Philip Guston painted Two Legs after forsaking abstraction for figuration in the late 1960s. Feeling helpless and disillusioned in the face of violent events such as the Vietnam War led to this radical shift in the artist’s approach. Although many critics, friends, and fellow painters initially derided Guston for including recognizable imagery and oblique political references in his work, one critic noted that the artist’s newfound idiosyncratic “crudeness…enable[d] him to give a simple account of the simple mindedness of violence.”

The limited palette and black background set an ominous stage for the two truncated, disembodied legs that dominate this composition. A recurring motif in his work, Guston’s abstracted depiction of legs has prompted various interpretations. At once symbolic of the traumas of war, this iconography may also have roots in the artist’s own biography. Decades prior, Guston’s older brother was in a car accident that crushed his legs, required amputation, and ultimately precipitated his death. Like his contemporary Willem de Kooning, Guston embraced ambiguity: “You see, I look at my paintings [and] speculate about them. They baffle me, too. That’s all I’m painting for.”