Philip Guston



Not on display

Philip Guston 1913–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2032 × 2921 mm
frame: 2082 × 2987 × 64 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of a private collector 1996


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).

Further reading
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.

Jo Kear
September 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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Technique and condition

The picture is painted on a commercially primed linen canvas, which is made from linen thread, of a plain weave giving a smooth finish. It's priming is a cool off white, applied in a smooth, even layer.

Guston's preferred practice of tacking up a canvas on the wall, I never paint on an easel, is confirmed in this painting by the old staple marks on the canvas edges, now folded round the back of the stretcher, and the dripped paint marks along the bottom tacking edge. Ruled pencil marks are also evident in places on the tacking edges, indicating the rectangle the artist worked within very precisely.

The three main layers of oil paint varied in density and viscosity. For the first layer he took a thinned down opaque grey mixture and applied it largely unmodulated to the drawn out rectangle, as a sort of undercoat. The design began to emerge with the second painting. Painted predominantly in black and two shades of pinky red, the paint was applied thickly but fluidly with broad brushes. For this final layer he extended his range of colours to include an orange, green, blue and white which he applied vigorously using a variety of broad and narrow brushes often intermixing the colours as he worked wet in wet across the whole canvas. Although rich in medium, the crisp brushstrokes have retained their original definition, suggesting that the medium contains a quick drying additive.

When examined microscopically, all the colours appear to be of the same type of paint, the only anomaly being 'microballoons' which are present most noticeably in the white lines, where they are visible as minute pimples. Other areas with large admixtures of white, for example the dark grey brushstrokes around the hat and the greenish tones at the centre top, also contain them. Whether they are a constituent of the white paint or of a proprietary impasto medium is not known. Their function seems either to give bulk or texture to the paint.

When the painting was touch dry, it was stretched onto it's existing wooden stretcher using wire staples to attach it.

The general condition of the painting is good with the exception of a few minor damages. Most noticeable are some long, matt lines and patches. Embedded in the flattened surface of these areas are brown paper fibres, probably from a facing used from stretching. On acquisition minor painting losses were restored. The canvas was stretcher lined and a new frame similar in design to other Philip Guston's of the same period was fitted before display. The painting is not varnished.

Rica Jones
August 1996


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