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Artists Philip Guston
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Philip Guston

American Painter

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Born: June 27, 1913 - Montreal, Canada

Died: June 7, 1980 - Woodstock, New York

Philip Guston Timeline


"The desire for direct expression finally became so strong that even the interval to reach back to the palette beside me became too long; so one day I put up a large canvas and placed the palette in front of me. Then I forced myself to paint the entire work without stepping back to look at it. I remember that I painted this in an hour."
Philip Guston
"In my experience a painting is not made with colors and paint at all. I don't know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint?"
Philip Guston
"Painting is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see."
Philip Guston
"To paint is a possessing rather than a picturing."
Philip Guston

"Painting and sculpture are very archaic forms. It's the only thing left in our industrial society where an individual alone can make something with not just his own hands, but brains, imagination, heart maybe."

Philip Guston Signature


In a career of constant struggle and evolution, Philip Guston emerged first in the 1930s as a social realist painter of murals in the 1930s. Much later he also evolved a unique and highly influential style of cartoon realism. But he made his name as an Abstract Expressionist. He avoided the muscular gestures of painters such as Pollock and Kline, and opted for a lighter touch, painting shimmering abstractions in which forms seem to hover like mists in the foreground.

Key Ideas

Guston's early career followed a pattern similar to that of many of his peers in Abstract Expressionism. He became interested in mural painting, and created fantastic scenes populated often by monumental, struggling figures. Although his early style was influenced in part by Italian Renaissance art, his backdrops invariably allude to contemporary cities and worldly conflicts.
Guston was drawn towards Abstract Expressionism when he settled in New York in the late 1940s. There he evolved an abstract art characterized by warm clouds of red hatch-marks floating over formless white mists. For a time it led to his work being described as "American Impressionism."
The upheavals of 1960s made Guston increasingly uncomfortable with abstract painting, and his work eventually developed into the highly original cartoon-styled realism for which he is now best known. This took him back to his early years - to the style of the comics he loved as a boy, and to the imagery of hooded Klansmen that he first explored in the 1930s. Occasionally, Guston seems to identify with the Klansmen, but at other times his dark cartoons resemble fearful urban worlds of racism and violence.

Most Important Art

Philip Guston Famous Art

The Studio (1969)

The Studio marks the beginning of Philip Guston's move away from abstraction and back to the figuration he practiced during the 1930s and 1940s, while he worked in the WPA mural painting style. This painting is widely recognized as an early meta-self portrait, in which Guston presents himself, laboring at his easel in the hood that he will continue to employ as a motif in future Klansmen works. Puffing on a cigar through his hood, the painter keeps his hand free to create his masterpiece: a cartoonish self-portrait of his hooded persona. Clement Greenberg once remarked that, with the exception of Arshile Gorky, Guston was the most romantic artist of his generation.
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Philip Guston Artworks in Focus:



Philip Guston was born Philip Goldstein, in Montreal, Canada, in 1913. He was the youngest of seven children born to a Jewish couple who had come to America after fleeing the pogroms in Russia. America seemed to offer shelter from persecution, yet the family found life difficult in their new country. Guston's father had been a saloon keeper, but he struggled to find work; in 1919 the family moved to Los Angeles with hopes of better fortunes, but they only encountered more hardship and also met with the racism that surrounded the growth of the Klu Klux Klan in the period. Around four years later, his father committed suicide by hanging and Guston discovered the body, an experience which profoundly marked him. As he moved into adolescence, Philip retreated in the fantasy world of comics, and started to become interested in drawing, which led his mother to enroll him in a correspondence course at the Cleveland School of Cartooning, thus beginning his training as an artist.

Early Training

Philip Guston Biography

In 1927, Guston attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where he met Jackson Pollock, and studied Cubism alongside the mystical philosophies of Krishnamurti and Ouspensky. After he and Pollock were expelled for distributing a leaflet mocking the English department, Guston was awarded a scholarship in 1930 to study at Otis Art Institute; in 1931 he had his first solo exhibition. Between his curtailed academic studies, and relocating to New York, he took odd jobs and traveled through Mexico to study anti-war murals. This inspired the painting of his own figurative murals, modeled after his favorite Renaissance masters and Mexican muralists, using thin layers of oil paint or fresco techniques. It was this enthusiasm that led to his enrollment in the Works Progress Administration's Federal Arts Project (WPA/FAP), and in the following years he would paint murals throughout the U.S.; in 1939 he completed a commission to paint an exterior wall of the WPA Building at the New York World's Fair.

Mature Period

During the winter of 1935 Pollock urged Guston to move to New York permanently, and introduced his friend to many of the New York School painters. Guston would continue to paint murals until 1942, but in the early 1940s he began a return to easel painting and evolved a more personal style influenced by elements of abstraction, realism, and references to myth. Over time the surfaces of his canvases became increasingly textured and he began developing his signature color palette, in which tones vary widely but hues are restricted. A major breakthrough came in 1950 with the completion of his first abstract works. Among them was Red Painting, in which the sharp separation between figure and ground vanishes, forms come in and out of focus and brushstrokes leave a palpable trace. A variety of unlikely influences were united in evolving this style: Chinese calligraphy, Mondrian's 'plus-minus' paintings of the 1910s, and Buddhism. Guston's interest in the latter was encouraged in part by his friendship with John Cage and Morton Feldman. His abstract style was certainly less grandly expressionistic than that of many of his peers, yet he still viewed the brushstroke as essentially autographic - a trace of the soul of the artist.

Late Period and Death

Philip Guston Photo

By the mid 1960s Guston was becoming uneasy with the meditative isolation that abstract painting encouraged, and political turmoil in the U.S. encouraged his return to figuration. Then in 1970, at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, he first exhibited pictures in the late style for which he is famous. These images are populated by enigmatic hooded figures, reminiscent of members of the Klu Klux Klan; they are not meant to directly reference racism but rather to take a stand against war, injustice, and the hypocrisy Guston witnessed in American politics. During the years before his death, in 1980, Guston continued to hone this imagery, creating increasingly enigmatic compositions reminiscent of still lives or spare landscapes, with clusters of figures, heavy boots and tools, and cycloptic heads.

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Philip Guston Biography Continues


Although the abstract painting which launched his career in the 1950s continues to be highly respected, Philip Guston remains best known for the figurative pictures he completed after 1970. These proved important in showing a way back to figurative painting after the long dominance of abstraction, as well as suggesting how painters inclined towards abstraction and gestural painting might address pop culture. In this respect Guston is unique among the Abstract Expressionists for the status accorded to his figurative work.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Philip Guston
Interactive chart with Philip Guston's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


Paolo UccelloPaolo Uccello
Reuben KadishReuben Kadish
Lorser FeitelsonLorser Feitelson
Max BeckmannMax Beckmann
Giorgio de ChiricoGiorgio de Chirico


Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning
Arshile GorkyArshile Gorky
John CageJohn Cage
Morton FeldmanMorton Feldman


Mexican MuralismMexican Muralism
Philip Guston
Philip Guston
Years Worked: 1927 - 1980


Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
Jasper JohnsJasper Johns
Robert RauschenbergRobert Rauschenberg
David SalleDavid Salle


Harold RosenbergHarold Rosenberg


Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Pop ArtPop Art
New Image PaintingNew Image Painting

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Useful Resources on Philip Guston





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Night Studio: A Memoir Of Philip Guston Recomended resource

By Musa Mayer

Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston

By Ross Feld


Philip Guston (Modern Masters Series, Vol. 1) Recomended resource

By Robert Storr

Philip Guston: Retrospective

By Michael Auping

Art in Review: Philip Guston, 'Small Oils on Panel: 1969-1973' at McKee Gallery Recomended resource

By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
December 11, 2009

Guston on Paper at the Morgan

By Carol Vogel
The New York Times
March 21, 2008

Art in Review; Philip Guston Drawings at McKee Gallery

By Martha Schwendener
The New York Times
December 15, 2006


Guston Interviewed by Joseph Travato Recomended resource

January 29, 1965


American Visions

By Robert Hughes, 8th episode, part 3 of 5
The work of Philip Guston (June 27, 1913 June 7, 1980) is explored, and his daughter, Musa Mayer, is inteviewed. Video clips of Guston are shown.

Philip Guston: A Life Lived

Directed by Michael Blackwood, 1981
DVD 4259
Available from Media Resources Center, Library, University of California, Berkeley

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