Philip Guston

Black Sea


Philip Guston 1913–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1730 × 2970 mm
frame: 1780 × 3025 × 95 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

The heel of a shoe sits like an enigmatic monument above a green stretch of water. The shape of the heel is similar to forms depicted by Guston in his earlier abstract paintings. Guston did not define the meaning of his images and considered that each one held an array of different possible meanings. He said: 'When you paint things they change into something else, something totally unpredictable.'

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T03364 Black Sea 1977

Oil on canvas 68 1/8 × 117 (1730 × 2970)
Inscribed ‘Philip Guston’ b.r.
Purchased from David McKee Gallery, New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: New Paintings, New York, Hayward Gallery, May–June 1979 (not numbered); Philip Guston, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May–June 1980, Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, D.C., July–September 1980, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, November 1980–January 1981, Denver Art Museum, Colorado, February–April 1981, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June–September 1981 (82, repr. in col.); Philip Guston: Paintings 1969–80, Whitechapel Art Gallery, October–December 1982, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, January–February 1983, Kunsthalle, Basle, May–June 1983 (23, repr. in col.); Forty years of Modern Art, Tate Gallery, February–April 1986 (not numbered, repr. in col.)
Lit: Ross Feld, ‘Philip Guston. An Essay by Ross Feld’, Philip Guston, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1980, p.30, pl.72 in col.; John Clark, ‘Philip Guston and Metaphysical Painting’, Artscribe, 30, 1981, pp.24–5 (repr.); The Tate Gallery Illustrated Biennial Report 1982–84, p.57 (repr. in col.)

In 1970 Philip Guston exhibited a group of paintings at the Marlborough Gallery, New York which shocked the art world and which marked a radical departure from his previous Abstract Expressionist style. These and subsequent paintings, which seemed to owe much to the imagery of cartoons, have become known as the ‘late paintings’ and are often autobiographical. T03364 is a ‘late painting’ and was made in 1977 when Guston had achieved a maturer, more classical figurative style.

Guston's ‘conversion’ to figurative painting dates from 1968 when he began to paint images of hands, shoes, books and lamps on panel. Always deeply preoccupied with the difficulty of making paintings and particularly ‘pure’ paintings, he decided that he ‘wanted to tell stories’ (quoted in Norbert Lynton, ‘An Obverse Decorum’, Philip Guston: Paintings 1969–80, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1982, p.11). After an exhibition of recent paintings held at the Jewish Museum in 1966, Guston decided he:

wanted to go on and deal with concrete objects. I got stuck on shoes, shoes on the floor. I must have done hundreds of paintings of shoes, books, hands, buildings and cars, just everyday objects. And the more I did the more mysterious these objects became (‘Philip Guston Talking’, in the Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, p.52).

These became some of the stock items in the vocabulary of Guston's ‘late paintings’. The image of the shoe and the shoe heel were prolifically used by Guston in the ‘late paintings’ and the latter forms the central motif of ‘Black Sea’.

Guston had already used the shoe motif as early as 1947 in ‘Porch No.2’ (repr. San Francisco exhibition catalogue, pl.6 in col.) and, according to Ross Feld, ‘Guston was not alone among the Depression-developed painters in finding them usable and repeatable images’ (p.17). Furthermore the shoe heel shape is remarkably similar to some of the shapes Guston employed in his abstract paintings of the fifties.

In ‘Black Sea’ the heel of a shoe is located on the horizon of a sea which paradoxically is predominantly green. The painting is composed of two colour-fields, blue-pink and green-black. The shoe heel, which is largely pink with heavy black contours, is set centrally against the blue field at a slight angle and is painted illusionistically to suggest depth. By contrast the two colour-fields are painted in such a way as to suggest flatness. The configuration of the heel resembles the outline of the head of the artist's wife Musa as depicted in ‘Red Blanket’ of 1977 (repr. San Francisco exhibition catalogue, pl.70) and ‘Source’ (repr. ibid., pl.59 in col.), a painting of the previous year. ‘Source’ is considered to make reference to Piero's ‘Madonna de Parto’ (Roberta Smith, ‘The New Gustons’, Art in America, LXVI, January/February 1978, p.105). It is possible therefore that one of the intended references of ‘Black Sea’ is to the artist's wife.

In 1976 and 1977 Guston made several paintings in which objects were set on an horizon and where the breadth of the painting was emphasised by the juxtaposition of a compact form within a broadly formatted painting. It has been suggested by John Clark that this practice reflects Guston's long-held interest in films which are ‘strips of horizontally presented images’ (p.24). By 1976 Guston had begun to make greatly simplified images often containing only one form and painted in two or three predominant colours. The arrangement of colours in broad bands in ‘Black Sea’ may lend substance to Norbert Lynton's belief that Guston's last paintings are ‘monuments against Rothko, Still and Newman, or at any rate against the easy piety and ready greed they engender - sublime ripostes to their much vaunted sublimity’ (Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, p.14). Unlike the mature paintings of Rothko, however, Guston's application of paint is more vigorous and the brush marks themselves remain strongly visible. The broad vertical and horizontal brushstrokes, which are highly evident, assert the flatness of the picture surface and the breadth of the painting.

The subject of the sea was employed by Guston in a number of previous paintings, notably ‘Red Sea’ 1975 (part of a triptych, repr. San Francisco exhibition catalogue, pl.50a in col.), ‘Wharf’ 1976 (repr. ibid., pl.56 in col.), which depicts a black sea with green highlights, and ‘Source’ 1976, which may depict a river rather than a sea. With the exception of ‘Red Sea’, these works are clearly divided into colour fields in the manner of ‘Black Sea’ and depict motifs located on an horizon suggesting either the sinking or the rising of the object portrayed. Shoe heels and shoes are depicted in ‘Wharf’ but as part of a greater configuration of objects. ‘Black Sea’ is the only painting by Guston where one heel has been isolated and is one of only a few where a single object is depicted. The central location of the object is consistent with Guston's practice as an abstract painter in the fifties of centring forms within his paintings.

Although ‘Black Sea’ was acquired after the artist's death, David McKee stated that it was the painting that Guston wanted the Tate to own.

This entry has been approved by the artist's daughter, Musa Mayer.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986


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