Impressive in scale and arresting in impact, Philip Guston’s Red Sky from 1978 boldly captures the audacious innovation of the artist’s celebrated late corpus of paintings, providing revelatory insight into an artist categorically regarded as one of the finest visual innovators of the twentieth century. In 1968, Guston radically changed the focus and intent of his creative output. Disillusioned by the restrictive dogma of Abstract Expressionism and his inability to reflect on his environment through its vernacular, Guston abandoned the gestural flourishes that had become the hallmarks of his distinctive aesthetic and replaced them with stylistically bold and symbolically charged figurative paintings. Rendered in the limited palette of reds and blacks, and painted with viscerally urgent, impastoed brushstrokes, Red Sky evokes the charged, tumultuous climate of 1960s America, which Guston anxiously sought to capture in his paintings of this period. While Guston’s radical paintings of figures and objects were wholly counterintuitive to the unchallenged rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, and as such provoked tremendous controversy when first unveiled in 1970, this body of work, created during his last decade of production, has since become regarded as canonical in its importance for contemporary art and has proved to be the genesis of an immensely rich and varied body of work. Indeed, Guston’s brave return to figuration at the time stood as a beacon to artists of later decades who celebrated figurative painting and its power to reflect a given historical moment. The importance of Red Sky is underscored by its notable exhibition history; curator Norman Rosenthal selected the work for inclusion in the seminal 1981 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition “A New Spirit In Painting”—a singular assessment of and attempt to highlight the greatest achievements in painting over the course of the prior decade—which featured 150 works by 38 artists such as Willem de Kooning, David Hockney, Lucian Freud, and Andy Warhol. Red Sky was also included in the artist’s landmark retrospective in 2003, which travelled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
In Red Sky, a fiery haze illuminates a frieze-like row of indistinct cylindrical forms that rests upon a blackened patchwork of layered pigment. These dense and voluminous forms at once evoke the human body and connote a sense of objecthood—calling to mind images of bludgeons and clubs. Curator and critic Robert Storr likens the forms to “huge cans of paint stuffed with brushes,” yet he acknowledges their indistinguishability: “compressed into massive wholes, the forms lose their identity...An equal sense of mystery was achieved by isolating images and enlarging the space around them.” (Robert Storr, Modern Masters Series, Vol. 11: Philip Guston, New York, 1986, p. 77) Storr emphasizes the imperceptibility of Guston’s figurative paintings of this period by writing: “many of [Guston’s] late paintings are, in fact, more abstract than representational. Red Sky, for example, is an almost pneumatic variation on his cluster grids of the early 1950s.” (Robert Storr, Ibid., p. 98) Recalling the late paintings of Mark Rothko, Red Sky is bisected into two blocks of color, one a rich fusion of black and deep maroon, and the other a brilliant surge of red. Guston’s placement of the quasi-figurative forms at the juxtaposition of these two panels—without indicating a sense of depth or perspectival illusion—creates a spatial ambiguity and draws the viewer into an indeterminate geography. Defying specific narrative, the dark density of the black space evokes the paintings of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, many of which feature eerie landscapes where extended foregrounds are shrouded in ominous darkness. As Storr observes in Guston’s post-1970s paintings such Red Sky: “The spatial dynamics of Guston's paintings are elemental and organic in their permutations. Usually the scene is set by a simple horizontal division of the canvas, each half dominated by a single hue—most often blue or black opposite red or roseate grays—and the resulting space is almost closed off by the density of pigment and color.” (Ibid, p. 66) Guston mirrors the cross-hatching and the layering of heavy brushstrokes of the bottom section in the upper half of the canvas; this panel erupts into a storm of red brushstrokes, as if a sunset has caught fire and ignited the landscape within. Red Sky thrums in a torrent of vivid red pigment that not only recalls the all-encompassing canvases from post-war masters such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, but also conjures the deep tenebrism of Rembrandt van Rijn’s mysterious and evocative Night Watch and the dark, somber landscapes of Francisco de Goya’s Black Paintings. It evokes the raw urgency of a supernatural phenomenon, as thick strokes of red impasto ignite the canvas’s surface. Robert Storr elaborates: “Although Guston's paintings, like Rothko's late work, are frontal and expansive in design, their atmosphere is, by contrast, heavy and airless. Emphatically earth-bound, they instill claustrophobia rather than intimate transcendence. Their topography consists of barren embankments that press forward like landslides against the picture plane, encroaching upon the viewer's space while seeming to forbid any escape for the figures that languish half-embedded in them. Thus, Guston's work recalls the somber, denuded landscapes of Goya's Black Paintings.” (Ibid)
While socially conscious, political imagery defined Guston’s earliest Social Realist murals and paintings of the 1930s and 40s, the political and social turmoil that afflicted America in the late sixties, coupled with Guston’s own internal distress at this time, led Guston to turn away from the abstract style that had prevailed his work since the 1950s and revert back to figuration. Returning anew to the stylistic mode in which he had begun his artistic career, Guston now approached figuration with a cartoonish, crude simplicity. Guston’s newfound visual vocabulary afforded him a means through which he felt he could more accurately convey his attitude toward the social and political atmosphere at the time; realism would lack the imaginative potency necessary to communicate the state of turmoil—which for Guston was also deeply personal. Through its connotative associations with clubs and bludgeons, Red Sky references the cataclysmal political environment that consumed the latter half of the 1960s; in particular, Red Sky can be associated with the riots that ensued across the country—specifically in Chicago—that followed the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Sparked by the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy earlier that year, the violence and destruction that these riots instigated was famously captured on film for the nation to see. Images of police officers waving clubs at black Americans against an ignited, fiery red sky flooded the media and became an emblem of the national tensions that afflicted America at home, providing a strong counter visual to the destruction of the Vietnam War abroad. The self-referential iconographic allusion to paint cans and brushes in Red Sky demonstrates Guston’s wrestling with his identity as an artist; viewers can feel his agonous negotiation of a relationship between the interiority of his artist studio, his tortured psyche, and the great drama of race riots and political mayhem that surrounded him. At once a reaction to the sociopolitical landscape of 1960s America and also an evocation of the interiority of the artist’s studio, the deep emotive power of Red Sky lies in the ambiguity of these forms and the dueling anxieties that they symbolize; Red Sky reveals an artist negotiating with both the turmoil of the outside world and also his own interior turmoil.
A profound meditation on Guston’s identity as an artist, Red Sky evidences the artist’s deeply personal, emotional and psychological struggle to take stock of his artistic output and its impact on the world in which he lived. The foreboding density of the built-up, blackened impasto, offset above by the visceral flames of the sardonic sunset, hauntingly reflects Guston’s own mental anguish as an artist who, despite considerable critical success, was plagued by self-injurious vices, personal self-doubt, and concern over what it meant to be a painter in a time of great social and political upheaval. The present work weaves together rage, injury, and comedy into a brilliant composition, one that recalls the painterly flourishes of his early abstractions, all the while imparting an unsettling and haunting incongruity. A testament to the visceral impact and grand presence of Red Sky, artist Elly Thomas describes the work as a painting “in which Guston’s forms emerge from the abstract to come together in battle.” (Elly Thomas, Play and the Artist’s Creative Process: The Work of Philip Guston and Eduardo Paolozzi, New York, 2019, p. 73)
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