvas that he could abandon notions of space, depth and formal associations entirely. His paintings of the next four years, through to Painter I, II and III , represent the pinnacle of his abstract practice. During this time he created just twenty-nine major surviving oils on canvas that measure greater than sixty inches.
The masterpiece Nile of 1958 stands at the heart of this esteemed period, and relatively quantifiable analysis determines it among the top ten abstract paintings from this historic moment. Of those, Nile is one of only three of these very top canvases remaining in private hands. In sum, in each critical criteria of art historical importance; artistic quality; empirical rarity and commercial appeal, Nile is a truly extraordinary masterwork.
Veiled Evil: Uncovering Guston’s Hooded Figures
Guston's Remorse boldly exemplifies the daring innovation and radical iconography of the artist's celebrated late corpus of figure paintings. An exceptional early example of this later body of work, Remorse was first exhibited in the 1970 Marlborough Gallery exhibition Philip Guston Recent Paintings, during which Guston first unveiled his now canonical paintings of hooded figures. The corpus of works that Guston presented at the Marlborough Gallery in October of 1970 comprised not only a radical shift within the artist's own artistic career with his groundbreaking return to figuration but also presents undoubtedly one of the most important contributions to twentieth-century art.
A testament to the caliber of the iconic works included in the Marlborough Gallery exhibition, thirteen of the twenty-eight paintings displayed are held in museum collections. One of this select group, Remorse is a masterpiece that epitomizes the very best of Guston's oeuvre, at a moment where institutional recognition of his work is at an all-time high.
Studio Celebration (1978)
Mark Godfrey on the Constant Evolution of Philip Guston
With a captivating intensity, Studio Celebration embodies the audacious self-reflection and figuration that burst forth in Guston’s later works, providing revelatory insight into an artist categorically regarded as one of the most important visual innovators of the twentieth century. In 1968, disillusioned by Abstract Expressionism, Philip Guston determinedly abandoned abstraction, turning towards his now iconic style of bold, evocative figuration. Executed in 1978, in the present work, Guston illustrates a self-portrait of the artist, cigarette lit, gripping his hands above paintbrushes, cans, upturned soles and bottles. Richly textured and painted with viscerally urgent, impasto brushstrokes, the limited palette of red, black and blue recall Guston’s celebrated years as a member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. The figuration of Studio Celebration is a marked departure from his earlier style and a superlative expression of the innovation and arresting impact of the artist’s highly regarded later corpus of paintings.
All three of the above paintings are on public view at Sotheby’s New York City 6–19 May.