Philip Guston - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist
    Private Collection, by decent from the above

  • Catalogue Essay

    “I try desperately to put everything else aside in order to concentrate-concentrate, which is to say, TO LIVE THE PAINTING…”

    Prior to the late 1960s, Philip Guston’s art largely followed the painterly track of the abstract expressionists: it was bold and raw, non-representational and surface-oriented. But AbEx art was also a product of its times: the end of the second world war necessitated an artistic revolution, one where the horrors of the world could be left out of the scene on the canvas. Painting in this style for twenty years, Guston felt the purpose of the movement too removed from the present to feel visceral. Thus, he risked his own success and reputation on a principled stand: he would redirect his own project back into the world and allow its many pieces to once again coalesce on his canvasses. Brushes, 1969 is one of Guston’s first works in this vein. While the focus is small, it is his tribute to his means of success and fulfillment, the tools of his creative life.

    Guston’s early years left little time for dreaming. He was exposed to his father’s suicide at an early age; consequently, he fell into an introspective cycle as an adolescent, one that could only be alleviated by the pleasures of paintings. While he eventually joined Jackson Pollock in both studies and painterly style, Guston’s life is marked by a severely existentialist bent: he was always concerned with ethics and morals in an artist’s life, preferring to explore Sartre and Camus for clues. It is no puzzle then that he felt a heavy weight upon his shoulders once he found his methodology of painting detached from the mood of its times in the late 1960s. He responded with a figurative fantasy world upon a palette based in salmon pinks and earth tones, premiering at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970.

    The present lot is a touching reintroduction of the figure into Guston’s work. As one of the first works of neo-expressionism in the Western canon, it is difficult to understate the influential power of Brushes, 1969. Humbly portrayed in their light brown satchel, Guston’s brushes follows hearkens back to the traditional still life of the Impressionists, whose use of materials within the studio served as an equally effective alternative to the domestic still life of various foods and books arranged for the painter’s eye. Jutting out both straight and angled, Guston’s brushes range in their colors from cream on the right to bright red and even to sinister tones of black and siena. These various makes of brushes are a testament to Guston’s many years as a painter, each a representative of a different era in his work.

    At the premiere of the Marlborough show, Guston showed himself to be ahead of the curve, as the world was not yet ready for his courageous abandonment of the precepts of Abstract Expressionism. Though largely derided at the time, a few prescient dissenters identified the contemporary importance of Guston’s show. Willem de Kooning testified that the new work was about expressive freedom, namely Guston’s unwillingness to remain within the confines of a movement that he perpetuated.

    Harold Rosenberg was even more sensitive to Guston’s great gamble in his now legendary review of the Marlborough Show: “Abstract Expressionism liberated painting from the social-consciousness dogma of the thirties; it is now time to liberate it from the ban on social consciousness. Guston has demonstrated that the apparent opposition between quality in painting and political statement is primarily a matter of doctrinaire aesthetics. He has managed to make social comment seem natural for the visual language of post-war painting…Guston is the first to have risked a fully developed career on the possibility of engaging his art in the political reality. His current exhibition may have given the cue to the art of the nineteen seventies.” (H. Rosenberg, “Liberation from Detachment”, The New Yorker (November 7, 1970), p. 141)

    At its core, Brushes, 1969 shows us that beneath the fame and pomp of Expressionist celebrity, there was always the brushes themselves, the unsung heroes of visual art’s every historical transformation. Revisiting the material source of his life’s most outstanding achievements, Guston delivers us a portrait of his means of production as a simple homage to the humble life of an artist.



oil on canvas
40 1/2 x 35 5/8 in. (103 x 90.5 cm.)
Signed and dated "Philip Guston 1969" lower left.

$700,000 - 900,000 

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Sale
[email protected]
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York 16 May 2013 7pm