Philip Guston, American, “This Be Not I,” 1945. This painting is special to me. As WWII comes to an end, young city boys play outside with whatever they can find to engage their imaginations. The kind of “pretend” play we enjoyed before computers replaced the mystery worlds of childhood. I see myself in the boy leaning on the porch rail, fingers folded over his chin. The boys seem to be under the shadow of the events of the time, fathers and brothers away at war, some never to return.
Guston completed this canvas just before joining the faculty at my alma mater, Washington University, St. Louis. I saw the painting in person as a student at what we called Steinberg Gallery at the time.
I love the muted, tonal palette, giving it the quality of a faded color photograph. The yellows in this image may have been enhanced, more chromatic than the original. I was in the great Ed Boccia’s painting class, working with limited palettes. Mine was titanium white, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, and phthalocyanine green.
I was most displeased about the mineral pigments matched with the chemical phthalo green. Yes, they call it a “synthetic organic,” but to me it has always had an unnatural laboratory quality. It does make a beautiful black when mixed with alizarin, but we called it “Brylcream” for a reason. “A dab’ll do ya.” It’s so intense it can take over a mixture and wreck it. Guston must have used a similar limited set of tube colors here. I’d say ultramarine or prussian blue instead of phthalo green.
WUSTL ultimately acquired the painting, now on campus at the Kemper Art Museum. Guston would go on to become a prominent abstract expressionist throughout the 1950s. Then he shocked his admirers in the late ’60s by morphing into a bizarro world of comic surrealism that became his final brand. I saw some of those canvases in Boston while my daughter was a student at Brandeis.