Guston's work began changing as he explored abstraction. Dark shapes started appearing on the canvas but he painted out recognizable images because an image "excludes too much." The paintings he made in the 1960s were called the "dark paintings" and were not well received by critics because they seemed to exist outside the accepted definition of abstraction.
"Close-Up III", 1961, 70" x 72", oil on canvas
By the late 1960s when the Vietnam War was in full swing, Guston was mobilized by the atmosphere of protestors, riots and the election of Nixon in 1968. What he referred to as "the final mask" came down and he began painting recognizable forms - especially hooded figures that looked like Ku Klux Klansmen. (I should say that Guston didn't regard the KKK in an admiring way but said that he was fascinated by evil and wanted to show the KKK carrying on their normal activities - more as ironic models of political actors. These hooded figures actually had been an early theme in his painting in the 1940s.) Rebelling against the prevalent belief of the absolute purity of non-objective form, Guston said, "I got sick and tired of all that purity … I wanted to tell stories!"
In his 1970 show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, Guston revealed the full extent of his defiance of orthodox Abstract Expressionism when he showed paintings such as "Bad Habits." He was excoriated for leaving the fold of abstraction in much the same way that Bob Dylan was criticized ad nauseum for going electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival.
"Bad Habits", 1970, 73"x78", oil on canvas.
Guston continued painting in his own style for the rest of his life, developing the portfolio of forms that meant so much to him.*
"Painting, Smoking, Eating," 1973, 77 1/2" x 103 1/2", oil on canvas
This work is so much about painting to me. I read it as the painter obsessively seeing his work (all those shoes) in his mind even though the actual painting is not in front of him.
"Head and Bottle," 1975, 65 1/2" x 68 1/2"
Can any image express alcoholic dependency more vividly? (This painting sold in May 2007 for $6.5 million. Drink up!)
"Talking," 1979, 78" x 68", oil on canvas
*Guston was pretty well known in Boston since he taught at Boston University for five years in the '70s and developed a following among his students. His painting "Talking" seems to me that he is gesturing and talking about painting - never out of his thoughts.
Guston died at age 67 in 1980, just three weeks after the opening of the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.