Phillip Guston

Phillip Guston

Philip Guston
Painting, Smoking Eating 1972 Oil on Canvas
Birth name Phillip Goldstein
Born (1913-06-27)June 27, 1913
Montreal, Canada
Died June 7, 1980(1980-06-07) (aged 66)
Woodstock, New York, USA
Nationality American
Field Painting, Printmaking
Movement Abstract expressionism, Social realism, Figurative painting

Philip Guston (June 27, 1913 – June 7, 1980) was a painter and printmaker in the New York School, which included many of the abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. In the late 1960s Guston helped to lead a transition from abstract expressionism to neo-expressionism in painting, abandoning the so-called "pure abstraction" of abstract expressionism in favor of more cartoonish renderings of various personal symbols and objects.

Childhood and education

Phillip Guston was born in 1913 in Montreal, Canada, Guston moved with his family to Los Angeles as a child. Guston's Ukrainian-Jewish parents escaped persecution when they moved from Odessa, Ukraine. Guston and his family were aware of the regular Klan activities against Jews, blacks and others which took place across California during Guston's childhood. When Guston was 10 or 11, his father hanged himself in the shed, and the young Guston found the body. Guston began painting at the age of 14, and in 1927 he enrolled in the Los Angeles Manual Arts High School, where both he and Jackson Pollock studied under Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky and were introduced to modern European art, oriental philosophy, theosophy and mystic literature.

Guston's early work was figurative and representational. His mother supported his artistic inclinations, and he often made drawings in a small closet, lit by a hanging bulb. Apart from his high school education and a one-year scholarship at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, Guston remained a largely self-taught artist. During high school, Guston and Jackson Pollock published a paper opposing the high school's emphasis on sports over art. Their criticism led to both being expelled, but Pollock returned and graduated. At Otis on scholarship, Guston felt unfulfilled by the academic approach which limited him to drawing from plaster casts instead of the live model. Before dropping out of Otis, Guston spent a night in the studio making drawings of these figurative plasters scattered all over the studio floor.

Early career and influences

As an 18-year-old, politically aware painter, Guston made an indoor mural in L.A. - for the John Reed Club -, depicting the Scottsboro Boys. This mural was defaced by local police officers, which impacted Guston's political and social outlook.

In 1934, Guston, as Philip Goldstein, along with Reuben Kadish, joined the poet and friend Jules Langsner in a trip to Mexico where they were given a 1,000-square-foot (93 m2) wall in the former summer palace of the Emperor Maximilian in the state capital of Morelia, where they produced the impressive The Struggle Against Terror, an antifascist mural clearly influenced by the work of Siqueiros. A two-page review in Time magazine quoted Siqueiros describing them as ‘the most promising painters in either the US or Mexico’. While in Mexico he also met and spent time with Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera.

In 1934-35, Guston and Kadish completed another mural at City of Hope, at the time a tuberculosis hospital located in Duarte, California, that remains to this day. In September 1935 he moved to New York where he worked as an artist in the WPA program. During this period his work included strong references to Renaissance painters such as Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and Giotto. He was also influenced by American Regionalists and Mexican mural painters.

A powerful and enduring influence, whom Guston was to acknowledge throughout his career, was Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. Musa Mayer, Guston's daughter, recalled in her book Night Studio: A memoir of Philip Guston how the artist kept a De Chirico monograph in his studio, to which he would often refer.


Guston's first foray into teaching was as an artist-in-residence at the School of Art and Art History at the State University of Iowa (today the University of Iowa)[1] from 1941 to 1945. There he completed a mural for the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C., turned to easel painting, and had his first solo exhibition in 1944. After this he was artist-in-residence at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri until 1947. He continued to teach at New York University and at the Pratt Institute.[2] From 1973 to 1978 he conducted a once-monthly graduate seminar at Boston University.[3] Guston's students include two graduates of the State University of Iowa, painters Stephen Greene (1917–1999)[4] and Fridtjof Schroder (1917–1990)[5] and Ken Kerslake (1930–2007), who attended Pratt Institute. Those who attended his graduate seminars at Boston University include painter Gary Komarin (1951-)[6] and new media artist Christina McPhee (1954-).[7]

Abstract expressionism

In the 1950s, Guston achieved success and renown as a first-generation Abstract Expressionist. During this period his paintings often consisted of blocks and masses of gestural strokes and marks of color floating within the picture plane. These works, with marks often grouped toward the center of the compositions, recall the "plus and minus" compositions by Piet Mondrian or the late Nymphea canvases by Monet. Guston used a relatively limited palette favoring whites, blacks, greys and reds in these works. This palette remains evident in his later work.

Return to representational art

In 1967, Guston moved to Woodstock. He was increasingly frustrated with abstraction and began painting representationally again, but in a rather personal, cartoonish manner. The first exhibition of these new figurative paintings was held in 1970 at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. It received scathing reviews from most of the art establishment (notably from the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer who, in an article entitled "A Mandarin pretending to be a Stumblebum" ridiculed Guston's new style). One of the few who instantly understood the importance of those paintings was the painter Willem de Kooning who, at the time, said to Guston that they were "about freedom" (cited in Musa Mayer's biography of her father, Night Studio).[8]

As a result of the poor reception of his new figurative paintings, Guston isolated himself even more in Woodstock, far from the art world which had so utterly misunderstood his art (see the initial reaction of Robert Hughes, critic for Time Magazine, who later was to change his views, in a scathing review entitled "Ku Klux Komix", and Hilton Kramer's NY Times review).[9] His contract with the Marlborough gallery was not renewed and, after a short period without any dealer, he joined the recently opened David McKee Gallery (he had known McKee at Marlborough) to which he remained faithful until the end of his life.

In 1960, at the peak of his activity as an abstractionist, Guston said: "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden." From 1968 onwards he made these words his motto. In this body of work he created a lexicon of images such as Klansmen, lightbulbs, shoes, cigarettes, and clocks. In late 2009, the McKee gallery in NYC, Guston's historic dealer, mounted a show revealing that lexicon in 49 small oils on panel painted between 1969 and 1972 that had never been publicly displayed as a whole. Guston is best known for these late existential and lugubrious paintings, which at the time of his death had reached a wide audience, and found great popular acceptance. Guston died in 1980 in Woodstock, New York.


Guston's works are now held and exhibited in major museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Tate Modern.[10][11] In May, 2013, the sale of his 1958 abstract expressionist painting To Fellini, for $25.8 million, set the auction record for a Guston work.[12]


Further reading

  • Auping, Michael. Philip Guston: Retrospective (Thames & Hudson, 2006) ISBN 0-500-28422-9
  • Botelho, Manuel. Guston em contexto: até ao regresso da figura. Lisbon: Livros Vendaval, 2007. ISBN 978-972-8984-05-2
  • Bucklow, Christopher. What is in the Dwat. The Universe of Guston's Final Decade (The Wordsworth Trust, 2007) ISBN 978-1-905256-21-1
  • Coolidge, Clark. Baffling Means: Writings/Drawings (Stockbridge, MA: O-blek Editions, 1991).
  • Corbett, William. Philip Guston’s Late Work: A Memoir (Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 1994)
  • Feld, Ross. Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston (Counterpoint Press, 2003) ISBN 1-58243-284-8
  • Mayer, Musa. Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston (originally published: New York: Knopf, 1988; new edition: Da Capo Press, 1997) ISBN 0-306-80767-X
  • Marika Herskovic, ISBN 0-9677994-0-6. p. 18; p. 37; p. 170-173
  • Marika Herskovic, ISBN 0-9677994-1-4. p. 150-153
  • Marika Herskovic, ISBN 978-0-9677994-2-1. p. 112-115; p. 136
  • Dore Ashton, A Critical History of Philip Guston, 1976
  • Yale University Art Gallery, Joanna Weber and Harry Cooper Philip Guston, a New Alphabet, the Late Transition, 2000, ISBN 0-89467-085-9
  • Robert Storr, Guston, Abbeville Press, Modern Masters, ISBN 0-89659-665-6, 1986
  • David Kaufmann, Telling Stories: Philip Guston's Later Works (University of California Press, 2010) ISBN 978-0-520-26576-9
  • Peter Benson Miller, ed. Philip Guston, Roma ex. cat. with texts by Peter Benson Miller, Dore Ashton, Musa McKim and Michael Semff (Hatje Cantz, 2010) ISBN 978-3-7757-2632-0
  • Michael Semff, 'An Unknown Lithograph from Philip Guston's Late Work,' Print Quarterly, XXVIII, 2011, 462-64

External links

  • Philip Guston artwork at Brooke Alexander Gallery
  • Museum of Modern Art in New York
  • Oxford University Press
  • Philip Guston at McKee Gallery at McKee Gallery, New York