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The abstract expressionist rejectionist

By Sebastian Smee   February 2004

When Philip Guston, a painter of tremblingly sensitive abstract expressionist pictures in the 1950s and 1960s (so trembling that his style was dubbed "abstract impressionism"), switched in the 1970s to cartoonish figurative pictures of clenched fists, bandaged heads, and Ku Klux Klan hoods, friends and critics alike thought he had lost it. The response was widespread embarrassment, and in some cases outrage.

One can think of a few precedents: Picasso temporarily abandoning cubism to take up a neoclassical style influenced by Ingres; Matisse abandoning his researches into flatness and saturated colour to paint gorgeous models in an impressionist palette of…

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