Philip Guston

The Return


Not on display
Philip Guston 1913–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1781 x 1991 mm
frame: 1814 x 2017 x 50 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1959


The Return is an abstract painting comprising a background of mainly pale blues and pinks on which are rendered areas of darker blue, browns, greys, green, red and black. These stronger colours form a centralised cluster of irregular shapes which appear to jostle on the canvas, and although the image is largely non-figurative the artist has invoked the presence of forms, possibly figures in a crowd. The effect of movement is enhanced by the bold colours and the short, visible brushstrokes, resulting in colour seeming to flicker across the canvas. The direction in which the paint has been applied varies across the canvas surface and adds a structural dimension to the picture, while the gestural effects of the brushstrokes demonstrate the physicality of creating the image. The use of paler hues from which the darker ones emerge is suggestive of hazy, diffuse light or the way in which colour fades in a landscape scene as it recedes.

This painting was made by the American artist Philip Guston in New York in 1956–8. The oil paint has been applied in various thicknesses of opaque colour across the canvas. Some areas of paint were applied while the preceding layer remained wet: in places this has resulted in colours showing through one another, creating a sense of luminosity, while in others they are combined to produce another shade, as is the case with some of the murky greys in the central cluster of shapes. In certain areas the paint has been scraped away and around the outer edges of the composition the canvas is visible.

The Return was first shown in 1959 in the exhibition 8 American Painters at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, alongside work by other abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. During the 1950s Guston was considered one of the leading exponents of abstract expressionism, although his use of colour and his painting techniques, such as his short brushstrokes that were often suggestive of shimmering light, also saw some of his earlier work from this period being labelled as ‘abstract impressionist’ – a term used by the art critic Louis Finkelstein to describe artists including Guston in a 1956 article for Art News (see Louis Finkelstein, ‘New Look: Abstract-Impressionism’, Art News, vol.55, no.1, March 1956, pp.36–9, 66–8). Guston disputed this, citing his interest in a painterly exploration of the canvas surface rather than the representation of light, and stating in 1960: ‘I know there’s some existence on this imaginary plane which holds almost all [the] fascination of painting for me’ (quoted in Lawrence Alloway, ‘Notes on Guston’, Art Journal, vol.22, no.1, Autumn 1962, p.10).

Guston’s earlier work was not only figurative and highly detailed, but often political in nature (see, for instance, Bombardment 1937–8, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia). His move towards abstraction can be charted from the mid-1940s, when he began to simplify figures in works such as Porch No 2 1947 (Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, New York) and to paint dark, abstract forms (see The Tormentors 1948, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco). Although later works such as The Return saw Guston’s further movement towards abstraction, his painted shapes were often suggestive of actual objects and individuals situated in space, and the paintings’ titles continued to refer to specific subjects. On seeing Guston’s work in Berlin in 1999, the painter Georg Baselitz described it as ‘not that abstract’, concluding that it was ‘a distortion of the abstract, full of concrete form’ (quoted in Auping 2006, p.45).

Guston told Tate in 1960 that he considered the forms in The Return to be representative of human figures who had been away and were now returning (Alley 1981, p.346). The artist’s later works saw a much more explicit return to figuration, one that was fully realised by the late 1960s with the introduction of his sinister, cartoon-like characters in paintings such as The Studio 1969 (private collection) and Cornered 1971 (Tate T04885).

Further reading
Dore Ashton, A Critical Study of Philip Guston, Berkeley 1976.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.346, reproduced p.346.
Michael Auping (ed.), Philip Guston: Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas 2006.

Lucinda Towler
December 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Display caption

Guston was an important abstract expressionist painter in the 1950s, who controversially returned to figurative work in the late 1960s. His early abstract paintings were composed of shimmering combinations of short vertical and horizontal brushstrokes in pinks, reds and blues. Discussing The Return, Guston said that he saw the forms in the picture as being like figures who had been away for some time and who were now returning - jostling each other a little as they came.

Gallery label, July 2012

Catalogue entry

Philip Guston 1913-1980

T00252 The Return 1956-8

Inscribed 'Philip Guston' b.l.
Oil on canvas, 70 1/8 x 78 3/8 (178 x 199)
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1959
Prov: Friends of the Tate Gallery (purchased from the artist through the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York)
Exh: 8 American Painters, Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, January 1959 (4, repr.); Philip Guston, Guggenheim Museum, New York, May-July 1962 (56, repr.); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, September-October 1962 (53); Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, January-February 1963 (56, repr.); Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, March 1963 (53); Los Angeles County Museum, May-June 1963 (56, repr.)
Repr: Horizon, II, No.2, 1959, p.34 in colour; Ronald Alley, Recent American Art (London 1969), pl.6; Terry Measham, The Moderns 1945-1975 (Oxford 1976), pl.18 in colour

Philip Guston told the compiler in 1960 that the title had an associative flavour for him, though he did not wish it to be too specific. He thought of the forms in this picture as being like figures who had been away for some time and who were now returning - jostling each other a little as they came.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.346, reproduced p.346


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