Philip Guston

Head I


Philip Guston 1913–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1828 × 1981 × 30 mm
frame: 1865 × 1995 × 55 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of a private collector 1996

Display caption

A dark shape, suggestive of a head, emerges from a grey background. Guston referred to this and other paintings made in the early 1960s as ‘dark pictures’ and also as ‘erasures’. As he explained, ‘I use white pigment and black pigment. The white pigment is used to erase the black I don’t want and so becomes grey. Working with these restricted means as I do now, other things open up which are unpredictable, such as atmosphere, light, illusion - elements which do seem relevant to the image but have nothing to do with colour.’

Gallery label, July 2012

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of plain-weave, medium-weight linen fabric that was stretched around a softwood expandable stretcher and attached with wire staples at the edges and rear. The canvas was probably commercially prepared, which would consist of an initial unpigmented animal glue size layer, followed by a white oil-based primer. The white background visible around all edges of the image is the (uncovered) white priming layer.

The paint is all oil paint and the palette was extremely limited: mainly greys and black, but with the occasional use of a light 'cobalt' blue and a deep 'cadmium' red. All areas appear reasonably medium rich (i.e. they have a high gloss), are primarily opaque and were probably used straight from tube. The paint was vigorously applied to the primed canvas using a wide brush and bold vertical and horizontal brush strokes. Much of the paint would have been applied in a single sitting, with many areas of paint worked wet-in-wet into the paint beneath, although there are also many areas where such blending into underlying colours has not occurred. The central black 'head' area was applied last, but certainly before the underlying grey layers had completely dried: some of the outer strokes are clearly blended. The inner strokes of black were often applied as slightly thicker applications, although in all areas the impasto has held reasonably well. The area of paint splashes and drips seen in the lower part of the work further suggest the vigorous nature of paint application. The painting was not varnished and the mahogany coloured wooded L-section frame is probably original.

The painting and frame are in very good condition, despite a few minor damages to the white priming. Care must also be taken to prevent the white background being marked by fingerprints etc. However, assuming the appropriate level of care is maintained the painted image should remain in this excellent state.

Tom Learner
August 2000

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