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Artists Philip Guston
Philip Guston Photo

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.


Philip Guston Photo


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.

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Philip Guston Biography Continues

Important Art by Philip Guston

The below artworks are the most important by Philip Guston - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Gladiators (1938)
Artwork Images

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 (1953-54)
Artwork Images

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 (1958)
Artwork Images

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

More Philip Guston Artwork and Analysis:

The Studio (1969) City Limits (1969) Head and Bottle (1975) Untitled (1980)

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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.
View Influences Chart


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

Personal Contacts

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


Mexican MuralismMexican Muralism

Influences on Artist
Philip Guston
Philip Guston
Years Worked: 1927 - 1980
Influenced by Artist


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

Personal Contacts

Harold RosenbergHarold Rosenberg


Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Pop ArtPop Art
New Image PaintingNew Image Painting

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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