Philip Guston’s Sleeping, painted in 1977, is a masterpiece of Neo-Expressionism. The painting depicts piles of disembodied limbs arranged in an apocalyptic tableau. The figures are rendered with raw, loose figuration, characteristic of the artist’s pioneering style. Guston presents himself at his easel in his trademark hood, puffing on a cigar – this act is widely recognized as an early meta-self portrait.
The painting is charged with a powerful sense of turmoil and unease, reflecting the artist’s twilight years. Guston’s visual language includes disembodied legs, pointing fingers, and piles of shoes that summon the horrors of the Holocaust and presage later genocides and racial terror. These themes can be traced back to his formative years spent in Los Angeles where he assimilated experiences from historical events such as pogroms against Jews to race riots.
Despite the depiction of chaos and destruction in Sleeping, Guston undeniably displays mastery over his medium in terms of technique and sense for color combinations. His use of bold hues such as reds against deep blues creates depth while playing off haunting tensions amongst unlikely pairings like several feet clamoring for dominance toppled over each other amidst dark rubble scattered throughout various parts of the canvas. It embodies both comfortability within chaos paired with his prolonged sense for social justice through artistic storytelling which make it without question one of Philip Guston’s most memorable works.