The present work is dominated by a dense central composition of enigmatic non-descript objects propped against one other, referencing at once the studio, the street, and the artist’s own subconscious. A number of tall, overlapping vertical objects similar to the paintbrush handles depicted in numerous other works are aligned alongside a clenched fist gripped firmly around a studio implement. Stacked canvases and a wooden easel, as viewed from the side, intertwine with brick walls and buildings that recall a dense cityscape bustling through the studio window. As described by Guston of his oft-surrealist organizations of space, "At times the forms are seen bunched together, closely affecting each other. They can cause each other to shrink, enlarge, absorb, repel, or seem to swallow one another. In intimate contact, they determine the shape of their existence, a mutual feeding is going on, before they move apart. The locations of the forms in space must give the sensation of existing only temporarily." (“Philip Guston – Random Notes,” June 29, 1972, Dore Ashton Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington, D C., p. 5) Plumes of smoke rise up from the composition, standing as an abstract cipher for both the smoker’s exhale and the exhaust from downtown skyscrapers. Here, the interplay of shadow and perspectival illusionism recalls the Surrealist dreamscapes of Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst, all the while invoking Guston’s earlier work in the fantastically painterly planes of rich pink and red brushwork. Conjuring the painterly bravura of his celebrated abstract corpus, Guston reminds the viewer that his groundbreaking departure from the gestural abstraction of his earlier work is entirely by choice.
Guston’s radical paintings of figures and objects were wholly counterintuitive to the unchallenged dogma of Abstract Expressionism, supported by Clement Greenberg’s supposition that the future of American art would be invariably linear, abstract, and decidedly non-figurative. The still life that Guston assembles in Untitled does not seemingly correspond to any real depiction of space—the objects maintain an entirely abstract anonymity while still referencing firmly representational subject matter. As described by the artist, “I live out of town, and driving down to New York City I go down the West Side Highway. There are all these buildings that look as if they are marching. You know, by painting things they start to look strange and dopey. Also, there was a desire, a powerful desire though an impossibility, to paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet. How would you paint them; how would you realize them?” (Philip Guston, 1978, in Philip Guston, Collected Writings, Lectures and Conversations, Berkeley, 2010, p, 281) For Guston, paintings were not so much made as lived, a perpetual process of negotiation and discovery with his own identity as an artist. An impressive and complex painting that encapsulates many of the themes that occupied the final years of Guston’s oeuvre, Untitled provides revelatory insight into an artist categorically regarded as one of the finest visual innovators of the Twentieth Century.
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