Philip Guston, (June 27, 1913 to June 7, 1980), disliked the label of abstract expressionist. He was content to be labeled one of the New York School, along with de Kooning and Pollack. Earlier and with the latter he had studied under Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky who also spoke to them of oriental philosophy, and theosophy and other mystical literature.
His first paintings were in the 1930s style of social realism. An article in The Nation sketches the later arc of his career, post abstract expressionism.
... In 1967.... Guston was producing the extraordinary array of drawings...Stark and powerful for all their obliquity, they seem oddly confident in their reduction of the Abstract Expressionist gesture to nearly zero. ...Had the 1967 drawings ...been the last works Guston ever made—had he retreated into silence, which could well have been the next logical step for him after those defiantly reductive works—we would still have to recognize Guston as one of the great artists of his time.
And yet, however logical—and despite Guston’s friendship with the apostle of silence, John Cage—silence was probably never in the cards for him. Even his most pared-down work was less about shedding the inessential than digging for something new.
...When Guston took up painting again in 1968, he was making figurative work for the first time in nearly two decades. He had changed course completely....Raw and confrontational rather than cool and flashy, the new works showed the influence of comics but not of Pop. Instead of being shiny and new and void of the past, they were populated by Ku Klux Klansmen (a subject that Guston had painted years earlier, as a social realist in the 1930s) and haunting echoes of precursors from Piero della Francesca to Giorgio di Chirico by way of Krazy Kat. Fellow artists at the time responded coldly: They thought Guston had betrayed the cause of abstraction for which they had sacrificed so much. Guston had succeeded in scandalizing not the bourgeoisie, but the self-defined avant-garde.....
An alternative perspective is that of the deaths of his fellow New York School painters. We quote about Philip Guston that he:
....left prematurely, as did so many of his generational cohort. His high-school classmate Jackson Pollock died young—at forty-four—of creative despair, the bottle, and automotive Russian roulette. Rothko died in late middle age of creative despair, the bottle, and a well-planned suicide by razor. De Kooning lived to a great age—ninety-three—died sober, and performed painterly miracles well into his eighties, although much of his last decade was a blur. Weakened by a heavy reliance on booze and butts—images of which litter the artist’s late self-portraits, along with cholesterol-heavy French fries—Guston died of a heart attack at the same age as Rothko, sixty-seven,...still at the height of his powers ...
And here is a late work, possibly an illustration to a letter, from 1973. It is titled "Cat on Plane."
I assume those human balls are part of the joke. If not, their inclusion is just sweet.