Philip Guston

Untitled (Cup), Philip Guston, oil on panel, 11 in. x 14 in. (btw. 1969 and 1973). Photo McKee Gallery,
A show of terrific paintings by Philip Guston at McKee gallery in New York closed a week ago Saturday. They were small paintings on panel, around 12 in. x 16 in., all the same size or close to it. The paintings were mostly of household objects—cups, shoes, etc.—as well as some of his hooded figures and cityscapes, done between 1969 and 1973. The photographs do them scant justice (but click on them for a larger view anyway).

These little paintings have immense vitality. The palette is restricted to red, white, black and occasional green. The objects or structures are simple and rudimentarily rendered. The elementary limitations give him a framework, and within it he lays claim to a kind of liberty in painting that is infrequently seen but always cherished by anyone who gives a damn about painting.

Untitled (Sole), Philip Guston, oil on panel, 12 in. x 16 in. (btw. 1969 and 1973). Photo McKee Gallery,

The marks are virtuoso: little hatches, wet into wet; swirls and smears; perfunctory dashes and blobs. Every stroke is direct, no-nonsense and unaffected; their aggregate conveys a feeling of honesty, authority and self-knowledge. The paintings, deceptively simple and generous despite exiguous means, radiate life. 


“The degree of intellectual honesty that is obligatory for me, by reason of my particular vocation, demands that my thought should be indifferent to all ideas without exception, including for instance materialism and atheism; it must be equally welcoming and equally reserved with regard to every one of them. Water is indifferent in this way to the objects that fall into it. It does not weigh them; they weigh themselves, after a certain time of oscillation.”

Simone Weil, Letter to S., Waiting for God, Perennial, 2001. Translated by Emma Craufurd.