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24 x 26 1/2 in. 61 x 67.3 cm.
signed; signed, titled and dated 1969 on the reverse
oil on panel
David McKee, Inc., New York
The Grenoble Collection, New York
Sotheby's, New York, October 1, 1985, lot 43
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Discourse, from 1969 is a pivotal example of Guston's controversial return to figurative painting, which proved to herald the reemergence of the figure in American art of the 1970s and 1980s. In the mid-1960's Guston shocked the art world by abandoning his acclaimed Abstract Expressionist style. He moved permanently to Woodstock, New York in 1967, isolating himself from the New York City art scene. During this period, he first concentrated on drawings rather than paintings, using their improvisatory sketchiness to work toward new aesthetic ideas. When he returned to painting again in 1968, the paintings depicted simple, everyday objects singly against pink backgrounds. By 1969, Guston progressed to barren interiors with hooded figures, often as references to himself and the role of the painter.
As in Discourse, Guston's figures are frontally placed in a compressed spatial interior, as evidenced by the flattened pale pink and grey division of floor and wall in the present work. Within this heightened, weighty atmosphere, the hooded Klansman reenters the artist's work, singly and in pairs, becoming one of his most important recurring themes. Guston had portrayed Klansmen in the 1930s as politically charged figures of oppression after his paintings were vandalized in an exhibition. While these images are recycled subject matter, Guston now sought to explore himself and his relationship to the world around him. Guston stated, "They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind the hood....The Idea of evil fascinated me... What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot." (Robert Storr, Phillip Guston, New York, 1986, p.56) In Discourse, the hooded figure smoking a cigar is the more likely surrogate for the artist, since his other surrogate images, such as a large head with staring eye, also display the artist's smoking habit. In Discourse, the two hooded figures, one pointing off into the unseen interior, are captured in intimate, almost conspiratorial conversation, conveying a subtle sense of mystery.