Philip Guston: Late Works is a relatively slim book, but sometimes small books help to focus your attention.
In this case, there are a few pages that, on their own, merit the entire monograph.
These panels, made over the course of five years, hung together on Guston’s wall in his home studio. It’s useful to see them together on a page as well.
Each painting is an isolated still-life, but when assembled, the panels become a kind of dictionary — a key to the images that are repeated in his more complex compositions. Here we find the shoe-soles and picture frames, the coffee cups and cigars, the brick walls and windows.
In 1999, the McKee Gallery in New York showed 45 of these small oils. The entire collection is not included, but more than half of them are reprinted here.
Studying each of these individually was worth an hour of my time — or really, I would say, anyone’s.
I thought I had already looked long and hard at Guston’s late paintings. But it would be difficult to overstate the ways in which, at least for me, this exercise changed them. The experience was similar to staring at a Magic Eye poster: suddenly, the images snap forward.
There is more in the book, of course: A transcript of a lecture that Guston delivered at the University of Minnesota (by my measure, he ranks easily as one of the best art-talkers of the last half-century); many paintings that cannot be found in the otherwise excellent Retrospective; poem-pictures.
But those are a good three pages.