Hat is a painting by the American artist Philip Guston. It is a large, landscape-format work that depicts a wide-brimmed hat in a space otherwise dominated by two horizontal areas of black and pinkish-red broken up by freely drawn lines. The hat, which is small relative to the rest of the space, sits roughly in the middle of the composition on a lined surface that resembles a brick wall or wooden fence. The pale lines in the black space above it and the black lines in the pinkish section below echo each other, visually uniting the two sections of the work. The hat bridges these sections, becoming the viewer’s object of focus.
Guston made Hat in his studio in Woodstock, New York, in 1976. He created it by painting on a linen canvas tacked to a wall. The work contains three layers of oil paint: the first is an opaque grey mixture, which functions as an undercoat, over which Guston used broad brushstrokes to apply the prominent black and pinkish-red layers. While this second layer was still wet, Guston applied a wider range of colours (orange, green, blue and white) on top of it using broad and narrow brushes, mixing the colours. The artist has signed the work at the bottom-right of the canvas.
In 1986 the art critic and curator Robert Storr observed a recurring compositional format running through Guston’s post-1970 works, stating that ‘usually the scene is set by a simple horizontal division of the canvas, each half dominated by a single hue – most often blue or black opposite red or roseate greys – and the resulting space is almost closed off by the density of pigment and colour’ (Storr 1986, p.66). With its dark top section and thinner reddish band at the base of the image, the composition of Hat conforms to Storr’s description. The space Guston has created in the work is dominated by the presence of colour and the thick layers of paint. Storr goes on to conclude of Guston’s works of this period that ‘their atmosphere is … heavy and airless’ (Storr 1986, p.66). This description could also be applied to Hat, in which the absence of scale and the indistinct setting of the image creates a disorientating sense of space. Guston often painted individual objects embedded within such closed spaces, as can be seen in his firm placement of the hat on the ‘horizon’. A similar composition can be seen in Red Sky 1978 (Collection of Mr and Mrs Gerald Lennard, Wainscott, New York), in which a row of paint cans filled with brushes sits on the intersection between the red upper and black lower sections of the canvas.
Storr observed further that the wide range of objects Guston depicts in his paintings were inspired by the artist’s own experiences and memories, as well as ‘the everyday objects that surrounded him, the things that filled [his] work were painted on small panels as “statements of fact” before being incorporated into larger works, where they became the nouns, verbs and punctuation of his stories’ (Storr 1986, p.66). This refers to a 1980 interview in which Guston commented that he was attracted to the simplicity of depicting these objects: ‘there can be nothing more startling than a simple statement of fact, in a certain form’ (quoted in Storr 1986, p.66). In Hat, the work’s title draws attention to the central object in the picture, presented without elaborate detail and matching the overall colour scheme but with enough clarity to constitute a ‘statement of fact’.
By 1976 the cartoon-like treatment of Hat had become an established style in Guston’s work. This style had proved controversial when he had first revealed it in 1970 at an exhibition of thirty-three paintings and eight drawings at the Marlborough Gallery, New York, for which the majority of reviews were highly negative or expressed confusion about the new direction Guston had taken. For Guston, however, this new style (and to some extent his return to figuration) offered him the chance of greater freedom than was allowed by abstract expressionism, as he explained in 1970: ‘I got sick of all that Purity! Wanted to tell Stories’ (quoted in Storr 1986, p.52).
Robert Storr, Philip Guston, New York 1986.
William Corbett, Philip Guston’s Late Work: A Memoir, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1994, reproduced p.79.
Michael Auping, Philip Guston: Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth 2003.
Supported by Christie’s.