Lot 12
  • 12


1,000,000 - 1,500,000 GBP
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  • Philip Guston
  • Duo
  • signed; signed, titled, and dated 1970 on the reverse
  • acrylic on panel
  • 76.2 by 81.2 cm. 30 by 32 in.


Estate of Philip Guston, New York
McKee Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
Timothy Taylor Gallery, London (acquired from the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2015


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although the overall tonality is brighter and more vibrant, and the background has a slightly pink undertone in the original. Condition: Please refer to the department for a professional condition report.
"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. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Executed in 1970, Duo offers a punchy iteration of Philip Guston’s radical mature praxis. After decades of acclaim, not only as a key member of the New York School but also as the so-called “high priest of the abstract expressionist painting cult”, Guston abandoned the flourishes of abstract colour and gestural freedom that had become the hallmarks of his earlier aesthetic, replacing them instead with bold, stylistic, and symbolically charged figurative paintings (Christoph Schreier, ‘Path to an Impure Painting Style’ in: Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Philip Guston, 1999, p. 9). The delightfully absurd subjects of the present work, with their ghoulish hooded cloaks, constitute one of the most iconic motifs of the late paintings which explore a strange and intriguing hinterland of mischievous beings often engaged in indecorous behaviour. Enigmatically charged, Duo recalls René Magritte’s unsettling Surrealist masterpiece, The Lovers (1928, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), whose similarly masked protagonists implore the viewer to question what lies beyond and beneath their shrouded forms. A striking example of Guston’s late oeuvre, Duo presents the stylistic culmination of an artist who yielded to the creative impulse and dared to forge a new path. When Guston first unveiled the radical figurative style of his new works at Marlborough Gallery, New York, in 1970, his abrupt departure from abstraction was initially met with shock and trepidation by artists and critics alike. The revolutionary simplicity of these new works – rendered in a reductive palette and filled with ominously hooded figures, surreal post-apocalyptic cityscapes, and a mischievous sense of immorality – was viewed as a betrayal to the New York School's lofty principles. Indeed, Guston’s radical paintings of figures and objects were wholly antithetical 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. One of the few to immediately grasp the genius and originality of Guston’s transformation was Willem de Kooning, who had also received an initially apathetic reception to his late paintings. Upon viewing Guston's new works, de Kooning remarked that he was struck by the palpable “freedom” in Guston’s idiosyncratic figurative compositions (Willem de Kooning cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy, Philip Guston: A Retrospective, 2004, p. 55). As an early example of the late works, Duo captures the transformation from action to figure painting as part of an aesthetic strategy to destabilise and undermine gestural abstraction. Articulated in bold black outlines over a white ground, the huddled and cartoonish forms of the present work are at once blunt and illegible, visceral and cerebral, comic and ominous, achieving the acute psychic intensity which marks the very best of the artist’s mature output. 

The newfound visual vocabulary evident in Duo enacts a brilliant fusion of politically charged iconography and satirical self-portraiture. The seventh and youngest child to Ukrainian-Jewish emigrants in Canada, Guston relocated to Southern California with his family in 1919 at a time when the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in the region. As a result of this early exposure, depictions of the Klansman were central to the artist’s earliest work of the 1930s. Banished for decades to the depths of his imagination, the spectre 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, Duo provides a fictional arena in which the shadowy aspects of human nature can be explored without consequence; in their abandonment of abstraction, the late paintings granted Guston a platform upon which to tell psychologically complex, politically charged and shockingly self-effacing stories. Although cloaked in absurdity, the hooded figures of Duo – indisputably the primary antiheroes of the late works – offer a candid portrait of the artist himself. As Guston remarked: “This was the beginning. They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind a hood... The idea of evil fascinated me... What would it be like to be evil? To plan and to plot? I started conceiving an imaginary city being overtaken by the Klan. I was like a movie director. I couldn't wait, I had hundreds of pictures in mind, and when I left the studio I would make notes to myself, memos: 'Put them all around the table, eating, drinking beer.' Ideas and feelings kept coming so fast; I couldn't stop, I was sitting on the crest of a wave" (Philip Guston cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection, 2006, n.p.). Indeed, for Guston, painting was not so much made as lived: a perpetual process of negotiation and discovery of his own identity as an artist. Elegantly positioned within the striking simplicity of the present composition, the cartoonish figures of Duo encapsulate many of the themes that occupied the final years of Guston’s oeuvre.