“Old men ought to be explorers”
Extract from T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, 1943
Meditative and elegiac, Lamp is a superb example of Guston’s painting from the final phase of his career. Having made his name as an Abstract Expressionist alongside Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Guston’s elegant paintings began to transform from delicate jewel-like mosaics of colour in the 1950s into dense and brooding compositions of pinks, greys and blues in the following decade. In 1968, Guston left New York for Woodstock, where he worked for two years in preparation for a show at Marlborough Gallery in 1970. Upon the opening of the show, it became clear that the “high priest of the Abstract Expressionist painting cult”, as he had become known, had radically altered his artistic direction (Christoph Schreier, ‘Path to an Impure Painting Style’ in: Exh. Cat., Kunstmuseum Bonn, Philip Guston, 1999, p. 9). In place of the carefully considered abstracts of his earlier aesthetic were unapologetically banal and naively styled images of objects such as shoes, cigarettes, lightbulbs and ominous hooded figures. Characterised by an elusive sense of foreboding, the paintings sought to challenge the viewer, and represented a milestone moment in post-war art.
Vastly influential and entirely revolutionary, Guston’s change of focus in the late 1960s is analogous to Pablo Picasso’s shift from the soft contours of his Rose period to the hard edges of his Cubist phase. Just as Guillaume Appollinaire described Picasso’s shift as his “carrying out his own assassination with the practiced and methodical hand of a great surgeon”, Guston’s latest offerings were equally lambasted by critics at the time (Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Les Peintres Cubistes’ in: Herschel Browning Chip, Ed., Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, Berkeley 1968, p. 232). However, as the great Russian satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin astutely declared in 1923: “No revolution, no heresy is comfortable or easy. For it is a leap, it is a break in the smooth evolutionary curve, and a break is a wound, a pain… Of course, to wound oneself is difficult, even dangerous. But for those who are alive, living today as yesterday and yesterday as today is still more difficult” (Yevgeny Zamyatin, 'On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters', 1923 in: Yevgeny Zamyatin: A Soviet Heretic, Chicago 1970, p.112). Its sentiments rang true for Guston, who was delighted to discover Zamyatin’s contemplative passage in the 1970s.
Lamp is a mesmerising example of this final phase of Guston’s output. Light sources had been an important part of Guston’s unique artistic vernacular since 1968, with lightbulbs in particular recurring many times as a ubiquitous image of intrusive modernity. However, the accompanying sense of threat was not confined to this implication of disruption. Just as the windows in Guston’s paintings are commonly depicted with a blind and pull, implying that the brief vision providing respite from the claustrophobic interior of his works could be eliminated by a tug on the cord, the lightbulbs feel as though they might be, at any moment, extinguished. Indeed, in Lamp, this sense of volatility is intensified by the prominent inclusion of the valve. The single flame has long served as a poignant emblem for the transience and ephemerality of life, and has an extensive basis in art history as a memento mori. It is hence deeply significant that this was one of Guston’s final paintings: in March 1979 Guston had a heart attack, and did not paint again before his death in June 1980. Thus, the flickering flame depicted in the present work takes on further poignancy as a symbol of Guston’s life force and creativity against the encroaching darkness of death.
From Joseph Wright of Derby to Vincent van Gogh, the history of painterly depictions of fire is prolific. However, the contrast between the present work and other contemporary depictions of the subject, such as Gerhard Richter’s Kerze series (begun 1982), is vast. Unlike Richter’s highly finished paintings, Guston’s faux-naïve style is elemental to his aesthetic. The light emitted is highly textured, as though it is visible as a solid entity with tangible weight. However, the white impasto that creates a halo around the bulb has another function altogether. Unlike the paintings of Van Gogh or Richter, where the warmth of the flame spreads throughout the canvas, the light emitted here is minimal, a flame against the gloom that does little to alleviate it. In this, the lamp is reminiscent of the bulb in the sky in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a jagged explosion of light abbreviated by the blackness of the composition. And yet, unlike all of these artists, there is nothing to illuminate here. The light is entirely without context, placed on an ambiguous black line indicative of a table, or perhaps a floor. Like the various seas that populate the artist’s paintings from the mid-1970s, the line across the bottom of the canvas grounds the composition yet takes nothing from the subject itself; a weighty object that juxtaposes the accumulation of dark objects that constitutes the base with the bright white of the light above.
A masterful play on the qualities of light, and a reflective meditation on his own mortality, Lamp is a profound work from Philip Guston’s mature period. At once resolutely contemporary and in dialogue with the masterworks of the past, Lamp encapsulates the style, colour and emotional impact of Guston’s greatest paintings. Markedly opposed to Abstract Expressionism, utterly divorced from Minimalism and entirely dissimilar to Pop art, both aesthetically and thematically, Guston’s late work occupies a liminal space between movements and defies neat classification. In conversation with Willem de Kooning at the opening of Guston’s 1970 show in New York, de Kooning inquired: “Philip, do you know what the real subject is?”, to which both artists in unison exclaimed, “Freedom!”. Guston added, "That's the only possession the artist has – freedom to do whatever you can imagine" (Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning cited in: Dore Ashton, A Critical Study of Philip Guston, Berkeley 1990, p. 186).
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