After receiving critical acclaim for his abstractions of the 1950s and early 1960s, Guston shocked and alarmed the art world in 1970 with an exhibition of stark, cartoon-like figurative paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. 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.
As was the case in his abstractions, Guston arrived at a final image with few preconceived ideas; the structure and meaning were incessantly changing, ambiguous. Until his death in 1980, Guston continued to discover rich possibilities in the figurative style, moving toward an increased consolidation of imagery such as that in Untitled (1980), one of his last paintings.
In an effort to heighten the direct symbolism of the objects in works like Untitled, Guston stripped them of detracting elements such as calligraphic brushstrokes or pleasing color. Guston considered many of these cartoonlike paintings to be self-portraits, comments on his life and his situation as an artist. The visual vocabulary of Untitled consists of bloated forms suggesting tools, wheels, stones, and architecture, with posts and beams askew. The heavy forms are massed together within an ambiguous, simplified landscape setting composed of a band of neutral brown representing earth abutting a sky of blue. Though heavy and sturdy, the forms tilt precariously against each other, creating tensions through their simultaneous effects of solidity and instability, strength and fragility, permanence and volatility. Such visual paradoxes are typical of Guston's art.