American artist Philip Guston – while perhaps not a household name like his New York School contemporary and onetime high school classmate Jackson Pollock – embodied many of the conflicts and contradictions inherent in 20th century modern art. Over the course of his career, Guston was almost chameleonic – routinely shifting his focus from the abstract to the figurative while attempting to reconicle gestural and field painting in the process.
The artist’s dialectic approach is explored in Hauser & Wirth’s ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967,’ a compelling collection of 36 painting and 53 drawings. Drawn from private collections and museums (only a fraction of the pieces are up for sale), it is the most extensive showing from this body of Guston’s work to be displayed in some fifty years.
The work on view in Hauser & Wirth’s capacious Chelsea compound represents what critics call Guston’s ‘transitional period.’ As Hauser & Wirth partner and curator Paul Schimmel notes, however, the decade was actually entirely epochal for the artist. In fact, the exhibition brings us closer to Guston, a man who was in the process of pushing back against the burden of early career success as well as the confines of the Abstract Impressionist movement. According to Schimmel, Guston refused 'to be pinned down or to rest on his own considerable accomplishments and influence.'
Guston’s less appreciated paintings completed during this period mark a strident move away from his New York School days and the constraints of the Modern Art Complex.
The exuberant colours and vigorous strokes of earlier years moved to darker, more tenebrous forms, rendered with a heavier, more limited palette. In a large group of works that includes Stranger (1964) and Portrait I (1965) Guston creates lugubrious, almost cryptic portraits and fields with thick smoky greys. Dense forms imply the artist’s self examination while pink strokes bleed through defiantly.
Towards the end of this pivotal decade, a time that was also personally tumultous for the artist, who had retreated to Woodstock, New York, with his family, Guston swapped painting for drawing. The exhibition’s last section presents the artist’s 'pure drawings,' which were created in a two-year span between 1966 and 1967. Displayed together in a grid, the pieces offer a kind of elemental comfort with their gestures, marks, crude portraits and depictions of architecture and landscapes. 'This period was extraordinarily liberating for Guston,' said Schimmel. 'A clean sheet of paper didn’t represent the encumberments of who he was; he was no longer held back by the pop enemy camp.'