Philip Guston

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Philip Guston
Profile of the artist
Guston at a mural, 1940
Phillip Goldstein

(1913-06-27)June 27, 1913
Montreal, Canada
DiedJune 7, 1980(1980-06-07) (aged 66)
EducationLos Angeles Manual Arts High School, Otis Art Institute
Known forPainting, printmaking
Notable work
The Studio, City Limits, Head and Bottle, Last Piece, Zone
StyleCartoon, Abstract
MovementAbstract expressionism, social realism, figurative painting, New York School
Spouse(s)Musa McKim
AwardsAssociate Academician at the National Academy of Design
Patron(s)David McKee, McKee Gallery
Signature (1969)

Philip Guston ('ust' pronounced like "rust"), born Phillip Goldstein (June 27, 1913 – June 7, 1980), was a Canadian American painter and printmaker in the New York School, an art movement that included many abstract expressionists like 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 so-called "pure abstraction" in favor of more representational, simplified renderings of personal symbols and objects. His existential, lugubrious paintings after 1968, employing a limited palette, are some of his most well known.

Guston was a lecturer and teacher at a number of universities. He is well regarded for his words and teachings, collected in the 2011 book Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations (Documents of Twentieth-Century Art).

Childhood and education (1913–1930)[edit]

Philip Guston was born in 1913 in Montreal. He moved with his family to Los Angeles as a child. His Ukrainian Jewish parents had escaped persecution when they moved to Canada from Odessa, Ukraine. He and his family were aware of the regular Ku Klux Klan activities against Jews, blacks and others which took place across California. In 1923, possibly owing to persecution or the difficulty in securing income, his father hanged himself in the shed, and the young boy found the body.[1]

Guston's early art was figurative and representational. His mother supported his artistic inclinations and he often made drawings in a spartan environment of his choosing: a small closet lit by a hanging light bulb.

Guston then began painting in 1927 at the age of 14, when he enrolled in the Los Angeles Manual Arts High School. Both he and Jackson Pollock studied under Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky and were introduced to European modern art, Eastern philosophy, theosophy and mystic literature. During high school, Guston and Pollock published a paper opposing the high school's emphasis on sports over art. Their criticism led to both being expelled, but Pollock eventually returned and graduated.

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. At the Otis Art Institute, Guston felt unfulfilled by the academic approach which limited him to drawing from plaster casts instead of the live model. Before leaving the school, Guston spent a night in the studio making drawings of the figurative plasters scattered all over the floor.[citation needed]

Early career and influences (1931–1938)[edit]

In 1931, the 18-year-old Guston produced an indoor mural with Reuben Kadish in an effort by the local John Reed Club of Los Angeles to fundraise money in support of the defendants in the Scottsboro Boys Trial. This mural was then defaced by local police forces, known as Red Squads. The subsequent court ruling found no fault on the part of L.A. police, even though irreversible damage was sustained to many works of art. This marks just one instance of political corruption witnessed by Guston, a theme which he would return to paint in his late style.[citation needed]

In 1934, Philip Goldstein (as Guston was then known),[2] along with Reuben Kadish, joined poet and friend Jules Langsner on 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; they produced the impressive The Struggle Against Terror, an antifascist mural clearly influenced by the work of David Siqueiros.[3] A two-page review in Time magazine quoted Siqueiros's description of them: "the most promising painters in either the US or Mexico". In Mexico he also met and spent time with Frida Kahlo and husband Diego Rivera.

In 1934–35, Guston and Kadish completed a mural that remains to this day at City of Hope Medical Center, a tuberculosis hospital at the time, located in Duarte, California.

In September 1935, at 22 years of age, he moved to New York where he worked as an artist in the WPA program during the Great Depression. In 1937 he married artist and poet Musa McKim, whom he first met at Otis, and they collaborated on several WPA murals. During this period his work included strong references to Renaissance painters such as Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, and Giotto. He was also influenced by American Regionalists and Mexican mural painters. In 1938 he painted a post office mural in the US post office in Commerce, Georgia, entitled Early Mail Service and the Construction of Railroads.

Philip Guston working on a mural, 1940

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

Academia (1941–1978)[edit]

Guston's first foray into teaching was as an artist-in-residence at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa[4] from 1941 to 1945. He completed a mural there for the Social Security building in Washington, D.C. before turning to easel painting. He had his first solo exhibition in 1944. Afterwards, he was an artist-in-residence at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri until 1947. He continued with his teaching at New York University in New York City and at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Much later, from 1973 to 1978, he conducted a monthly graduate seminar at Boston University.[5]

Among Guston's students were two graduates of the University of Iowa, painters Stephen Greene (1917–1999)[6] and Fridtjof Schroder (1917–1990),[7] as well as Ken Kerslake (1930–2007), who attended the Pratt Institute. Rosemary Zwick was also among his pupils at Iowa.[8] Among those who attended his graduate seminars at Boston University were painter Gary Komarin (1951–)[9] and new media artist Christina McPhee (1954–).[10]

Abstract expressionism (1950s)[edit]

Red marks in center of picture plane.
Zone, 1953–1954, oil on canvas, The Edward R. Broida Trust, Los Angeles

In the 1950s, Guston achieved success and renown as a first-generation abstract expressionist, although he preferred the term New York School. During this period his paintings often consisted of blocks and masses of gestural strokes and marks of color floating within the picture plane as seen in his painting Zone, 1953–1954. These works, with marks often grouped toward the center of the composition, recall the "plus and minus" compositions by Piet Mondrian or the late Nymphea canvases by Monet.

Guston used a relatively limited palette favoring black and white, grays, blues and reds. It was a palette that would remain evident in his later work.

A new style of representational art (1967–1980)[edit]

In 1967, Guston moved to Woodstock, New York. He was increasingly frustrated with abstraction and began painting representationally again, but in a 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. Memorably, New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer ridiculed Guston's new style in an article entitled "A Mandarin Pretending to Be a Stumblebum",[11] referring to "mandarin" in the sense of an influential figure and "stumblebum" meaning a clumsy person.[11] He called the act of changing styles an "illusion" and an "artifice". The initial reaction of Robert Hughes, critic for Time magazine, who later changed his views, was put into a scathing review entitled "Ku Klux Komix".[12]

One of the few who instantly understood the importance of these 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).[13] Cherries III from 1976, held in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art, is an example of his late style representational paintings. Although cherries are a mundane subject, their spiky stems can be a metaphor for the crudeness and brutality of modern life.[14]

Blue ground with red cherries (painting)
Cherries III, 1976, oil on canvas, Honolulu Museum of Art

As a result of the poor reception of his new figurative style, Guston isolated himself even more in Woodstock, far from the art world that had so utterly misunderstood his art. 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 in New York City (he had met McKee at Marlborough). He remained faithful to that gallery 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."[15] From 1968 onwards, after moving away from abstractionism, he made these words his motto. In this body of work he created a lexicon of images such as Klansmen, light bulbs, shoes, cigarettes and clocks. In late 2009, the McKee gallery, Guston's historic dealer, mounted a show revealing that lexicon in 49 small oil paintings on panel painted between 1969 and 1972 that had never been publicly displayed together as a whole. Guston is best known to the world for these late existential and lugubrious paintings, which, at the time of his death in 1980, had reached a wide audience, and found great popular acceptance.[citation needed]

End of life (1980)[edit]

Late in his life, Guston attempted to expand his palette and reintroduce abstraction to his work, as can be seen in some of his untitled work from 1980 that has more blues and yellows. He died that year at the age of 66, of a heart attack, in Woodstock, New York. After his death, he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate Academician.

Legacy (1980 onward)[edit]

Guston's artworks are now held and exhibited in major collections worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Honolulu Museum of Art,[14] the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection in Albany, NY,[16] and the Tate Modern.[17][18]

The visual style of Guston's late works opened the door for many art trends of the early 21st century.[citation needed] In late 2015, after the retirement of longtime Guston dealer David McKee and closure of the McKee gallery, it was announced that the estate of Philip Guston would be represented by the Hauser & Wirth gallery. Beginning in 2013, a catalogue raisonné of the artist's work is being compiled by the Guston Foundation. 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.[19] This coincided with recent scholarly interest that explored the periods he spent in Italy.[20]

Philip Guston has entered popular culture, and references can be found to some of his well-known pieces. In "Cat and Girl versus Contemporary Art", part of the Cat and Girl webcomic series, author Dorothy Gambrell critiques the difficulty and purpose of finding the meaning behind art using Guston's iconic Head and Bottle painting.[21]

Auction Record[edit]

In May 2013, Christie's set an auction record for the artists work To Fellini, 1913-1980, sold for a $25.8million [22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Philip Guston". May 9, 2015. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  2. ^ Aaron Rosen, Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj (MHRA, 2009; ISBN 1906540543), p. 50: "In the mid-1930s the artist began, off and on, to use the surname 'Guston' in place of his inherited name of 'Goldstein'".
  3. ^ Boime, Al (2008). "Breaking Open the Wall: The Morelia Mural of Guston, Kadish and Langsner". The Burlington Magazine. 150 (1264): 452–459. JSTOR 40479800.
  4. ^ Brookman, Christopher from Grove Art online, Accessed June 27, 2009
  5. ^[permanent dead link] Accessed June 27, 2009
  6. ^ Smith, Roberta, "Stephen Greene, 82, 'Painter with Distinctive Abstract Style'" November 29, 1999, Obituaries, The New York Times
  7. ^ Luther College Fine Art Collection, Accessed June 27, 2009
  8. ^ Jules Heller; Nancy G. Heller (December 19, 2013). North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-63882-5.
  9. ^ Diehl, Carol, "Gary Komarin at Spanierman Gallery", May 2008, Art in America
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on June 29, 2009. Retrieved May 27, 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Accessed June 27, 2009
  11. ^ a b Kramer, Hilton (October 25, 1970). "A Mandarin Pretending To Be A Stumblebum". The New York Times.
  12. ^ Hughes, Robert (November 9, 1970). "Art: Ku Klux Komix". Time – via
  13. ^ Mayer, Musa, Night Studio (Da Capo Press, 1997), p. 157
  14. ^ a b Honolulu Museum of Art, wall label, Cherries III by Philip Guston, 1976, oil on canvas, accession 7008.1
  15. ^ Balken, Debra Bricker; Philip, Guston; Berkson, Bill (1994). Philip Guston's poem-pictures. University of Michigan: Addison Gallery of American Art. p. 34. ISBN 978-1-879886-38-4.
  16. ^ "Empire State Plaza Art Collection".
  17. ^ "Philip Guston – MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art.
  18. ^ "Guston, Philip – The Art Institute of Chicago".
  19. ^ "Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale – Fine Art Auction". Christie's. Archived from the original on July 1, 2013. Retrieved August 14, 2013.
  20. ^ "Features – American Academy in Rome".
  21. ^ "Cat and Girl » Archive » Cat and Girl versus Contemporary Art". Retrieved October 28, 2017.

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