After receiving critical acclaim for his abstractions of the 1950s and early 1960s, Guston surprised and alarmed the art world in 1970 with an exhibition of stark, cartoon-like figurative paintings. The raw, often disturbing quality of these new works came as a shock in light of his earlier fame as a master of lyrical color and fluid form.
Guston's decision to change his approach resulted not only from his desire for new complexity and ways of presenting profound ideas, but also from his innate attraction to structure in painting. Always curious, self-questioning, and wary of artistic complacency, he seemed to be seeking fresh possibilities for plumbing the depths of his psyche and interpreting his experience. After a break from painting between 1966 and 1968, when he sketched representational subjects, his full-blown figurative style emerged.
Guston considered many of his 1970s paintings to be self-portraits, comments on his situation as an artist, as well as more explicit versions of his abstractions. The visual vocabulary of The Lesson—bald heads with bulging eyes, shoe soles, and a scratchy, barren landscape awash in pinks and grays—typifies these works. The repetition of circular forms references the artists desire to revert to imagery and memories from his past. In The Lesson, Guston may have been referring to childhood occurrences, for instance, to a family disagreement; in the left foreground, a head stares downward to suggest the artist who anxiously waits for the mute "head-to-head" combat of the background figures to cease. The bubble and work boots, in the right half of the composition, combine to form a visual paradox, hinting at the transience and harsh realities of life.