American painter Philip Guston (1913-1980) was a key member of the New York School with a strongly urban point of view. The unique aspect of his career is that he moved from being a successful figurative artist to pure abstraction and then, late in life, returned to figurative art.
Philip Guston was born in 1913 in Montreal, Canada. The youngest of seven children, Philip moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1919. Plagued by financial difficulties and personal conflict, his father committed suicide soon after.
Guston attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles and was a classmate of Jackson Pollock. The two became firm friends. In 1930 Guston briefly studied at Otis Art Institute, but soon dropped out. He was largely a self-taught artist.
Between 1934 and 1935 Guston travelled with a friend to Mexico, where he served briefly as an assistant to Mexican mural artist David Siqueiros. He later returned to Los Angeles to work on a mural project before following Pollock to New York in 1935. He joined the Federal Art Project of the Work Projects Administration, executing murals for the 1939 World's Fair and for the Queensbridge Housing Project on Long Island.
From 1941 to 1945 Guston held a teaching position at the State University of Iowa. Between 1945 and 1947 he taught at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1947 he settled in Woodstock, New York, and during the 1950s he taught painting at both New York University and Pratt Institute.
Guston's work has been widely exhibited. He had his first New York show in 1945. In 1956 some of his paintings were included in the Museum of Modern Art's "Twelve Americans" show. In 1960 the Guggenheim mounted a major retrospective exhibition, and in 1966 the Jewish Museum in New York did a show of his "gray paintings." In 1980, the year of his death, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art put together a travelling exhibition which was later shown in Chicago, Denver, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Guston always approached painting as a means of self-discovery. He was preoccupied with paradox, especially personal paradox, and his work was the result of a constant dialogue with himself. His artistic development was shaped by his need to synthesize two antagonistic modes of working:naturalism and abstraction. His way of painting reflected this. He sketched his subject rather literally, and then attempted to "erase" most of the representational elements.
Deeply steeped in the past, Guston was inspired by many artists. Paintings by de Chirico and Picasso impressed him while still in high school. He was also preoccupied for nearly a decade with the study of Renaissance art, responding particularly to the architectural sense of structure inherent in paintings by Mantegna, Masaccio, Piero, and Uccello.
Guston always viewed the history of art as having two over-riding themes—paintings based on pleasure and beauty and paintings based on care and pain. His own work reveals a constant struggle to unify these two trends, yet the painful side always seemed to dominate.
Stylistically, Guston's evolution from figurative art to Abstract Expressionism was gradual. His mural art of the 1930s was concerned with solving spatial problems, synchronizing voids and solids in controlled depth. Never a realist, Guston moved closer to a Cubistic approach as he began working with flat planes instead of volumes.
His work of the early 1940s reveals Renaissance structure and order being fused with Cubist simplification. The 1940s were a decade of transition for Guston. His work became more abstract as he turned to form and color as equivalents for feelings and emotions. Recurring themes of childhood culminated in 1945 with his painting If This Be Not I (Washington University, St. Louis). His first truly painterly work, it depicts costumed children with Ensorlike masks against an urban backdrop. The painting is strange and unsettling, but not frightening.
This period was turbulent for Guston. He grew frustrated at his inability to resolve his emotional feelings within the framework of his chosen forms. His first non-objective painting dates from 1947-1948. Finally, in 1948, he stopped painting entirely.
An opportunity to travel in Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Prix de Rome provided him with new directions. During this time (1948-1949) he drew a lot, but did not paint. He also discovered a new interest in painterly artists from the past, particularly Titian. When Guston began to paint again in 1949 he had banished all vestiges of Cubism from his style. The process of painting had become very important and resulted in a freer mode of working with new emphasis on surface.
During the early 1950s Guston's style was dubbed "Abstract Impressionism" due to his soft, pastel palette, atmospheric approach, painterly brushwork, and shimmering surfaces. Midway through the decade his style changed again, this time becoming more vital, aggressive, and impulsive. He began working on a larger scale, emphasizing vibrant colors and black. The work of this period seems to totally reject Renaissance order. A sense of conflict between form and chaos underlies the ambiguous shapes and expressive brushwork. The years 1957-1958 found Guston as close as he ever came to Action Painting. His usual approach was by no means spontaneous. He worked by layering paint, scraping and revising as he went.
In the 1960s his work softened. A deliberate muddying of tones and a move towards grays and half-tones resulted in a mood of reverie and introspection. Then, in a 1970 exhibition which shook the art establishment, Philip Guston suddenly returned to literal subject matter painted in a primitive, cartoon-like manner with forms recalling those of Léger. The first of these paintings (such as The Studio, 1969) include hooded and masked Ku Klux Klan figures which hark back to similar themes explored by the artist in the 1930s and 1940s. This time, however, the brushwork is harsh, the colors garish, and the shapes simplified and outlined.
Later themes include interiors, landscapes, cars, light bulbs, cigarettes, paint brushes, and shoes—sometimes attached to numberless, intertwined legs, sometimes alone. Many of Guston's contemporaries were horrified by his move back to humanistic content. Yet, like his early mural work, this change in style allowed the artist to once again engage in narrative works of art.
Guston once said, "I'm puzzled all the time by representation or not, the literal image and the nonobjective. There's no such thing as nonobjective art. Everything has an object, has a figure. The question is what kind?" This statement helps viewers to bridge the seeming gap between Guston's non-objective works of the 1950s and 1960s and the paintings of his last years.
In 1937 he married Musa McKim, and in 1943 their daughter, Musa Jane, was born. Guston received two Guggenheim Fellowships (1947, 1967) and an honorary doctorate from Boston University (1970).
Further Reading on Philip Guston
Dore Ashton's monograph, Philip Guston (1960) is a standard work and provides useful information about Guston's first 45 years. The catalogue issued by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, entitled Philip Guston (1980) provides the best information about his late work and contains a chronology and a very extensive bibliography of articles and reviews.
Among the many discussions of Guston's work in magazines, the following are especially useful:Thomas B. Hess, "Inside Nature, " Art News (February 1958); Irving Sandler, "Guston:A Long Voyage Home, " Art News (December 1959); and Sam Hunter, "Philip Guston, " Art International (May 1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Mayer, Musa, Night studio:a memoir of Philip Guston, New York, N.Y., U.S.A.:Penguin Books, 1990.
Storr, Robert, Philip Guston, New York:Abbeville Press, 1986.