Philip Guston (1913–80), we are told, began thinking of himself as an artist when he was about fourteen. In his twenties and early thirties, his politically charged social-realist murals, portraits, and ambiguous groups of children playing at war won him attention and acclaim. But in 1947–48, Guston began to abandon recognizable imagery for abstraction, experimenting first with blurred geometry, then with fraying, all-over webs that questioned the very nature of painting, and finally with muscular expanses that wrestled near-primary colors up through lava fields of grays. Always restless and, at some level, always dissatisfied, around 1960 he began to step back from these tough, compelling works as well, stripping drawing and painting down to essentials. In his last decade, he shocked the art world by returning to figuration with gorgeously painted, bitterly funny, angst-laden narratives and pitiless...


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