"I got sick and tired of all that purity! Wanted to tell Stories..."
--Guston in conversation with Bill Berkson in 1970.
Painted in 1969, Cigar embodies Philip Guston's departure from his earlier devotion to pure abstraction to a new figuration that was initially controversial but ultimately heralded the re-emergence of the figure in a younger generation of painters of the 1970s and 1980s. Guston's impatience with 'all that purity' was a reaction to both the social and aesthetic climate of the late 1960s. As the liberal optimism of the Kennedy era gave way to demonstrations, the Vietnam war and social unrest, Guston found it impossible to convey this world of turmoil with the restricted vocabulary of gestural abstraction. Consequently, Guston's 1950s signature style—the sensuously composed works where pink and red striations attain an intricate gestural pattern—was replaced by the end of the 1960s with compositions that discontinue the abstractions that had become, in the artist's opinion, "too easy for eliciting a response." (Jonathan Fineberg, "Philip Guston's Late Style," Art Since 1940s, Strategies of Being, New York, 1995, p. 398)
The subject matter and composition of Cigar are a summation of Guston's theories about the role of painting and the creative struggle of the painter. In 1967, Guston moved permanently to Woodstock, New York and isolated himself from the New York City art scene. During this period, he first concentrated on drawings rather than paintings, based on simple, everyday objects depicted singly against anonymous pink backgrounds. At the end of the 1960s, Guston progressed to barren compressed interiors with figures and still-lifes, retaining the red and pink palette within a realm of white, black and grey environments. The artist had found his own complex and highly personal iconography that encompassed the darkly comic and the apocalyptic, and featuring pictorial signfiers for the painter himself. The cigar-smoking hooded figure is the most versatile and direct representation of the artist himself and appears in many of the greatest works of this latter period of the artist's oeuvre. The ambiguously frightening and lovable sides of the artist's own creativity are depicted in a myriad of realistic situtations of leisure or work, and are openly suggestive of his role as painter, smoker, spectator, or narrator. Reconnected to their own Selfs, they are "liberated from detachment," namely the existential struggle that directed much of contemporary painting. (Harold Rosenberg, The De-Definition of Art, New York, 1973, pp. 132-40) Guston's late works replace the artist as the nucleus of the creative act, they restore his identity as social commentator, and articulate his introspection through narratives and gestures that indicate both precise and ambiguous direction and action. Ultimately, Cigar stands as an example of Guston's challenge to the notion that an artist must commit to one painting manner, one aesthetic, and one final artistic dictum.
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