PRINT January/February 2021

Untitled, 1964

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1964, oil on canvas, 66 × 76". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

“THE ARTIST SHOULD NOT WANT TO BE RIGHT,” Philip Guston said in 1960, when pressed to comment on Ad Reinhardt’s rules for pure art. With paintings such as Untitled, 1964, Guston put that ethos to work. The composition is mostly conspicuous revisions, a portrait of restless dissatisfaction.

He began by laying down a few daubs of deep red on the bottom third of the canvas. Then he smeared it with white paint in a procedure he sometimes referred to as “erasing.” Were it truly an erasure, however, no trace of the previous color would remain; but in Untitled, we see the smooth ribbons of pink with which the artist pulled the red away from itself. (Just a few abbreviated passages of crimson peek through as evidence of the initial color’s once-powerful presence.) Here, gesture is the residue of the not-quite-right, the leftover of things tried and rejected. Next, Guston tamped down the pink by brushing in a region of black, the sketchy remnants of which are visible near the bottom, slightly to the right of the painting’s central axis. He again performed an act of “erasure,” tugging at the edges of that black region with white paint to work up a loose grid of brushstrokes in penal gray. Remarkably, the black shape made a gradual trek upward. As Guston noted in his comments about paintings such as Untitled, he had grayed out one part of the black region only to paint more black on a different edge, slowly pushing the shape around the canvas and leaving the smudgy remains of the process in its wake, until he was, in his words, able to “locate the form.”

“Locating the form” could be mistaken for a slogan by Michael Fried, akin to Kenneth Noland’s project of “discovering the center” with circles that anchored a composition to the physical parameters of a rectangular canvas. But paintings such as Guston’s Untitled work in the opposite way; they drain all the confidence from compositional problem-solving that the deductive structure and other devices of mid-1960s formalism promised. The form Guston located in Untitled is a squarish shape that has slumped to a point above and to the right of center—a spot of debatable necessity. Smaller dark forms near the square might be read virtually as shadows or reflections, or they could be understood materially as the dark residue of previous, failed locations that were incompletely erased. Everything hovers amid the almost-grid of vertical and horizontal revisions—brushstrokes that occasionally recall Mondrian’s “plus and minus” compositions, only to veer off course. Resting on precedent will not satisfy; the rigors of modernist tradition seem too easy. Nor will painting be reduced to citationality via campy performances of “brushstrokes”; at the same time, as the similarity among Guston’s canvases of the mid-’60s suggests, there will be no delusion of pure originality, freedom, or authenticity. Instead, this painting offers an allegory on the ethical life: a life that does not take for granted the simple goal of “being right,” but rather leans into the more complex, and certainly more human, task of understanding where one might go wrong.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at Pennsylvania State University.