At the Table

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  • Condition Report

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  • Provenance

    McKee Gallery, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2000

  • Exhibited

    Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Plane/Figure: Amerikanische Kunst aus Schweizer Privatsammlungen und aus dem Kunstmuseum Winterthur / American Art from Swiss Collectors and the Kunstmuseum Winterthur, August 26 - November 19, 2006, no. 64, p. 244 (illustrated, p. 20)

  • Video

    Philip Guston, 'At the Table', Lot 12

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Guston's new paintings are cartoony, looney, moving and social…It's as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart... It really took guts to make this shift this late in the game…” – John Perreault, art critic

    Produced in the wake of Philip Guston’s highly-anticipated return to painting after a two-year hiatus, At the Table, 1969 exemplifies the humorous yet shrewd figurative style that typified his production during the last decade of his life. Executed in the same year as his tour de force The Studio, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark, the painting depicts two of his signature hooded figures, shroud in white cloth redolent of Ku Klux Klan garb, ostensibly seated at a table and trading looks. In the foreground stands a fringed pink lamp, a recurring motif of Guston’s, holding a polka-dot blouse. These “hoods”—as the artist called them—feature as the main protagonist in most of his works between 1968 and 1970, a chapter in his oeuvre marked by an exceptionally febrile bout of creativity and an overwhelming dedication to painting that neared compulsion. The results of this interval, which were first publicly exhibited at Malborough Gallery in New York in fall 1970, shocked viewers and invited a critical reaction that was at first almost uniformly searing; however, these works are now considered to be not only some of the finest of his career but of the period overall. An exquisite meditation on culpability, identity, and the evils of its contemporaneous social reality, At the Table was a vehicle for Guston to convey a message that was both personal and public during a time of simultaneous artistic, political, and social crisis.

    By partaking in the prosaic act of sitting around a table, the hoods in At the Table encourage a more introspective understanding than the unequivocally villainous white supremacists they at first seem to allude to. Indeed, these figures are so personal that they are in fact self-portraits: “I perceive myself as being behind the hood. In the new series of ‘hoods’ my attempt was really not to illustrate, to do pictures of the Ku Klux Klan,” Guston clarified during a lecture at the University of Minnesota in March 1978. In painting this more candid portrait of himself as painter and man, Guston pondered, “What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot” (Philip Guston, quoted in Philip Guston, exh. cat., Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, 2004, pp. 28-29). Furthering this intimate reading, even though the hoods in At the Table are exchanging looks, they do not appear to be conspiring—or even interacting—and instead are emotionally self-contained: their individual psychologies seem to be enveloped by their physical veils as well.

    At the Table’s hooded figures first appeared in one of Guston’s first canvases, the now-lost Conspirators, 1930, a boldly-depicted scene of several Ku Klux Klan figures donning their signature white shrouds and participating in a disturbing ritual beneath a Christ-like hanged black man and falling cross. Engaged with sociopolitical concerns and left-wing principles from an early age, Guston’s first invocation of the KKK was no doubt impelled from confrontations during his adolescence with Los Angeles’s noteworthy Klan membership, which became the most active “Klavern” in the country. These close quarters triggered more than a few run-ins with the group: the artist even recalled some of its members mutilating his paintings that were exhibited in a bookshop in Hollywood during the time.

    After a few more portrayals of lynchings and other despicable acts of violence at the hands of the KKK, and the inclusion of faintly-outlined hoods in The Tormentors, 1947-1948, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Guston cast aside this pictorial trope to spend the next two decades experimenting with abstraction. This investigation concluded in 1966, when he abruptly ceased painting, moved from Manhattan to Woodstock, and occupied the next couple years drawing, oscillating between abstraction in the day and figuration during the night. This respite from painting lasted until 1968, the height of the Klan’s recrudescence in response to the Civil Rights Movement and the year of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the election of Richard Nixon. “I was feeling split, schizophrenic; the [Vietnam War], what was happening to America, the brutality of the world,” according to Guston. “What kind of a man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going home to adjust a red to a blue?” (Philip Guston, quoted in Irving Sandler, Art of the Postmodern era, New York, 1996, p. 196).

    With his political ire reignited during this period of governmental upheaval and racial unrest, Guston resumed painting and returned to the iconography of hooded figures incessantly for the next two years, which would prove to be the most prolific and feverish of his career. In these new pictures, however, the hoods were no longer gravely represented as the evil incarnate; instead, they are engaged in such banal activities as sitting around together in At the Table. Speaking of the thematic differences between his utilization of the hood motif as a young artist and its return in 1968, Guston explained, “In this new dream of violence, I feel like Isaac Babel with his Cossacks; as if I were living with the Klan. What do they do afterwards? Or before? Smoke, drink, sit around their rooms… Dumb, melancholy, guilty, fearful, remorseful, reassuring one another?” (Philip Guston, quoted in Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, Munich, 2016, p. 206).

    In addition to repurposing characters, when Guston would discover a composition that he particularly enjoyed, he would manipulate it, just as a cartoonist fiddles with a core storytelling formula week after week. This recycling propensity accounts for the striking parallel between At the Table and Sheriff, 1970; in the latter, the figures are posed identically, but the central lamp is replaced by the back of a head of a sheriff interrogating them for their wrongdoings, their guilt evidenced by the splatter of blood on the figure on the right. These reinterpretations of a principal composition culminated in his masterpiece, Bad Habits, 1970, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, in which Guston effaced the sheriff’s head with white paint before depicting a green bottle and other nefarious paraphernalia in its place. Reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico’s bodily machines and mannequin heads, Guston’s flippant replacement of objects with humans and vice versa, such as from lamp to police officer to bottle, is akin to cartoons’ constant, slapstick alteration between objectification and humanization. Furthermore, the thick, jet black outlines in At the Table, characteristic of the artist’s work at this time, are evocative of the coarse contours of drawings by George Herriman, the creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip that Guston knew and admired. At the Table’s dark subject matter and affinity with cartoons, in both its process and approach, infuses the work with the painter’s acclaimed satirical fusion of evil and humor.

    In representing the violence and political turmoil of America in the late 1960s, Guston rediscovered his own image, and—however refracted it was—this realization launched the fervent production of his mature period. It is fitting, then, that in At the Table he obsessively reused earlier iconographic and compositional elements to arrive at this raw, critical portrait of himself. One wonders if the painting’s monstrous characters are as hopeless as the sinful figures in the Old Master works that Guston so adored, such as Francisco de Goya’s Los caprichos, 1797-1798, or if they will ever see the light. Justifying this inquiry is the central lamp and the painterly black patch next to the right figure, which is likely a window, another one of Guston’s perennial motifs present in a drawing for At the Table as well as in The Room, 1970, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps these sources of light are Guston’s equivalent of the lightbulb used in cartoons to symbolize new ideas or breakthroughs. This impenetrable ambiguity at the heart of At the Table—pessimism or optimism, humor or horror, internal or external evil—is best encapsulated by a motto de Chirico inscribed on an early self-portrait in Latin that Guston frequently quoted: “What shall I love if not the enigma?”

Ο ◆12

A Discerning Vision Property from an Important Private Collection

At the Table

signed and dated "Philip Guston '69" lower right; further signed, titled and dated "PHILIP GUSTON "AT THE TABLE" 1969" on the reverse
acrylic on panel
30 1/8 x 32 in. (76.5 x 81.3 cm.)
Painted in 1969.

Estimate
$1,800,000 - 2,500,000 

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Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019