How cartoonish forms illustrate dark themes in this work
The panels in this three-part painting, or triptych, by Philip Guston are painted in the loose, vigorous, often cartoon-like manner typical of Guston’s work from the late 1960s until his death in 1980. Like his other work from this period, it’s also filled with veiled autobiographical references and cryptic social commentary. From left to right, Guston titled these canvases Red Sea, The Swell, and Blue Light. His images of shoes, deep red water, and a blank-faced figure may appear playful at first glance, but the scenes all begin to seem less whimsical when considered more carefully.
In the left-hand panel, several legs break the surface of a deep red sea, and a few rays of light penetrate the darkness of the sky. In the center panel, a figure is visible floating above the surface of the water along with a shoe and a number of other indecipherable shapes. Something that might be a light switch or a string connected to a window shade hangs just above the surface of the swelling water. In the final panel, a chaotic pile of legs and the soles of shoes float alongside the head, the sun breaks the sky, and a bit of “blue light” comes into view.
The red water covers much of the canvas, and on the lower right we can see a pair of stretcher bars—surely an autobiographical allusion to art making and the artist himself, but whether they are rising with the tide, simply floating on the surface, or being swept away in a flood is left provocatively uncertain.
When these paintings were first exhibited in New York, he carefully arranged them in this order after trying out a number of combinations. Deliverance, drowning, desperate survival, or a mixture of each may be at play here, but it’s up to each viewer to decide.
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