One cannot overstate the extraordinary rarity of Philip Guston's The Street on the market and the excitement that it has generated since Christie's announced its sale at auction this May. Acquired by Ruth and Harvey Kaplan for what can still be considered a very bold purchase in 1959, the painting has not been on public exhibition since the early 1960s despite numerous loan requests.
The majority of seminal abstract paintings by Guston from the 1950s are almost all in museums or in collections which are unlikely to be sold. One has to go back nearly ten years to the sale of Beggar's Joy, 1954-55, at Christie's from the Collection of Boris Leavitt to find a picture of equivalent quality and importance as The Street.
Guston is often championed as the personification of an artist's artist; a painter who relentlessly and resolutely questioned the nature and mystery of the image-making process, regardless of whether that process led to representation or abstraction. His stubborn individualistic, and wholly honest approach saw him abandon his position as a relatively successful mural painter in the 1940s to pursue the more personal investigations of abstract painting; and then, even more controversially, in the 1970s, he seemed to willfully go against his own achievements as one of the leading forces of Abstract Expressionism by adopting a crude and aggressive figurative language.
For Guston, the power of abstract painting was derived from its essential mysteriousness, its conflicts and contradictions. He saw this as a consequence of what he considered art's lack of purity. "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually defined its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is "impure". It is the adjustment of "impurities" which forces painting's continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden." (cited in R.Storr, Philip Guston, New York, 1986, p. 34). For Guston, abstraction was a battle that involved constant negotiations - or as he stated, "a contest between a subject and the plastic forms it will result in."
The Street represents the zenith of Guston's achievement as a first-generation Abstract Expressionist painter in the pantheon alongside his childhood friend Jackson Pollock and his cohorts, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. It is one of a small body of nearly square-shaped paintings executed between 1952 and 1956, which include Painting, 1954 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), The Room, 1954-55 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and Dial, 1956 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Characterized by exquisite brushwork, centralized areas of amorphous shapes and brilliantly nuanced passages of fleshy color, it was these qualities that secured Guston's reputation as a dominant member of the New York School.
The composer, John Cage, described Guston's abstract paintings as "that beautiful land", as much for their sublime splendor as their organic structure and living presence. Lush sensuous clusters of brushstrokes shimmer on the surface of The Street. The richly impastoed reds, pinks and steely grays emerge in the center of the canvas from the hazy spaciousness of the loosely painted outer edges, with its hints of green. "Everything here is hushed and softened, the tender strokes of the brush are barely afloat; color is weightless, like odor; the picture is an after-image of a flower garden fading on the inside of closed lids." (L. Steinberg, Other Criteria, New York 1972, pp. 282-283).
Few artists have so actively and joyously used the color red as the principle emotional protagonist in their paintings as Philip Guston. Only Soutine and Bacon have matched the delicious and often meaty tones of Guston's red and pink. Soutine was a favorite of Guston, and one can see the living corporeal colors of The Street as the abstract cousin of Soutine's hanging carcasses. If red is life, passion and aggression, then Guston seems to revel in its visceral energy.
While "Action" paintings by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and de Kooning seem to have come into existence all at once, in a burst of creative energy and gesture, Guston's The Street evolved slowly, with deliberate overlapping and layering of strokes and the trembling, luminous intermingling of colors. "To paint is a possessing rather than a picturing," Guston wrote in 1956. "Usually I am on a work for a long stretch, until a moment arrives when the air of the arbitrary vanishes, and the paint falls into positions that feel destined." (cited in M. Mayer, Night Studio, New York 1988, p.63).
Guston saw painting as a wrestling contest with chaos. He looked to the example of Piet Mondrian to provide an inherent structure or framework for his abstractions, especially the latter's "plus and minus paintings", with their small counter-plays between vertical and horizontal marks. Guston similarly used clusters of short individual brushstrokes as the building blocks for pictures like The Street, mobilizing the massed forms in the centre of the canvas where color is the strongest and tensions are the most extreme. "Look at any inspired painting," Guston told a Time reporter in 1952. "It's like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation."
Guston had his pigments ground to create a particularly creamy consistency, so that each brushstroke could be squeezed against the canvas to create heavily veined impressions that were for him the fingerprints of a painter. Morton Feldman stated that "Guston and [Bradley Walker] Tomlin could talk for hours, I mean, hours, on what a single brushstroke meant - what was its character and where was it going." (cited in exh. cat., Modern Art Museum Fort Worth, Philip Guston Retrospective, 2003-2004, p. 39)
It was because of the shimmering facture of his surfaces, his tactile brushstrokes and the atmospheric presence of his forms that Guston was often called an "Abstract Impressionist" and his work compared to late Monet and Pissarro. But Guston himself had little affinity for the Impressionists. He was concerned with the process, with the formal drama of an unfolding image. He was not interested in directly recording his impressions of nature, but rather with creating a metaphysical reality of his own with paint and gesture: analogies of air and light and movement. "I recall a strong preoccupation with the forces of nature at work. Sky and earth, the inert and the moving, weights and gravities, the wind through the trees, resistances and flow." (cited in M. Mayer, Night Studio, New York 1988, p.62)
For Guston, painting is "an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see. I don't know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint? It might be things, thoughts, a memory, sensations, which have nothing to do directly with painting itself. They can come from anything and anywhere." (cited in exh. cat., Modern Art Museum Fort Worth, Philip Guston Retrospective, 2003-2004, p. 37)
Dore Ashton tells a story of a visit to Guston's studio by the composers Morton Feldman and John Cage. Confronted with the ethereal vision of one of Guston's abstract paintings, Cage exclaimed, "My God, it's possible to paint a magnificent picture about nothing." To which Feldman replied, "But, John, it's about everything." (D.Ashton, Yes, but A Critical Study of Philip Guston, New York 1976, pp.94-95)
Guston's title for The Street obviously provides a clear association of urban chaos to the bustling and energetic forms of the painting. It is interesting to compare Guston's abstract vision with his later figurative works which have the same title to understand his notion of the city. In The Street from 1977 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Guston shows a cluster of arms and stampeding booted feet in ugly street-warfare, where dust-bin covers are used as shields.
The Street from the Kaplan Collection was painted in the last great year of sensual abstraction for Guston. By 1957, his brushstrokes congeal into heavier masses and his palette becomes darker and more brooding. It was not until the return of his overt figuration after 1970 that Guston would again revel in the unabashed joy of reds and create paintings as strong and memorable as those of the mid 1950s.
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF RUTH AND HARVEY KAPLAN
A Life Well Lived: The Ruth and Harvey Kaplan Collection
It was my privilege to know Ruth Kaplan during her lifetime. For me, Ruth and Harvey Kaplan were part and parcel of that great generation of Chicagoans whose lives, both public and personal, defined a generation. They and their circle were civic, cultural and business leaders of a city which their forward thinking helped define. The great Mies van der Rohe follower and society architect Samuel Marx designed and decorated their first home. It was Marx, a board member of both The Art Institute of Chicago and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who helped them to begin to appreciate art; an appreciation which would result, years later, in a very private but world-class collection. During this time, they worked with such legendary dealers as Paul Rosenberg, buying Claude Monet's Le bassin de Nymphéas in 1956 for a princely sum of $31,500, Martin Jennings at M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., (Rufino Tamayo's Dicusion Acalorade) and Sam Salz Inc., (Claude Monet's La grève Fécamp).
Katherine Kuh, The Art Institute of Chicago's first Curator of Modern Painting and Sculpture, served as a consultant to the Kaplans in 1959-1960. Kuh opened up to them a new and younger group of artists and dealers; Sam Kootz (Giorgio Cavallon's Untitled), Fairweather Hardin Gallery (Philip Guston's The Street, a bold purchase) and Pierre Matisse from who they bought two Giacomettis; the extraordinary Femme Leoni and Portrait de Diego.
They bought pictures from their friend and business acquaintance LeighBlock, acquiring George Rouault's Carlotta. Block, one of Chicago's greatest collectors, whose legendary collection is on view in Chicago at both the Mary & Leigh Block Museum and The Art Institute of Chicago. Block was in the steel business, as was Harvey Kaplan, the industry which built and sustained Chicago for so many decades.
What is clear in all of their correspondence with dealers, advisors and curators is that they bought above all with their heart, and they gave back to the city which they grew up in and loved. When Ruth passed away, The Art Institute of Chicago was given the wonderful Le bassin de Nymphéas which she and Harvey had always wanted the
public to enjoy.
Guston was often requested for exhibitions by institutions such as The Museum of Modern Art, they rarely wanted to be without their pictures for lengthy periods. It is my pleasure to be able to share with today's collectors a small glimpse of these extraordinary people and the milieu in which they lived.
Chairman's Office, Christie's New York
Photography of Ruth and Harvey Kaplan (Barcode 23548671)
roperty from the Collection of Ruth and Harvey Kaplan
Signed and dated 'Philip Guston 56' (lower edge); signed again, titled and dated again 'PHILIP GUSTON "THE STREET" 1956' (on the reverse)
Minneapolis, Institute of Arts, American Paintings 1945-1957, p. 10, no. 60, June-September 1957.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Philip Guston, February-March 1958. Chicago, Fairweather-Hardin Gallery, 10th Anniversary Exhibition, 1959.
The Art Institute of Chicago, American Exhibition, December 1959-January 1960.
The Art Institute of Chicago, The Society for Contemporary American Art: 27th Annual Exhibition, April-May 1967.
76 x 71½ in. (193 x 181.6 cm.)
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Fairweather-Hardin Gallery, Chicago
Acquired from the above, 1959