Philip GUSTON | Prospects

Canada 1913 – United States of America 1980
to United States of America 1919

Prospects 1964 oil on canvas
signed l.r., grey oil, "Philip Guston", signed, dated and inscribed verso, oil, "Philip Guston / "Prospects" 1964"
179.5 (h) x 205.0 (w) cm
Framed 1807 (h) x 2061 (w) x 60 (d) cm Gift of American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, Inc., New York, NY, USA, made possible with the generous support of Musa Guston, 1992. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1993.495

  • collection of the artist;
  • by inheritance to Musa Guston, the artist's widow;
  • bequest of the Estate of Musa Guston, through the American Friends of the Australian National Gallery, to the National Gallery of Australia, April 1993
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013
  • Michael Desmond, ‘Rehanging the galleries: The return of modern art’, National Gallery News, March–April 1994, p. 7;
  • artonview no. 33, Autumn 2003, p. 49, illus. col.

Following his return to New York in 1950, Guston became immersed in the fervour of the art scene and was an active member of the ‘Eight Street Club’, which included artists such as Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. He had a mid-career retrospective at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1962 and a second major survey was held at The Jewish Museum, New York, 1966.

Prospects 1964 was shown at The Jewish Museum. The exhibition broughout together almost forty paintings completed between 1960 and 1965, and was conspicuous in its austerity. During the 1960s the artist gradually expunged colour from his palette,[1] and for Prospects he limited his palette to black and shades of grey only. Guston explained his approach:

I use white and black pigment; white pigment is used to erase the black I don’t want and becomes grey. Working with these restricted means as I do now, other things open up which are unpredictable, such as atmosphere, light, illusion—elements which do seem relevant to the image but have nothing to do with color.[2]

Robert Storr observed that by 1962 the struggle between figure and ground had been resolved in the separation of the two.[3] In Guston’s paintings of the mid 1960s, forms stand out against the background and usually occupy the centre of the canvas, as is the case with the principal squarish form and subsidiary fragments ‘grouped’ in Prospects[4]. In Prospects, while the black elements are pronounced, the intertwining of Guston’s brushstrokes means that these features never fully disengage from the grey; they are distinguishable yet still grounded in the weave of the brushstrokes. The title Prospects suggests that at this time the artist was contemplating the direction his work would take in the future. While there may appear a uniformity to his output, particularly in 1964 and 1965, his titles, which utilise words such as ‘portrait’ or ‘head’, hint at a personification of the forms. Although not yet necessarily recognisable as ‘images’, the titles hint at Guston’s thoughts.

Reviews of Guston’s 1966 exhibition were mixed, not surprising given the shifting artistic climate in New York.[5] When Prospects was first shown at the National Gallery of Australia, Michael Desmond observed that the painting marked ‘a crisis point in Guston’s career’:

This is part of the evolutionary moment between 1962 and 1968 in which he questioned the meaning and content of his work. The dark forms on grey background in this painting are coalescing into images, almost in spite of the artist … ‘doubt has form’.[6]

Between the end of 1965 and late 1967, Guston ceased painting, concentrating instead on drawing as a means of solving the problems that he faced as an artist. When he returned to painting, Guston entered a new phase in his work.

Steven Tonkin

[1] This process is evident in a transitional work such as Close-up III 1961 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a painting in which grey and black predominate, while small areas of blue, green and rust-orange echo the principal colours used by Guston in the late 1950s. In New place 1964 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) the dominant monochromatic central field is surrounded by a warm pink halo.

[2] William Berkson, ‘Dialogue with Philip Guston, November 1, 1964’, Art and literature: An international review 7, Winter 1965, p. 56, quoted in Robert Storr, Philip Guston, New York: Abbeville Press 1986, pp. 42–43. In a later conversation with Harold Rosenberg, the artist expanded: “It began developing earlier, but in the last years there’s been, obviously, no colour. Simply black and white or gray and white, gray and black. I did this very deliberately, and I’ll tell you why. Painting became more crucial to me. By ‘crucial’ I mean only the measure now was precisely to see whether it was really possible to achieve – to make this voyage, his adventure and to arrive at the release that we have been talking about without any seductive aids like color, for example.… .’ Quoted in ‘Philip Guston’s object: A dialogue with Harold Rosenberg’, in Philip Guston: Recent paintings and drawings, New York: The Jewish Museum 1966, pp. [9–10]; quoted in Dore Ashton, Yes, but … a critical study of Philip Guston, New York: The Viking Press 1976, pp. 132–133.

[3] Robert Storr, Philip Guston, New York: Abbeville Press 1986, pp. 42–43

[4] These identifiable features are reduced even further too a single black form characterised by short brushstrokes in Air II 1965 (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven).

[5] It should be noted that only two months after his exhibition at The Jewish Museum, Primary structures opened at the same venue, and later that year the seminal exhibition Systemic painting was held at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, both heralding the concerns of a new generation of artists; see discussions in Ashton 1976, pp. 133–135, Storr 1986, p. 43

[6] Michael Desmond, ‘Rehanging the galleries: The return of modern art’, National Gallery News, March–April 1994, p. 7.

The National Gallery of Australia holds three paintings by Guston, Prospects 1964, Bad habits 1970 and Pit 1976; three drawings, City1969, Heads, easel and book 1975, andKey 1980; two lithographs 1966; as well as a set of eight lithographs from 1980.