What makes Philip Guston’s painting Stationary Figure a masterpiece?
- The passage of time and imminent death
- A child’s drawing… of pooling blood
- Preposterous solidity in a puff of smoke
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Stationary Figure represents Philip Guston’s most macabre self portrait. He painted himself plenty, and many of his works explored dark topics. In fact, Guston portrayed the KKK in many of his works. This painting enjoins that morbidity level with self portraiture in a sublime synergy. We see these elements thanks to the specific details Guston includes. But viewers can also learn from what the painter chose to eliminate.
The figure appears noseless, hairless, and puffs on a cigarette… without a mouth. Guston often (if not always) portrayed himself smoking in his self portraits. That’s how we know this depicts the painter. The crude puff of smoke and simplistic features point to another missing element. Guston was a celebrated artist when he painted Stationary Figure. His choice to create crude renderings bothered the art world. But Guston stayed stalwart about this process because this was his point. He eschewed his skills to emphasize theme. So, a master artist painted like a child to highlight the passage of time and inevitability of death.
Subject matter takes the wheel in Stationary Figure. We see the passage of time in the clock and window. The timepiece works as an obvious reference. While darkness outside contrasts the bright interior to represent day turning to night. This dawn to dusk cycle parallels the beginning and end of a human life. Guston paints this in the manner of a child so that it signifies the beginning of life. So, the technique highlights youth. The symbols within point to deterioration and demise. Guston refers to time in the background. But he digs into the darkest parts with the self portrait.
Philip Guston went from art world darling to misunderstood recluse. This resulted from his paintings like Stationary Figure. Many viewers couldn’t get past Guston’s raw brutality of technique to the meaning behind his work. He expected that and spoke often about how he didn’t want his work to be about showing off his artistic ability. Guston had a higher calling. He stripped away his skills so that we’d pay attention to the message.
It’s hard to miss the bleak story Stationary Figure tells. Guston wrapped his figure like a mummy. He’s wound a pseudo straitjacket around his entire body to symbolize how we are all bound by limitations like mortality. Even with his arms strapped to his sides, our figure smokes. The puff above him floats like a ridiculous impossibility – a lump of coal suspended in mid-air. It lingers there as an absurd symbol of his deadly habit. Only an addict would find a way to smoke without arms or hands. It’s a symbolic death wish, this level of smoking.
But the clearest reference to death lies beneath this Stationary Figure in a pool of blood. Guston tinges the wrappings with red to validate that it’s his own. He’s the one dying. So, the painter points to his own demise. This had a dual meaning for Guston. On the base level he killed his physical body. But on a higher level this depiction decimated his art world idolatry.
The painter spoke about this. Guston said that he wanted to remind the art world that artists are essentially “image-makers” and “image-ridden”. That’s why he obliterated his technique to spotlight the meaning of images in the portrait. The mortality he portrays in Stationary Figure symbolizes the end of his abstract art as well as his eventual corporeal death.
This wasn’t the end for Philip Guston, though. His work has come full circle now that the art world has embraced Guston’s higher meaning. The very aspects of his work that were once criticized with, “a child could make this” are extolled as masterful today. In fact, Stationary Figure now holds up as a masterpiece. We’re finally getting Guston’s point. More importantly, we can see what he saw – the true meaning behind this masterpiece isn’t about how it was made. It’s all about what it says.
Stationary Figure (1973) – FAQs
Where can I see Philip Guston’s painting Stationary Figure in person?
Stationary Figure, now on view at the esteemed Metropolitan Museum of Art, was one of Philip Guston’s most maligned representational paintings. But that was due to art world expectations. Just before this phase in Guston’s career he was art world famous for his glorious work as an Abstract Expressionist.
So, when his fans showed up expecting the Guston paintings they knew and loved, crude renderings like Stationary Figure set them off. Critics and art lovers alike tore into Guston with such vitriol, he moved far away to Woodstock as a recluse. But now it’s clear that these criticisms were based in misunderstanding. His works from the time of his vilification are now honored in the world’s most acclaimed museums.
What are Philip Guston paintings worth in the art market?
There’s a wide price range of Philip Guston work available on the art market in the 2020s. In the late 1990s a Guston painting sold for about $26 million. But there are also Guston drawings available in online galleries for tens of thousands. In fact, I found one for only $17 thousand as of this writing with little effort.
Check out the link to Philip Guston’s drawing entitled Elements here. This sets only one example of many wondrous Guston works on the art market today. He was a prolific painter and is currently gaining in popularity.
Enjoyed this analysis of Stationary Figure?
Check out more essays on American painters with a click.
Feld, Ross. Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston (Counterpoint Press, 2003)
Dore Ashton, A Critical History of Philip Guston, 1976
David Kaufmann, Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works (University of California Press, 2010)
Philip Guston: A Life Lived (1982) – Biographical film about Philip Guston
Peter Benson Miller, ed. Go Figure! New Perspectives on Guston, 2015
‘Philip Guston: Drawings for Poets’, Foreword by Michael Krüger, Text by Bill Berkson, English, Sieveking Verlag 2015