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Philip Guston
Room, 1976
Oil on canvas
203.2 × 254.1 × 2.8 cm
Purchased 1999
© Courtesy McKee Gallery and the Estate of Philip Guston, New York

Room belongs to the last, great, figurative period of the American painter Philip Guston. Like his other late works, it is dark in tone, a witness to the inner drama of the painter struggling with his personal demons as well as to conflicts played out on the social and political stage.

Guston had been one of the leading abstract painters of his generation, praised for the lyrical colour and sensitive brushwork of his canvases of the 1950s. Gradually, he no longer found pure, abstract painting sufficient. He eloquently expressed his dilemma: "When the 1960s came along, I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am l, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"

In his reaction against "pure" painting, Guston sought not only different subjects, but a new, impure, painterly language. He traded refined abstraction for a crude, violent, and simplified style that expressed his anger and despair. Studio motifs - suggesting his late-night vigils - alternate with desolate landscapes peopled with grotesque characters.

In Room, violence erupts on the surface. On the narrow stage of the canvas are the emblems of oppression and suffering: a fist wielding a bloody baton, a tangled heap of truncated legs. The "room" of the title is a domestic space, indicated by a small green rug, banal evidence of evil. The scene, in its claustrophobic darkness, is a long way from the abstract space of an earlier painting of the same title, finished in 1955, where "room" seems to conjure notions of freedom, space, and possibility.

Theatrical without being narrative, Guston's late paintings stage the painter's quest in both autobiographical and archetypal terms. Though fraught with doubt, they are a vigorous response to the question of what it is to be human in difficult times.