Philip Guston - 20th c. and Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session New York Tuesday, December 8, 2020 | Phillips
  • Painted in 1960, Slope is an outstanding work created at the peak of Philip Guston’s abstract period, just a few years before he became the very first artist to which The Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, would dedicate a solo retrospective. Cast in a haze of moody hues, this painting beautifully exemplifies the artist’s longstanding interest in the existentialist writings of Franz Kafka and Jean-Paul Sartre; the reticent palette of dark blues, muted reds, and sharp blacks here translate the feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and absurdity that characterize the modernist writers’ works onto the painted surface, at the very moment Guston himself was fervently seeking new avenues for artistic expression.


    Building upon over a decade of Guston’s abstract practice, Slope represents a shift in the artist’s aesthetic vocabulary that had been set in motion in the mid-1950s. At the time, Guston had garnered widespread acclaim for his so-called “abstract impressionist” works, which were characterized by short brushstrokes, interlacing horizontal and vertical lines and a luminous color palette. As his ethereal abstractions gradually transformed into broodier, more constituted compositions throughout the decade, starting with works such as Slope, Guston embarked upon a distinct formal shift in his practice.


    Slope is the mark of a painter increasingly disillusioned by his chosen style of painting. As Guston continued to advance the diffuse, nearly impressionistic, and highly energetic mode of gestural abstraction for which he achieved considerable acclaim, he increasingly felt as if he were approaching an artistic cul-de-sac.  Influenced by the existential writings of Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others, Guston’s works from the early 1960s are imbued with increasingly sullen, anxious tones. As dark, ominous forms began to crowd his heavily impastoed paintings, his palette became now reminiscent of the darker hues used by Venetian painters such as Tintoretto and Titian. The unrelenting weight of existential anxiety had forced itself to the forefront of Guston’s practice at the moment he was at an artistic crossroads.

     "…these soulful abstractions search out shapes they can't yet define. They have the rough, barely muffled anger of raised voices approaching from the other side of a closed door." – Michael Kimmelman

    Slope represents a decisive moment in a shift from ethereal action painting to deeply individual expressionistic figuration. In contrast to his earlier, almost smoky work, Slope incorporates shapes that, while still disembodied, strive for formal definition. As the clotted forms of gloomy color clench together to create a breathless mass of darkness at the painting’s center, they constitute a more rigid structure than Guston’s work had previously known – presaging his return to figurative painting in the late 1960s. As Michael Kimmelman observed of this transitional period in Guston’s practice, writing in The New York Times, Taking Guston’s sustained formal exertion in the pursuit of transcendent painting with his concomitant readings of existentialist literature, one must wonder if the painting’s title, Slope, may reference the artist’s experiencing of the same frustrated effort and heroic persistence that Camus’ Sisyphus knew.

    • Provenance

      Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
      Private Collection (acquired from the above)
      James Goodman Gallery, New York
      B.C. Holland, Inc., Chicago (acquired from the above)
      Private Collection, St. Louis (acquired from the above)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, New Paintings by Philip Guston, February 13 - March 11, 1961

Property from a Distinguished Midwestern Collection



signed "Philip Guston" lower right; further signed, titled and dated "PHILIP GUSTON "Slope" 1960" on the reverse
oil on paper laid on Masonite
30 1/8 x 38 1/2 in. (76.4 x 97.9 cm)
Painted in 1960.

Full Cataloguing

$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $365,400

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th c. and Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session

New York 8 December 2020