Group I was made during a two-year period when Guston had virtually abandoned his painting practice and worked almost entirely in the medium of drawing. Having worked exclusively in abstraction for almost twenty years, the drawings Guston made around this period mark the beginning of his return to figuration. His style changed dramatically during this time and his later figurative paintings have the characteristics of drawings in paint. Here Guston’s crude black lines, rendered in charcoal, describe five hooded figures sitting in a group. These Ku Klux Klan-type figures, which had first featured in a much earlier work, Drawing for Conspirators 1930 (Collection Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), appear as protagonists in many of Guston’s works of this period. The hooded figure represents both the artist himself, hooded and disguised, shrinking from the self-revelatory nature of artistic expression, and the evils of contemporary society. Explaining these figures, Guston later said:
‘They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind the hood. In the new series of ‘hoods’ my attempt was really not to illustrate, to do pictures of the Ku Klux Klan, as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me [...] I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot.’ (Guston quoted in Philip Guston Paintings 1969-1980, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1982, p. 54.)
The public response to these works when first exhibited was largely negative. To an audience enamored with Guston’s earlier lyrical abstract paintings (see, for example, The Return 1956-8, Tate T00252), these crudely realised figurative pieces were considered to be vulgar caricatures. Indeed, the works arose out of Guston’s long-standing interest in comics and their narrative possibilities.
Although represented in a group, the figures here retain an insular quality, as though each is alone in thought, and the apparent crudeness of the drawing’s execution exacerbates the neurotic quality of the image. While the Klan hoods suggest an ominous and threatening presence, the group appears as passive and contemplative, reflecting the concern with human relations that was to inform many of Guston’s later works.
Magdalena Dabrowski, The Drawings of Philip Guston, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988, reproduced p.106.
Robert Storr, Philip Guston, 1986, reproduced p.112.
Philip Guston: Drawings 1947-1977, exhibition catalogue, David McKee Gallery, New York, 1977, reproduced, unpaginated.