Canada 1913 – United States of America 1980
Prospects 1964 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Following his return to New York in 1950, Guston became immersed in the fervour of art scene and was an active member of the 'Eight Street Club', which included artists such as Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. Guston is now recognised as one of the major figures of Abstract Expressionism and exhibited alongside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Rothko and others at the Sidney Janis Gallery in the late 1950s. In recognition of his contribution to American art during the previous decade, Guston received a mid-career retrospective at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1962. In 1966 a second major survey of the artist's work was held at The Jewish Museum, showing almost forty paintings completed between 1960 and 1965, including Prospects 1964, as well as a similar number of gouaches and pen and ink drawings.
Guston's exhibition at The Jewish Museum was conspicuous in its austerity, as through in the 1960s the artist had gradually expunged colour from his palette. This process is evident in the transition from Close-up III 1961,1 a painting in which grey and black predominate, yet small areas of blue, green and rust orange echo the principal colours used by Guston in the late 1950s. In the later New place 19642 the dominant monochromatic central field is surrounded by a warm pink halo, whilst in Prospects 1964, the artist's palette has finally been limited to only black and shades of grey.
In 1964 Guston explained his approach:
I use white and black pigment; white pigment is used to erase the black I don't want and becomes grey. Working with these restricted means as I do now, other things open up which are unpredictable, such as atmosphere, light, illusion - elements which do seem relevant to the image but have nothing to do with color.3
In a later conversation with Harold Rosenberg, reproduced in the catalogue for the artist's exhibition at The Jewish Museum, the artist expanded further:
… It began developing earlier, but in the last years there's been, obviously, no color. Simply black and white or gray and white, gray and black. I did this very deliberately, and I'll tell you why. Painting became more crucial to me. By "crucial" I mean that the only measure now was precisely to see whether it was really possible to achieve - to make this voyage, this adventure and to arrive at this release that we have been talking about without any seductive aids like color, for example. Now I've become involved in images and the location of those images, usually a single form, or a few forms. It becomes more important to me to simply locate the form … But this form has to emerge, to grow, out of the working of it, so there's a paradox. I like a form against a background - I mean, simply empty space - but the paradox is that the form must emerge from the background. It's not just executed there. You are trying to bring your forces, so to speak, to converge all at once into some point.4
Robert Storr observed that the struggle between figure and ground, which is apparent in Close-up III 1961, had by 1962 been resolved in the separation of the two.5 In Guston's paintings of the mid-1960s forms stand out against the background, usually occupying the centre of the canvas, as is the case with the principal squarish form and subsidiary fragments 'grouped' in Prospects. These identifiable features are reduced even further in 1965 to a single black form characterised by short brushstrokes in Air II 1965.6 Yet whilst the black elements in Prospects are pronounced, the intertwining of Guston's brushstrokes means that these features never fully disengage from the grey; they are distinguishable yet still grounded in the weave of the brushstrokes. The title Prospects suggests that at this time Guston was questioning which direction his work would take in the future. It is interesting to note that while there may appear a uniformity to his output particularly in 1964 and 1965, Guston's titles, which utilise words like 'portrait' or 'head' hint at a personification of the forms. Although not yet recognisable 'images', the titles perhaps reveal Guston's thoughts.
Reviews of Guston's 1966 exhibition were mixed, which is not surprising given the shifting artistic climate in New York. It should be noted that only two months after Guston's exhibition at The Jewish Museum, Primary Structures opened at that same venue, whilst later that year the seminal exhibition Systemic Painting was held at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which heralded the concerns of a new generation of painters.7
When first displayed at the National Gallery of Australia, Michael Desmond, then Curator of International Paintings and Sculptures, observed that Prospects 'marks a crisis point in Guston's career. This is part of the evolutionary moment between 1962 and 1968 in which he questioned the meaning and content of his work. The dark forms on grey background in this painting are coalescing into images, almost in spite of the artist … "doubt has form".'8 Between the end of 1965 and late 1967 Guston ceased painting, concentrating instead on drawing, a hiatus to solve the problems the artist faced. When he returned to painting Guston entered a new phase in his work.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010