When Guston unveiled the radical figuration of his new works at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970, his legacy as one of the most innovative painters of the twentieth century was secured. Yet while the artist’s late work is now regarded as the brilliant expression of a liberated creative spirit, his abrupt departure from abstraction was initially met with shock and trepidation by artists and critics alike. The revolutionary simplicity of these new works, filled with ominously hooded figures, surreal post-apocalyptic cityscapes, and an underlying aura of gleeful immorality, was viewed as a betrayal to the movement’s lofty principles. Indeed, Guston’s radical paintings of figures and objects were wholly counterintuitive to the unchallenged dogma of Abstract Expressionism, backed by Clement Greenberg’s supposition that the future of American art would be invariably linear, abstract, and decidedly non-figurative. Interestingly, 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 paintings, 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) As an exceptionally early example of the late works, Cigar captures the transformation from action to figure painting as part of the aesthetic strategy to destabilize linear development. While the richly textured scarlet pigment and variegated flourishes of pink evoke the lush abstraction of Guston’s earlier work, these forms are precisely designated as bricks and cartoonish flesh in the present work through the simple incision of black outlining. This distinction is made even more explicit by the gestural plume of ashy cigar smoke that curls towards the sky; conjuring the painterly bravura of his celebrated abstract corpus, Guston reminds the viewer that his ground-breaking departure from the gestural abstraction of his earlier work is entirely by choice.
The newfound unrestrained visual vocabulary evident in Cigar, a superb embodiment of Guston’s late style, enacts a brilliant fusion of politically charged iconography and satirical self-portraiture. As the seventh and youngest child to Russian emigrants in Canada, Guston’s family relocated to Southern California at a time in which the Ku Klux Klan had a significant membership in the region. As a result of this early exposure, depictions of the Klansman were central to the artist’s early work of the 1930s. After decades of banishment to the depths of his imagination, the specter of these earlier Klansmen resurfaces in the present work as cartoonish, simplified caricatures of human vice. By burying these villains in sardonic and absurd figuration, the canvas of Cigar provides a fictive arena in which the shadowy aspects of human nature can be explored without consequences; in their abandonment of abstraction, the late paintings granted Guston a remarkable platform upon which to tell psychologically complex, politically charged and shockingly self-effacing stories. Although cloaked in absurdity, the hooded figure of Cigar—indisputably the primary antihero of the late works—offers a candid portrait of the artist’s self-image. 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 fat cigar of the present work, clutched in the overlarge hand as one might casually hold a paintbrush between daubs, appears as a frequent, talismanic prop throughout the late works, imbuing them with the presence of the artist. Remarking upon the iconic hooded figures in the paintings, Guston revealed, “I perceive myself as being behind a hood. In the new series of ‘hoods’ my attempt was really not to illustrate, to do pictures of the Klansman as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me, I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan.” (Ingrid Pfeiffer, Philip Guston: Late Works, New York, 2013, p. 92) Indeed, elegantly framed within the striking simplicity of the present composition, Guston’s cartoonish figure achieves a startling poignancy as, avoiding our eyes, he gazes into an imaginative realm that that is inaccessible to the viewer.
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