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.
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