PRINT January/February 2021

City Limits, 1969

Philip Guston, City Limits, 1969, oil on canvas, 77 × 103 1/4". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

FOR MANY YEARS, what bothered me most about Philip Guston’s City Limits, 1969, was that the red brush marks to the bottom right just stop. My eyes would trace the strokes using my mental hog-hair brush, and my enjoyment in imagining making those marks would halt with all the excitement still flowing freely, partnered by intermittent pangs of frustration.

I have stared for hours at the top right, where the scraped-down underpainted surface is visible; it reminds me of when, as a child, I would fall and scrape my knee, and my ashy-brown skin would be ripped away, revealing first white, then pink, then thickening and flowing bloodred. That patch of the canvas would have me reliving the stinging pain when the Band-Aid was removed and changed and the scabby gash disturbed.

I have wondered if the black slick of strokes under the tires are shadows or skid marks. I have given little time to the tower block, and in fact I have tried to ignore it because I have not liked or agreed with its placement in the midground, but the length of what, I think, is the last stroke at the bottom of the building has me curious about the lives of the inhabitants.

Philip Guston, Woodstock, NY, 1970. Photo: Frank Lloyd.

I have a large amount of trust in the signature because I enjoy the flow of the handwriting. It is painted with a brush that was dipped in paint that was more liquid at the time it was brushed on than the paint used to paint the painting—a much smaller brush, too. This reminds me of images I have seen of Guston making a pen-and-ink drawing and of how pleasurable and fluid the process looks, concentrated and relaxed.

I sometimes choose to see the wheels and black body of the car as eyes in a pair of binoculars staring out of the painting like a law-abiding urban bird-watcher on the edge of the city. The three Klansmen are cased in a TV-like vitrine with a rearview mirror, and we get to watch them and wonder about smoking in a car, smoking in an expressionless hood, knowing that under the hoods are vile examples of human beings and that Guston stopped painting the third one before its profile touched the horizon.

Somehow, the sun never sets in this painting, but also, no matter how long I stare at the horizon, the sun never rises to shed light on the dark slots of the eyeholes and windows.

Chris Ofili is an artist. He was born in the UK and is based in Trinidad.