Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Philip Guston Photo

Philip Guston

American Painter

Born: June 27, 1913 - Montreal, Canada
Died: June 7, 1980 - Woodstock, New York
"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."
1 of 5
Philip Guston Signature
"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."
2 of 5
Philip Guston Signature
"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?"
3 of 5
Philip Guston Signature
"Painting is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see."
4 of 5
Philip Guston Signature
"To paint is a possessing rather than a picturing."
5 of 5
Philip Guston Signature

Summary of Philip Guston

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.


  • 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.
  • 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.

Biography of Philip Guston

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.

Important Art by Philip Guston

Progression of Art


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, 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 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 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

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 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



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

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Philip Guston
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Philip Guston

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Philip Guston Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 21 Nov 2011. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]