Lot 3
  • 3

Philip Guston

1,500,000 - 2,000,000 USD
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  • Philip Guston
  • Untitled (Smoking)
  • oil on canvas
  • 35 1/2 by 32 in. 90.2 by 81.3 cm.
  • Executed in 1979.


Estate of the Artist
McKee Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2005


New York, McKee Gallery, Philip Guston: Abstract + Figurative, November - December 2005


This painting is in excellent condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at +1 (212) 606-7254 for the report prepared by Terrence Mahon. The canvas is framed in a wood frame painted white.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Within the scope of modern art, Philip Guston distinguished himself through the daring, inspired, and groundbreaking nature of his late work. An iconic example of Guston’s trailblazing figurative paintings of the 1970s, Untitled (Smoking) from 1979 marks the artist’s remarkable creative transformation in the last years of his life. In 1967, after decades of acclaim as a key member of the New York School and the “high priest of the abstract expressionist painting cult,” Guston stopped painting. (Christoph Schreier, “Path to an Impure Painting Style” in Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Philip Guston, 1999, p. 9) Although art history is rife with those who swam against the tide of popular opinion, few artists have had the audacity or humility shown by Guston when, at the end of a brilliant career, he chose to start anew. When he returned to his easel in 1969, the distinctive flourishes of abstracted color and interpretive freedom that had become the hallmarks of his distinctive aesthetic were gone, replaced by bold, stylistic, and symbolically charged figurative paintings. Now regarded as some of the most influential and innovative works of the Twentieth Century, these late paintings, of which Untitled (Smoking) is an iconic example, offer an intimate portrait of an artist who yielded to the creative impulse and dared to forge a new path.

Serving as inspiring and radical declarations of artistic individuality, Guston’s captivating figurative works were fueled by his growing belief that, “American art is a lie, a sham, a cover up for a poverty of spirit—a mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself. A lie to cover up how bad one can be.” (Philip Guston’s notebook, circa 1970 in Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy, Philip Guston: A Retrospective, 2004, p. 54) While Guston’s figurative paintings are now regarded as the brilliant expressions of a liberated creative spirit, his radical departure from abstraction was initially met with shock and trepidation by artists and critics alike. One of the few who immediately grasped the genius and originality of Guston’s transformation was another artist known for his distinctive late paintings; upon viewing the late works, Willem de Kooning remarked that he was struck by the palpable “freedom” in the rosy-toned figurative paintings. (Andrew Graham-Dixon in Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy, Philip Guston: A Retrospective, 2004, p. 55) Few were able to see past the apparent betrayal of Guston’s iconoclasm to the creativity and bravery that drove the artist to move against the canonical progression of art, abandoning abstraction for scenes that privileged authenticity and directness. From the vantage point of the present day, the symbolism of the late work is a remarkable precedent for the triumphant return to figuration in the 1980s, heralded by such artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer, and Julian Schnabel; although a retreat from the reigning mode of abstraction, these paintings marked Guston as an inspired innovator, far ahead of the curve of contemporary art.

Painted only a year before Guston’s death, Untitled (Smoking) is a deeply personal work, offering a poignant reflection on Guston’s life and career. Seeking to proclaim a further realization of the absurd machismo of the cult of Abstract Expressionism, the ashy cigarettes, unsavory beings, and ghoulish cult robes of Guston’s surreal hinterland simplify and caricaturize human vice. Like Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Clement Greenberg, Guston was a heavy drinker and smoker, indulgent of the vices that plagued the New York school. The imagery of the late works is dominated by unmarked clocks, worn-out shoes, and shadowy cobwebs, suggesting that the artist was becoming acutely aware of his own mortality. Facing this impending reality, Guston casts the indulgent veil of abstraction aside in the present work to reveal a rich and imaginative internal reality. Yet the rosy hue and gestural, impasto strokes of Untitled (Smoking) recall the transcendent lightness of form and color that characterized such earlier works as Painting, 1954, which today resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In the impassioned swathes of pink pigment, cheeky symbolism, and bold forms of Untitled (Smoking), Guston summons the painterly flourish of abstraction while celebrating the liberating creativity of figuration, marrying early and late in a remarkable self-portrait.