From a young age, Guston exhibited a proclivity and talent for art, spending hours inventing cartoons and nurturing his interest in drawing. As a student at Manual Arts High School, Guston and his friend and classmate Jackson Pollock focused their artistic output into creating drawings and cartoons advocating for arts education, which eventually led to their expulsion. At Pollock’s urging, Guston moved to New York in 1935, a shift that would introduce him to the likes of Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky. His early output, including many large government projects, also reflects the influence of these public projects in its social realism, reminiscent of the murals by Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Guston’s shift from figuration to abstraction back to figuration underscores his passion for the artistic journey, which overrode a desire to define a singular style for himself. Guston began his exploration into abstraction in the late 1940s, which culminated in the production of several large paintings in the 1950s, including The Visit. Six of these works from 1951-1955 are especially unique for their bold use of color, of which Guston has said: “It took me a few years to get the feeling of red, and particularly cad red medium, which I happen to love...I just like it. I couldn’t tell you why. I like cad red medium. It has a certain resonance to it. You can go both ways with it. A little black goes well with it. A little pink goes well with it.” (Philip Guston quoted in “Conversation with Joseph Ablow, 1966,” in Ed. Clark Coolidge, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011, p. 71) Guston would continue to employ these bold, warm colors throughout his career, and aside from a foray into black, white and gray in the 1960s, this palette remained his most iconic. Indeed, The Visit surges in impassioned and bold brushstrokes of the artist’s favored red, colliding with rosy pinks and meditative lavender in a centralized tornado of artistic fervor anchored by daubs of dark mauve and charcoal. Guston specifically had his pigments ground to create a thicker paint he could load onto his brush, the better to build up the luscious impasto of The Visit. Salmon pinks abut cadmium red medium in a thrilling interplay of warm tones that whisk off into rushes of lilac and pearly grays. The vibrant nucleus of the painting gently resolves towards the edges of the canvas in gentle hues of light green and pale blue, a tonality that balances the overall composition in sublime harmony. This atmospheric effect of light, diaphanous color recalls the tradition of Renaissance painters such as Uccello and Piero della Francesca, whom Guston has said were of utmost importance to his practice.
The facture of the present work is evident in every gesture and each ridge of paint that builds up around the ghost trace of Guston’s brush, the tactility and textured paint almost more powerful a signature than the artist’s name in the lower left corner. The warring tendencies in Guston’s most superlative works between the physicality of paint and the philosophical questions of post-war art are further indicative of his maverick spirit and reveal an almost sculptural sensibility in his treatment of paint. In a 1966 interview, Guston remarked, “...I want to show the canvas, it’s really just paint on canvas. It seemed to be part of the complication that I liked. If you’re making a drawing, you like to show some paper, uncovered. Or if you’re working with clay, if you’re modeling, you know how wonderful it is to see in a Rodin the head’s worked out and then a bunch of clay. It’s made of clay. I want to show that it’s really just paint too. Even though I’m trying to eliminate the paint, it’s still paint. I just enjoyed that feeling.” (Ibid, p. 69)
Guston’s abstract paintings of the 1950s, of which The Visit is among the most significant and rare examples, were created toward the later stages of the birth of the New York school in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The timing of his emergence as an Abstractionist in the 1950s with solo exhibitions at such key venues of Abstract Expressionism as the Peridot Gallery (1952), the Charles Egan Gallery (1953) and Sidney Janis gallery (1956, 1958 and 1959) emphasized his association with fellow artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. Guston, however, never strictly fit into the canons of Abstract Expressionist art or action painting. Particular to The Visit and the other masterpieces from the 1950s is Guston’s painstaking process, in which he committed himself to a single work for days, weeks and months at a time. Painting, scraping away, painting more, moving the paint, reworking - Guston’s process was extensive and one of a near devotional focus. Of his subtle masterpieces of painterly bravura, Guston has said “To paint is always to start at the beginning again, yet being unable to avoid familiar arguments about what you see yourself painting. The canvas you are working on modifies all previous ones in an unending baffling chain which never seems to finish. For me the most relevant question and perhaps the only one is ‘When are you finished? When do you stop? Or rather why stop at all.'” (The artist cited in Art News Annual XXXI, 1966, October 1965, p. 101)
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