Night Room by Philip Guston held pride of place in the exhibition of Gerald Elliott's Contemporary Art collection at the Art Institute of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1990, a tacit acknowledgement of the significant impact of Guston's work and personality on the collector. in the 1970s, Ellioitt's collection bore the traditional imprint of Abstract Expressionism and its highlights included Guston's 1955 painting Attar. Through the artist's dealers David and Renee McKee, Elliott met Guston at the height of his creative powers and after his self-realized transformation from abstraction back to figuration. Always an eloquent proponent of the important connections between human and artistic freedom, Guston was an enormous influence on Elliott who began a serious study of art history and developed a new desire to collect art reflective of the human condition of the moment. By the early 1980s, the highly expressive content and subject matter in Guston's late paintings inspired Elliott's appreciation of the emotive immediacy and metaphorical potential of figurative art. As noted by Neal Benezra in his essay for the 1990 exhibition, Elliott dismantled his Abstract Expressionist collection over ten years and one of the first works to be sold was Guston's Attar, which was replaced first by The Wharf (1978) and then by Night Room (1976) which he purchased in 1982. This shift in direction within Elliott's prestigious collection coincided with the 1980s movements that also honored the traditional power of figuration, and on the larger stage of the art world, Guston's late work such as Night Room held as pivotal a place among artists as it did in the Elliott Collection.
Guston had shocked his contemporaries in the mid-1960s when he abandoned his Abstract Expressionist style, so beloved by critics and artists alike for its shimmering brushwork and delicate tonal refinement. Disillusioned with abstract modernist art, Guston returned to his early interest in figurative and narrative subjects, and with mature confidence in his unique gesture and energetic painterly textures, forged ahead to create profoundly personal works that examine the condition of the painter in 20th Century society. Guston's brave and lone return to figuration at the time stood as a beacon to artists of later decades who celebrate image painting and its power to reflect the environment and issues of its time. The painters of the 1970s and 1980s movements, such as New Image Art and Neo-Expressionism, viewed Guston as a kindred spirit.
Night Room is a quintessential expression of Guston's mature late style, with its palette of grays, black, and reds, highlighted often by green. The light feathery touch that was so apparent in the paint strokes of his abstract works of the 1950s is now broader in application, but no less nuanced or sensual. In the paintings of the 1970s and 1980s, hooded figures, disembodied heads and shoes represent the artist's presence, recurring throughout various works like a revolving cast of characters in a shifting narrative. The shoes with nailed soles are an alter ego which Guston arranged in clusters along a silent, bleak and endless horizon or on a steeply raking floor. The shoe had appeared as early as the advent of his figurative genre when he depicted the objects around him on small square pink backgrounds. ``I knew I wanted to go on and to deal with concrete objects. I got stuck on shoes, shoes on the floor. I must have done hundreds of paintings of shoes, books, hands, buildings and cars, just everyday objects. And the more I did the more mysterious these objects became. The visible world is abstract and mysterious enough, I don't think one needs to depart from it in order to make art.'' (Exh. Cat., Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Philip Guston: the Late Works, 1994, pp. 54-55). In the larger canvases of the 1970s, certain images were transformed into stand-ins for the artist that embodied the conflict and self-discovery that played out within the frontally compacted world of Guston's compositions. As noted by Edward Fry, ``Shoes became yet a third alter ego, displaced image of selfhood. They gather in strange clusters, legs, knees tangling together in silent hordes... Guston depicts them with a style that is not a style, a homely almost caricatural style that renders each image at once both clearly recognizable yet also clothed in a fresh and unforgettable strangeness, as though one were rediscovering one's own world.'' (Ibid., p. 19-20)
The furor of public and critical response to Guston's new style encouraged his isolation in his Woodstock, New York studio which mirrored the foreshortened interior spaces of works like Night Room, just as the somber palette and prevalence of black hints at the artist's struggle with brooding introspection over the duality of nature: good and evil, hope and despair within a single individual. Guston had succeeded in allowing his whole self to enter his artistic enterprise, and the faint whimsy of his objects and figures rest uncomfortably over deeper meanings or what he referred to as ``impurity''. In addition to possible affinities with comic and graphic artists such as R. Crumb, Guston's shoes and legs have other possible meanings of starker import: mounds of war victims or his brother who had died of gangrene when his legs were crushed in an automobile accident. Blunt and tender, coarse and sophisticated, funny and ominous, the shoes and whip of Night Room epitomize Guston's new style and his triumphantly brave yet arduous search for a truthful expression of humanity.
Oil on canvas
Sao Paulo, XVI Bienal Internacionale de Sao Paulo; Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno; Guadalajara, Centro de Arte Moderno amd Bogota, Museo de Arte Moderno, Philip Guston: Sus Ultimos Anos, October 1981- August 1982, cat. no. 9, p. 17, illustrated in color (organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)
Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Affinities and Institutions: Selections from the Gerald Elliott Collection, May - July 1990, cat. no. 51, pl. 64, p. 108, illustrated in color
80 x 69 in. 203.2 x 175.3 cm.
Chicago Public Library Cultural Center, Contemporary Italian Masters, 1984, p. 10, illustrated
David McKee Gallery, New York
Gerald S. Elliott, Chicago (acquired from the above in 1982)
Vivian Horan Fine Art, New York (acquired from the above)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1993