In his powerful paintings Phillip Guston created a signature style of cartoonish figures and icons awash with social and political symbolism, and is recognised as one of most important post-war American artists. Earlier in his career Guston’s was as a member of the Abstract Expressionist circle in 1950s New York, but by the 1960s he had grown sceptical of pure abstraction. By 1968, in reaction to the social turmoil in the US at the time, he controversially renounced abstraction in favour of a figurative mode that included images of light bulbs, boots, Richard Nixon, cigarettes and clocks.
Born to Jewish immigrants, Guston grew up in Los Angeles at a time of a pronounced Ku Klux Klan presence, and in his paintings of the 1970s Guston addressed head-on the racism that runs deep in America. Figures in pointed white hoods, often chuffing cigars, holding paint brushes or driving cars, became a central motif in his work. The horrifying and the banal was brought together in these works, and Guston was clear that they acted in-part as self-portraits, reflecting his unease at a sense of being complicit in the actions of the society in which he lived.
The Canvas (1973) is absent of the more absurd cartoonish figures, and instead employs a limited palette. In this wry anthropomorphic comment on the utility and possible redundancy of art – or perhaps the deeply human urge to make images – a fleshy and chunky pink canvas, casually leans against a grey brick walk like an abandoned mattress, its single eye staring into the distance.