Philip Guston Life and Art Periods

"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."

SYNOPSIS

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.
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PHILIP GUSTON BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

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 enrol him in a correspondence course at the Cleveland School of Cartooning, thus beginning his training as an artist.

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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.

LEGACY

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.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
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PHILIP GUSTON QUOTES

"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."
- about White Painting (1951), Guston's first Abstract Expressionist work.

"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?"

"Painting is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see."

"To paint is a possessing rather than a picturing."

Philip Guston

Philip Guston Influences

Interactive chart with Philip Guston's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Paolo Uccello
Paolo Uccello
Paolo Uccello was an Italian Renaissance painter and a notable friend of Donatello. Uccello painted primarily in a Gothic tradition, focusing more on color and fine detail in his work, which went against the preferred style of Classical realism.

Modern Art Information Paolo Uccello
Reuben Kadish
Reuben Kadish
Reuben Kadish was an American sculptor, painter and printmaker during the twentieth century. A friend to both Guston and Pollock, Kadish was heavily influenced by Renaissance art and Mexican murals, including the work of Diego Rivera. While Kadish had close ties to the Abstract Expressionists of the post-war period, he remained on the outskirts of that insular world.

Modern Art Information Reuben Kadish
Lorser Feitelson
Lorser Feitelson
Lorser Feitelson was an American artist based in California during the mid-twentieth century. He was a member of a small group of abstract painters who critic Jules Langsner dubbed "California hard-edge." With that, Feitelson became one of the first artists associated with hard-edge painting.

Modern Art Information Lorser Feitelson
Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann was a German artist, writer, and philosopher commonly associated with the Expressionist movement of the early twentieth century. He abhorred the label 'Expressionism', but juxtaposed scenes from reality by layering figures, colors, and shadows.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Max Beckmann
Giorgio De Chirico
Giorgio De Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico was a Greek-Italian painter and sculptor commonly associated with Surrealism. Initially discovered by Picasso and Apollinaire in France, de Chirico's best known Surrealist paintings incorporated metaphysical subject matter and sculptural still-life. Instead of land- or cityscapes, de Chirico's art is more emblematic of a dreamscape.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Giorgio De Chirico
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
John Cage
John Cage
John Cage was an American composer and conceptual artist who incorporated chance, silence, and environmental effects into his performances. An important art theorist, he influenced choreographers, musicians, and the Fluxus artists of the 1970s.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Cage
Morton Feldman
Morton Feldman
Morton Feldman was an American composer. In the twentieth century, his work helped pioneer movements such as Aleatoric and Indeterminate Music, forms of composition that require a high degree of improvisation and free form. Feldman's contributions to modern composition have also been dubbed "chance" music.

Modern Art Information Morton Feldman
Renaissance
Renaissance
In the Renaissance, artists rediscovered techniques like rational space, three-point perspective, and plastic forms. Paintings frequently emphasized the human figure, allegory, classical mythology, and Christian themes.

Modern Art Information Renaissance
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Impressionism
Mexican Muralists
Mexican Muralists
The Mexican Muralists were active in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the 1930s. The large-scale works, executed in Mexico and the US, were frequently done in a figurative, allegorical style, and dealt with political, social, and radical themes.

Modern Art Information Mexican Muralists
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jasper Johns
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Rauschenberg
David Salle
David Salle
David Salle is a contemporary American artist whose work uses imagery from the world of advertising and consumerism. His paintings, installations, and found photographs often deal with voyeurism, sex, and the gaze.

Modern Art Information David Salle
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Harold Rosenberg
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
New Image Painting
New Image Painting
New Image Painting was the title of a 1978 exhibition that showcased a numer of artists who, turning away from both formal abstraction and photorealism, were painting in a crude, figurative style. Also called "'Bad' Painting," the style includes 1980s artists like Julian Schnabel, Susan Rothenberg, and Neil Jenney.

Modern Art Information New Image Painting
Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Franz Kline
Works Progress Administration
Works Progress Administration
The government-funded Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired hundreds of artists who collectively created more than 100,000 paintings and murals and over 18,000 sculptures. The Project was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression (1929-1943).
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Works Progress Administration
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neoplasticism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Piet Mondrian
Gladiators
Gladiators

Title: Gladiators (1938)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Gladiators is an early example of Guston's social realist style, which he would maintain throughout his work as muralist with the WPA. It represents an attempt to capture something of the monumentality that he admired in Italian Renaissance art, though it is also one of the first pictures in which he explores the imagery of hooded figures, fists and shields, which would reappear in his late work.


Oil and pencil on canvas 24 1/2 in. x 28 1/8 in. - Museum of Modern Art; gift of Edward R. Broida

Zone
Zone

Title: Zone (1953-54)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Zone, a painting that reflects the focused concentration of Guston's mature work, suggests a warm calm, with its mist of red hatch-marks filling the painting's center. Here, Guston hones his mark-making, and builds layers of paint out of quick, small stokes that are quite distinct from the wilder gestures of some of his colleagues. "Look at any inspired painting," he once said, "it's like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation."


Oil on canvas 46 in.x48 in. - The Edward R. Broida Trust, Los Angeles

Last Piece
Last Piece

Title: Last Piece (1958)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Last Piece is not Guston's last Abstract Expressionist painting, but it represents a transition away from the shimmering forms of the early 1950s towards the recognizable motifs of his later, more figurative works. If Buddhism, and concepts of nothingness, had informed his earlier abstractions, this represents a move away from those inspirations.


Goauche on board 22 in.x30 in. - Museum of Modern Art; Estate of Philip Guston

The Studio
The Studio

Title: The Studio (1969)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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.


Oil on canvas 48 in. x 62 in. - Musa Guston

City Limits
City Limits

Title: City Limits (1969)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In City Limits, Guston's hooded characters squeeze into a car, like clowns, as if to go cause trouble in town. His Klansmen often undertook myriad tasks in his paintings, but more than most, this image reflects an aspect of Guston's original motivation for switching back towards realism: a growing fear at the spread of political disorder and upheaval in America.


Oil on canvas 6.5' x 8'7 1/4". - Museum of Modern Art; Estate of Philip Guston

Head and Bottle
Head and Bottle

Title: Head and Bottle (1975)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Head and Bottle exemplifies Guston's move away from painting the hooded Klansmen in the late 1960s. He invented this lima-bean shaped Cyclops head, with no body and one giant eye, to represent the all-seeing artist. In this work, the eye scrutinizes a green bottle, studying it as if about to pick up the nearby paintbrush to render it in red paint. The year after he painted this, Guston was hospitalized with exhaustion.


Oil on canvas 48 in. x 62 in. - Musa Guston

Untitled
Untitled

Title: Untitled (1980)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Towards the end of his life, Guston not only expanded his palette once again, to include blues and yellows, but he once again incorporated abstraction into many of his works.


Synthetic polymer paint on paper mounted on board 20 in. x 30 in. - Museum of Modern Art; Estate of Philip Guston

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