How many artists working today haven’t looked to Philip Guston (1913–1980) for inspiration? Late in his career, the consummate Abstract Expressionist abandoned abstraction for figuration (which he had engaged with early on, employed by the WPA), the ultimate betrayal to his New York School peers and Ab-Ex devotees—but an encouraging sign for painters who yearn to cast off stagnant styles. As Roberta Smith wrote in a 1978 issue of this magazine, “In some ways . . . [Guston] is a young artist again—perhaps younger than ever before. His recent paintings have the peculiar cautionless indulgence of someone who has just found his artistic identity, and with that, an incredible amount of energy.” At the cavernous Hauser & Wirth space in Chelsea, 36 paintings and 53 drawings dating from 1957 to 1967 reveal the artist at the cusp of his foray into figuration. Abstract compositions feature heavy black clouds—a skull, a car?—floating atop layered grounds in his signature grays, pinks, and reds. Shots of periwinkle and mint green, easy to look over, add exuberance to these muddy canvases. In a far room, symmetrical rows of minimal charcoal and ink drawings on paper seem to prefigure the “slacker aesthetic”—they are strikingly similar to recent output by contemporary figures like Joe Bradley—though Guston was nothing if not deliberate, as seen in the thoughtful and meditative works here. —Julia Wolkoff
Pictured: Philip Guston: Painter III, 1963, oil on canvas, 66 by 79 inches. © Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, New York.