(Montreal, Canada, 1913 - 1980, Woodstock, New York)
“There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually define its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure.’ It is the adjustment of impurities, which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.” (1)
- Philip Guston
Philip Guston never believed that he was an Abstract Expressionist. While most commonly associated with the New York Abstract Expressionists (which included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko), Guston’s oeuvre is an interesting dichotomy in the history of American art. When he began his career in the 1930s, Guston gained acclaim with a highly personal and symbolic version of social realism. During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the artist deconstructed his social imagery and turned to abstraction. It was within this deconstruction of the image that Guston came full circle and reconstructed imagery that still shocks and puzzles viewers today. It is by these images from the 1970s—Ku Klux Klan figures, shoes, disembodied hands and legs, light bulbs, and ropes—that he is best known. Guston’s paintings, because they are infused with personal imagery and experience, provoke a sense of sadness within the viewer. For as art historian Mitchell D. Kahan wrote, “Guston the artist is both observer and victim—the person who analyzes the dilemma and the person who suffers it.”(2)
Philip Guston was born in Montreal, Canada in 1913 to Russian-Jewish parents. In 1919, Guston’s father moved the family to Los Angeles, in hopes that he could provide a better life. However, after four years of struggling as a junk collector and machinist and overcome by personal demons, his father committed suicide by hanging. It was a ten-year-old Philip that discovered his father’s body—hanging from a rope thrown over the rafter of a shed.(3) As one can imagine, the discovery stuck with the artist his entire life—his friend Ross Field later commented that Guston “literally drew a distance for himself away from the family’s shock and grief.”(4)
Guston demonstrated a talent for art at an early age; family members recall he always had a pencil in his hand. It wasn’t until after his father’s death that he began to draw seriously. This manifested into his first sojourn of seclusion—he retreated into a closet in the family home, lit by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, to draw. Recognizing her son’s talent for art, Guston’s mother enrolled him in a correspondence course with the Cleveland School of Cartooning. One of Guston’s first influences was George Herriman, the creator of the comic strip "Krazy Kat." Herriman’s strip, which began in 1914, revolved around the unlikely story of a large black cat who had fallen madly in love with a wisecracking mouse who does not return his affections, but instead send bricks flying at the cat’s head, which the cat inexplicably interprets as flirtation. Guston also followed the antics of Bud Fisher’s "Mutt and Jeff," but Herriman was his favorite, and, according art historian Michael Auping, was a shrewd choice, as Herriman ended up producing one of the most sophisticated and subversive comic strips in the history of the genre. Auping further explains that Guston never forgot “the strength and clarity of Herriman’s compositions and iconography, particularly the barren, surreal backdrops that would be echoed in a number of Guston’s late figurative works.”(5)
At the age of fourteen, Guston attended Manual Arts High School where he met and befriended the young Jackson Pollock. At the school, the boys were impressed with a teacher by the name of Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky, who exposed them to European painting and to the teachings of Oriental philosophy and wisdom. Schwankovsky took his students to hear Hindu master Krishnamurti, who urged his followers to challenge authority.(6) Perhaps partly inspired by their teacher and partly due to adolescence, Pollock and Guston took revolutionary action of their own: they distributed satirical pamphlets that attacked the English department and protested funds for athletics and the ROTC. The boys were promptly expelled. Pollock later returned to school, however the only degree that Guston ever received was an honorary doctorate from Boston University fifty years later.
In 1930, Guston received a year’s scholarship to Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. However, he did not fare much better here than he had at Manual Arts. The school had a strict and traditional curriculum. Only in the second year were students allowed to draw from a live model; the first year they were restricted to drawing from casts. Guston tired of the order, and once again, this time with fellow classmate Rueben Kadish, got himself into trouble. The boys would sneak into life drawing classes without permission, and piled every plaster cast they could find in one big mound and begin to draw from them. After a warning from a faculty member, the boys were called into the dean’s office and told they didn’t belong there.(7)
For the next five years, Guston continued to paint and draw, teaching himself from books of the Italian Renaissance masters. One in particular, Piero della Francesca, had a great influence on Guston’s later work. It was also during this time that Guston befriended artist Lorser Feitelson. Fietelson introduced Guston to the Arnesberg collection of modern European art, which included the works of Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico, a great Italian Surrealist, had an enormous impact on Guston, which can be seen in Guston’s work entitled "Mother and Child" (c. 1930, Private Collection). Painted with house paints when Guston was just seventeen, the artist depicts a child trying to suckle from his mother’s breast. The mother and child are enormous figures, almost filling the entire canvas in a Picasso-like classicism. The desolate background with partial walls and a street lamp recall de Chirico’s paintings, such as "The Uncertainty of the Poet" (Tate Gallery, London) from 1913. These monumental figures dominated Guston’s style throughout the 1930s when he began to work on murals in Mexico and the United States.
It was about 1930 that Guston suffered another tragedy that again affected his life and his art. One evening his brother, Nat, had been out with a date, got out of his car, and crossed behind the back. The brake wasn’t set, the car rolled back over Nat, and crushed his legs. Hospitalized, and in terrible pain, he died of gangrene. The second death of a family member must have been a great shock and brought a great deal of grief to Guston.
Aside from his family situation, the political air of the 1930s also had a tremendous affect on the artist’s work. Art and politics were bedfellows during the 1930s and Guston’s political awareness developed as quickly as his artistic interests. Anti-Semitism and racism were also a part of the southern California landscape – the Ku Klux Klan had a significant membership in southern California, a situation that clearly impressed itself upon the artist. It is at this time that Klansmen begin to appear in his art. For example, "The Conspirators" (c. 1930, location unknown) depicts a group of Klansmen plotting with whips and ropes and a waiting wooden cross. Guston also completed murals with Kadish for the John Reed Club on the theme of ‘The American Negro.’ Inspired by the Scottsboro case, in which nine black men were sentenced (many said on false and circumstantial evidence) to life in prison for raping a white woman, Guston’s mural depicted a group of hooded figures whipping a black man. The murals were eventually attacked and defaced by unidentified vandals. It was yet another experience that never left the artist.
Guston continued to paint murals in the 1930s, influenced by the Renaissance fresco techniques he taught himself by studying the Italian masters, such as Piero della Francesca. In 1935 at Pollock’s suggestion, Guston moved to New York and joined the mural section of the Federal Arts Project (FAP). The project was launched as a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal Program through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to create murals in American cities to boost public morale during the Depression, and at the same time to provide modest funding for artists with no means of support.(8) Despite the recognition he received for his murals, Guston questioned the direction of his art. Social Realism as an art movement was on its way out and abstraction had not yet taken hold. In 1937, Guston again sought seclusion to develop his artistic vocabulary and moved to the small artists colony of Woodstock to concentrate on easel painting. Having tired of working on government-sponsored projects, the artist now “wanted to work independently on personal imagery.” (9)
Throughout the 1940s, Guston, now married with a daughter, moved quite a bit, taking his family with him. He taught at the University of Iowa in Iowa City(10) and Washington University in St. Louis. In 1947, he won a Guggenheim fellowship and returned to Woodstock. That same year, Guston created a painting entitled "The Tormentors" (1947-48, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), which marked his beginning in abstraction. It is a dark and somewhat moody painting of black, red, and yellows with forms outlined in a haunting white line. While not clearly recognizable as objects, it is clear that the artist has deconstructed his earlier forms into lines that sink into a black oblivion.
By the1950s Guston’s works are completely abstract. The canvases are rich in color with short brushstrokes loaded with paint. For example, "Ochre Painting I"(1951, Edward R. Broida Collection) is predominantly yellow with squares of gray and red. The paint is thick and the brushwork is visible, giving the impression that Guston painted it with quick, fleeting brushstrokes. During his abstraction period (approx 1947-67) Guston was clearly influenced by Piet Mondrian’s "Pier and Ocean" series from 1914-15 in which a Cubist grid is opened and simplified to form a series of “plus” and “minus” signs.(11) In 1953-4, he created "Zone" (Edward R. Broida Collection) in which he applied strokes of paint in a crosshatched manner. The red brushstrokes fill the center of the canvas to make an organic form that floats on a blue-gray background. In Guston’s paintings of the late 1950s, this central organic form changed to black masses that once again began to take on recognizable shape. During the last three years of the decade, Guston produced dozens of small gouaches and oils. When his work was in transition and changing rapidly, Guston often worked small, as if gathering momentum for the larger work. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Road (1959) is one of these smaller works.
Guston continued to make abstract paintings throughout the 1960s, with progressive shapes and objects forming in the center of the canvas. His career however, had reached a turning point. The artist was dissatisfied with himself, and with his own generation of American artists, art theorists, and critics “for having allowed what had once seemed a liberating faith in the expressive capacities of abstract art to petrify into dogma.”(12) Furthermore, the political situation of the 1960s affected him adversely. At this time, he was working in a style that no longer suited him and found it absurd that while the world was falling apart around him, he would go into his studio “to adjust a red to a blue.” (13) Guston questioned his abilities as an artist, and, for a time in 1966, quit painting altogether. Guston did continue to draw, and by the end of the 1960s, he had produced dozens of small-scale drawings of objects—a hand, shoe, or book. Then, in 1968, Guston entered into his last and final phase of his career.
Guston’s works of the late 60s and 1970s have been described as “clumsy, crude, artless, cartoony, affected, and klutzy.”(14) When Guston’s show opened at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970, the audience was shocked and dismayed by what they saw. Confronted by cartoon-like images that included hooded KKK figures, disembodied arms and legs, cigarettes and whiskey bottles, the critics and audience thought that Guston’s work had taken a terrible turn and it was the end of a great career. Seen in retrospect, however, the late paintings are a culmination of Guston’s influences and personal experiences. The cartoon-like symbolism brings together the artist’s early interest in de Chirico’s metaphysical landscapes and those humorous landscapes of Herriman’s “Krazy Kat.”
What the audience didn’t understand that evening was that in order to understand Guston’s later work, it was imperative to look at his entire oeuvre. However, there was one person that did understand the meaning behind the works—Willem de Kooning told Guston he didn’t know what the fuss was about—clearly the paintings were about “freedom.”
This freedom for Guston was having the liberty as an artist to paint what one wanted to paint without being judged or categorized. Guston never did (and never will) fit into a neat, organized period of American art. Painting granted him freedom from his tormented past and himself. In 1978, he explained the KKK imagery: “They are self-portraits, I perceive myself being behind the hood. In the new series of ‘hoods’ my attempt was really not to illustrate, to do pictures of the Ku Klux Klan, as I had done earlier.”(15) Guston died in 1980, and by the end of his career, he had removed the hood and revealed the artist beneath, glaring into his studio with a single eye and cigarette in hand.
(1)Guston made this comment around 1960, and it is documented in several books about his life and art. This biography was compiled from the following resources, most of which contain this quote: Dore Ashton, "A Critical Study of Philip Guston." Berkley: University of California Press, 1976; San Francisco Museum of Art, "Philip Guston." New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1980; Musa Mayer, "Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston." New York: Knopf, 1988; Kunstmuseum Bonn, "Philip Guston: Paintings, 1947-1979." Bonn: Kunstmuseum, 2000; Michael Auping, ed. "Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth: 110." London: Third Millenium Publishing, 2002; Michael Auping, ed., "Philip Guston: Retrospective." New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003.
(2) Mitchell D. Kahan, 'Philip Guston: Feeling and Thinking,' "Philip Guston." (Greenville: Greenville County Museum of Art, 1986): unpaginated.
(3) Sometimes, decades later, when Guston was deeply depressed or drunk, or both, he would mention his father’s suicide to close friends. “Can you imagine how it feels to find your father like that?” he would ask. For more, see Mayer, 10-14.
(4) Auping, "Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth," 74.
(5) Auping, ed., "Philip Guston: Retrospective," 15.
(6) Krishnamurti said, “Revolt is essential in order to escape from the narrowness of tradition, from the binding influence of belief, of theories.” For more, see Mayer, p. 13 and Ashton.
(7) That faculty member was sculptor George Stanley, designer of the Academy of Motion Picture and Sciences’ Oscar award and the elephant symbol of the Republican Party.
(8) Auping, 17.
(9) Mayer, 32.
(10) When Pollock found out Guston was moving to Iowa City, he reportedly raged one night, “What the hell are going out there for?” See Mayer, p. 32.
(11) For an interesting contrast of Mondrian’s deconstruction of the figure, see Kimbell Art Museum, "Mondrian 1829-1914: The Path to Abstraction." Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 2002.
(12) Auping, "Philip Guston: Retrospective," 54.
(13) Ibid, 56.
(14) Mayer, p. 156.
(15) Ibid, 148.
Letha Clair Robertson 11.04.03