The Early Years 1913-1939
1913 Born on June 27th, in Montreal, Canada (as Phillip Goldstein), the youngest of seven children. His parents Louis Goldstein and Rachel Ehrenleib were Russian immigrants from Odessa who settled in Canada c.1905.
1922 Seeking better economic conditions, the Goldstein family moves to Los Angeles. There, Louis Goldstein, who had been a train engineer in Russia, is only able to find work as a junkman. In 1923, following a deep depression, Louis Goldstein commits suicide. It is 10-year old Phillip who finds him dead, hanging from a rafter in a shed.
1925-26 Encouraged by his mother, Guston begins to draw at home, copying cartoon strips from newspapers and retreating into a closet lit by a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Late in life Guston recalled: "As a boy I would hide in the closet when the older brothers and sisters came with their families to Mama's apartment for the Sunday afternoon dinner visit. I felt safe. Hearing their talk about illnesses, marriages, and the problems of making a living, I felt my remoteness in the closet with the single light bulb. I read and drew in this private box. Some Sundays I even painted. I had given my dear Mama passionate instructions to lie.... 'Where is Phillip?' I could hear them.... 'Oh, he is away, with friends' I was happy in my sanctuary.... After a lifetime, I still have never been able to escape.... It is still a struggle to be hidden and feel strange, my favorite mood."
Given his interest in the comic strips Krazy Kat, by George Harriman and Mutt and Jeff, by Bud Fisher, his mother enrolls him in a cartoon-drawing correspondence course.
1927 Enrolls in the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles where he meets classmate Jackson Pollock. Through their art teacher, John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky, the two friends are introduced to modern European art. While there, the young artist draws for the student publication, and wins a drawing contest run by the Los Angeles Times.Philip with his older brother Nat, Venice Beach
Lives with his mother in Venice, California. Phillip and Jackson Pollock are expelled from school for publishing and distributing a leaflet which satirized the English department and criticized the popularity of sports in the school. Pollock is re-admitted but not Guston, who never returns to formal education. Continuing to study and paint independently, he works part-time in different jobs, including as extra in several movies.
While looking through the January issue of the magazine Creative Art, Phillip becomes acquainted with Mexican mural painting. With high school friends Manuel Tolegian and Pollock, he accompanies Schwankovsky to the Ojai Valley to see and hear the Hindu mystic Krishnamurti.
Awarded a yearlong scholarship to study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, but disillusioned by the instruction and the traditional methods that are taught there, he leaves after three months.Musa McKim at 22
While at Otis, he meets Musa Jane McKim (born 1908) who would become his wife within a few years, as well as Reuben Kadish, who introduces him to the Los Angeles Surrealist painter Lorser Feitelson.
Phillip begins studying on his own, with guidance from Lorser Feitelson, who takes him to see the Walter and Louise Arensberg collection. Here Guston is able to view Cubist and Surrealist paintings for the first time, including works by Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso.The Arensberg Collection, Los Angeles, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives Photo credit: © Fred R. Dapprich. Conde Nast. Getty Images. Pablo Picasso,Female Nude, 1910.© 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Marcel Duchamp,The King and Queen Traversed by Swift Nudes, 1912 © Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York 2019 Giorgio de Chirico, The Soothsayer’s Recompense, 1913 © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome
In reproductions, Phillip discovers the paintings of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance, especially Giotto, Masaccio, Michelangelo, Mantegna and Piero della Francesca, artists who would continue to fascinate him for the rest of his life.Sketchbook studies, c.1930's
With Jackson Pollock, he visits Pomona College in Los Angeles, where they observe the Mexican José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), painting his mural Prometheus in the student dining hall. This is probably the first direct contact Guston has with mural art.Jose Clemente Orozco
Prometheus, 1930, fresco mural, Pomona College, Claremont, California © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City Photo: © Fredrik Nilsen
Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchase, with funds from the Hearst Corporation and the Norman and Rosita Winston Foundation, Inc.
Phillip completes a drawing that serves as the basis for his painting Conspirators, 1932, the first time the hooded figures appeared in his work.
Photograph by Edward Weston © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents
Phillip is taken to meet photographer Edward Weston, who makes this striking portrait of the 17-year old.
That year marks the completion of the artist's first major painting, Mother and Child.Mother and Child, c. 1930
Inspired by the ideas of the Mexican muralists who emphasized the power of art in promoting social change, he becomes more involved in political affairs.
Guston paints a panel for the walls of the John Reed Club, a group with Marxist ideas that encourages artists to abandon the concept of "art for art's sake." The fresco depicts the Scottsboro Case and the atrocities committed by the Ku Klux Klan. It is later destroyed by vandals in 1933, alleged to be the "Red Squad" of the LA police.
Phillip meets the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueros when he is painting his controversial murals at the Chouinard Art Institute and the Plaza Art Center in Los Angeles.
David Alfaro Siqueiros, America Tropical, mural, 1932 © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP
The young artist's first exhibition in a gallery in the Stanley Rose Bookshop in Hollywood is organized by Herman Cherry, exhibiting Conspirators, now lost.
Phillip travels to Mexico with Reuben Kadish and the poet Jules Langsner. With the help of David Alfaro Siqueros, they secure an unpaid commission to paint a political mural in Morelia at the Palacio de Maximilian, now the Muséo Regional Michoacano. Completed in six months, the monumental 1024 square foot fresco, variously entitled The Struggle Against War and Terrorism, The Inquisition, or The Struggle Against War and Fascism, is written up in Time magazine as "One of the biggest, most effective frescoes in all Mexico."
Reuben Kadish and Philip Guston with their W.P.A. mural, ca. 1936 / unidentified photographer. [Photographs of Reuben Kadish, Philip Guston, and others], 1934-1935. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Returning to California, Phillip and Reuben Kadish work together on a mural comissioned the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Duarte, a town close to Los Angeles, at the City of Hope Sanitarium for Tuberculosis. "The subject was lighter in tone," Guston later wrote of this fresco, "depicting birth, youth, middle age, and death." Unlike the Morelia mural, which is in poor condition and has yet to be restored, this fresco was expertly conserved in 1998 by the Getty Museum, and is on view at the Visitor Center of what is now a cancer hospital.
The City of Hope fresco represents his first commission by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created as a part of Roosevelt's New Deal through the Federal Arts Project (FAP) in order to support the work of artists with commissions to decorate public buildings.
In 1935, Phillip begins to use the name Philip Guston.
In the fall, Guston moves to New York where he initially lives with Jackson Pollock and his brother Sande McCoy, before finding a loft on Christopher Street.
Guston continues to work on murals commissioned by the WPA. Working on the Mural Project, Guston meets many fellow painters, among them James Brooks, Conrad Marca-Relli, Burgoyne Diller, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Stuart Davis, whose studio was next door to his in New York.
In the City, he visits many exhibitions in museums and galleries, such as Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art, and the semi-private collection of modern European art, at the Museum of Living Art, New York University.
From these visits, the works The Three Musicians, by Picasso and The City, by Léger have a special impact on Guston. He is also able to see the de Chirico exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery.
On February 4th he marries painter Musa Jane McKim, with Sande McCoy, Jackson Pollock's brother, as a witness. The couple moves to 22nd Street, near Fifth Avenue, in New York City.
Guston first exhibits Bombardment, his response to the war in Spain and the April 1937 German bombing raids. An Exhibition in Defense of World Democracy is dedicated to the people of Spain and China at the American Artists Congress, New York.Bombardment, 1937
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Musa and Tom Mayer, 2011. Photograph and Digital Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art
Bombardment was also exhibited the following year in the 1938 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where Guston would continue to exhibit from 1940 to 1963. Guston also exhibits mural studies in the temporary galleries of the Municipal Art Committee, New York.
In 1938, he receives a commission to paint a mural entitled Early Mail Service and Construction of the Railroad, for the Post Office in Commerce, Georgia.Early Mail Service and Construction of the Railroad, 1938
Guston is asked to create a mural Maintaining America's Skills for the façade of the WPA building at the New York World's Fair. While the mural was destroyed when the temporary building was demolished in 1940, visitors to the World's Fair voted this work the best outdoor mural of the more than four hundred on exhibit.
Philip Guston, 1939 Feb. 15 / David Robbins, photographer. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, circa 1920-1965, bulk 1935-1942. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Philip Guston, age 22, in 1935 © Arthur Ames
Guston receives another WPA commission for Work and Play at the Queensbridge Houses in New York, the largest housing project in North America. In the 1960s, an inept attempt at restoring this mural, still on view in the lobby of the Community Center, leads Guston to ask that his signature be removed.The entire Queensbridge mural
Philip Guston, 1940 Aug. 21 / Sol Libsohn, photographer. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, circa 1920-1965, bulk 1935-1942. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Before the mural was completed, government inspectors thought they saw a hammer and sickle—the symbol of communism—in the curve of a dog's tail against a child's leg. Guston was ordered to stop painting the mural until his background was investigated.
Easel Painting 1940-49© Estate of Wendell Jones
© 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
After the Queensbridge mural is completed, Guston is ready to leave the WPA and move away from a focus on large-scale social and political themes to concentrate on easel painting and more personal exploration. That year, he views Picasso: Forty years of his Art at the Museum of Modern Art. Guston also visits an exhibition of the works of Max Beckmann in the Buchholz Gallery. Branded a "degenerate" painter by the Nazis, Beckmann had emigrated to Amsterdam.
© 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
Guston moves to the town of Woodstock, in upstate New York. Due to economic necessity, he continues work on several commissioned mural projects.
Over the next two years, he completes commissions from the Section of Fine Arts of New York State, as well as murals in Laconia, New Hampshire, the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C. and the President Steamship Lines: S.S. Monroe, S.S. Adams, and S.S. Van Buren removed when the ships are requisitioned in the Second World War.Gladiators, 1940
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Edward R. Broida
In Gladiators, he further explores the resonant imagery of children fighting from the Queensbridge mural.
Guston completes what he later describes as his first mature easel painting, Martial Memory.Martial Memory, 1941
Saint Louis Art Museum, Eliza McMillan Trust, 115:1942
Martial Memory is first exhibited at the Carnegie Institute show, Directions in American Painting. That same year, Musa and Philip work together on companion murals for the US Forestry Service Building in Laconia, New Hampshire.
Detail of Musa's panel, Wildlife in the White Mountains
Guston accepts a position as visiting artist and teacher at the State University of lowa in lowa City, succeeding painter Fletcher Martin whom he had met in Woodstock.
Iowa City, 1942
With the completion of this large-scale mural, installed in 1943 in the auditorium of the Social Security Building in Washington D.C., Guston is finally able to concentrate completely on his easel painting.Musa with Reconstruction and Well-Being of the Family at the Social Security Building, Washington, DC.
In January Guston's daughter is born and named Musa Jane after her mother.
Guston paints a series of gouaches to illustrate an article on the defense industry and the army air training programs for Fortune magazine.
From FORTUNE. © 1944 FORTUNE Media IP Limited All rights reserved. Used under license.
Guston attends classes in celestial navigation in order to complete a set of murals used as visual aids for pre-flight training by the Naval Air Force.
Over the next several years, Guston participates regularly in exhibitions at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and elsewhere. He receives numerous prizes for his paintings, among them the prestigious Carnegie Award for Sentimental Moment, reproduced on the cover of ARTnews, chosen from among the work of 350 artists invited to participate.
Young Mother, 1944
Guston's first solo exhibition of paintings and drawings is held at the State University of Iowa.
Guston completes his culminating work of this period, If This Be Not I. "This was the first time that I had the leisure and time, when I went out to the Midwest to teach” Guston later recalled during a 1972 slide talk. "So there was a great joy in moving the paint around, and working with atmospheres in oil like this. I worked on it for about a year, I tried to summarize everything I knew about painting."If This Not Be I, 1945
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis, MO, University purchase, Kende Sale Fund, 1945 Sanctuary, 1944
By 1946, Guston finds himself losing interest in the figurative work for which he has been so highly praised by the critics. Now in St. Louis, teaching at Washington University, he begins to experiment with less realistic imagery.
"I started to become dissatisfied with what I had done and wanted to move on," he said years later about this time. "A strong influence on me at that time was Picasso of the late 20s and 30s, those rich still lives of his, where representational forms are compressed and made into new combinations, new shapes.”
Life magazine publishes a feature, "Philip Guston: Carnegie Winner's Art Is Abstract and Symbolic", noting his rapid rise to fame and the prestigious award for Sentimental Moment, a painting Guston now perceives as "too literal." The article shows the artist in front of his most recent painting, which he subsequently destroys.Photo by H.G. Walker for Life Magazine
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, New York, Museum Purchase
A Guggenheim fellowship allows Guston to take a leave of absence from his teaching position. Despite all the acclaim his work has received, he is feeling increasingly dissatisfied. He moves his family back to upstate New York. "Guston's withdrawal to Woodstock accelerated his descent," wrote Dore Ashton. "No amount of reassurance from the outside world could dispel his suffocating sense of insufficiency during the next couple of years." He finds new friendship with painter Bradley Walker Tomlin, and writer Robert Phelps and his wife, painter Rosemarie Beck. As Phelps recalled, "We knew just about every movie house in the Hudson Valley."
Guston completes a series of works that culminate in The Porch II, begun in St. Louis. "This was after the films of the concentration camps started coming back, the photos and stories," he said. "I think I consciously thought of them not as children, but also as lost, agonized beings. All these figures are compressed, as if the chairs and legs and columns and horns and so on all become flat like paper pressed against each other."
With the completion of the almost wholly abstract The Tormentors in early 1948, Guston's inner conflicts make painting impossible. "I felt I'd reached the end of this preoccupation," he later said. "Then followed a year of destroying everything. Everything seemed unsuccessful to me, and I couldn't continue figuration. The forms I wanted to make couldn't take the shapes of things and figures... I felt that I had to drop figuration and let it go, and it was a very lengthy struggle to do that. I felt torn between conflicting loyalties... I mean the loyalty to my own past and the other loyalty to what you might still to do, or what you might still become, which is, of course, still unknown."The Tormentors, 1947-1948
Collection SFMOMA, Gift of the artist
Guston receives a Prix de Rome, as well as a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the fall, he leaves his wife and daughter in Woodstock to travel to Italy, where he is given a studio in the American Academy in Rome for a year, and is able to study the paintings of the great Italian masters he's loved since boyhood in person. "It was thrilling to go to Arezzo or Orvieto for the first time," he told biographer Dore Ashton. "I went to Arezzo many times, and to Florence. Seeing the frescoes, the Uffizi in Florence, and Siena excited and exhausted me."
Guston in his studio at the American Academy in Rome
© Herman Cherry
Guston continues to travel in Italy and travels to France and Spain. During the summer of 1949, Guston's wife Musa joins him in Italy, here pictured in Florence.
While he keeps none of the paintings done in his studio at the American Academy in Rome, nor the many drawings he reportedly does in Rome, Guston does bring back a few ink drawings done on the island of Ischia, where he goes "to escape the oppression of the masters."Drawing No. 2 (Ischia), 1949
In the fall of 1949, Guston returns to Woodstock after his year in Rome.
Frustrated with the isolation and quiet they had once sought upstate, Guston and his friend Bradley Walker Tomlin decide to share a studio in Manhattan, and seek the stimulation of other artists and writers, partaking in what Dore Ashton called, "a certain tremendous force energy [that] was propelling artists into more and more audacious activities."
At first, the family lives with Robert Phelps and his wife on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village until Guston is able to rent a small studio and cold water flat in the Tenth Street Studios, at 51 West 10th Street, where they are to remain during the winters until the building is demolished in 1956.The Tenth Street Studio building
With completion of Review, Guston fully engages with abstract paintings.Review, 1948-49
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gift of Musa Guston, 1992.82.2
Abstraction 1950-59Ellen Auerbach © The Estate of Ellen Auerbach, Akedmie der Künste, Berlin, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York
Guston’s long depression begins to lift when he takes a studio on 10th Street in New York, making regular visits to the Cedar Tavern and The Club, at 39 East 8th Street, where the artists are congregating. He begins drawing and painting again, but in a new way.
Collection SFMOMA, T. B. Walker Foundation Fund purchase
"I wanted to see if I could paint a picture -have a run, so to speak -without stepping back and looking at the canvas and to be willing to accept what happened, to suspend criticism. Instead of walking back, pulling out a cigarette and thinking, to not suspend my own endeavors, but to test myself, to see if my sense of structure was inherent. I would stand in front of the surface and simply keep on painting for three or four hours. I began to see that when I did that, I didn't lose structure at all."
Guston was not alone in exploring this way of working. A climate of radical invention and ferment was alive in New York at this time. Artists as diverse and individual in their work as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottleib, David Smith, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Guston and others were later known as the New York School or as Abstract Expressionists-- terms rejected by Guston, who later exclaimed, “what do they think, that we’re all on the same baseball team?”
Yet their studios and galleries were clustered on Tenth Street. Many evenings they met to discuss ideas at The Club and to talk and drink far into the night at the Cedar Tavern.
© Arthur Swoger Photography Collection
Guston with Mercedes Matter and Willem de Kooning, at the Cedar Bar. Behind them sit Frank O’Hara and Elaine de Kooning.
Art as an explicit agent of social change was over. The left had collapsed. The effect of the WPA had been to bring artists together as deserving of support in the post-depression and war years. But during the Truman and Eisenhower era, post-war America at large was indifferent to art.
Artists turned inward, as New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote: “Art consisted only of the will to paint and the memory of paintings…the artist’s struggle for identity took hold of the crisis directly, without ideological mediation.” Despite its lack of radical subject matter, what Rosenberg called “action painting…never doubted the radicalism of its intentions or its substance.” Dore Ashton, later Guston’s biographer, observed that these artists were united only by “their common need to denounce all rhetoric and elude all the nets cast by ambitious cataloguers and historians.”
Arthur Swoger Photography Collection
A decade later, when British critic David Sylvester reviewed these painters’ work in an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London, he entitled his review “New York Takeover.” “The main belief they shared was that the painter should function as far as possible without prejudices,” he wrote. “Painting was to be a leap into the unknown through which the artist might hope to arrive at an image that was really his. The only criterion by which that image could be judged was whether it seemed to be ‘authentic,’ ‘valid.’”
At the time, however, the new paintings emerging from these artists provoked mostly consternation. In writing about Guston’s first show of the new work in the Peridot Gallery in 1952, Time magazine focused on the change in his style, away from figuration, making the same kind of comment that would again plague Guston when he abandoned abstraction years later.From TIME. © 1952 TIME USA LLC. All rights reserved. Used under license.
During the early 50’s, Guston continued to further develop this new working process through forms and relationships that began with the few drawings he brought back from Italy.
When asked about his change from figurative to abstract work, Guston would sometimes refer to Mondrian’s early paintings of trees evolving through a process of cubist deconstruction into what have been called Mondrian's "plus-minus" drawings.
Although he never worked from any natural landscape, because of their light, pastel colors and deft brush strokes, Guston’s paintings of the early 50s, like Attar, 1953, have frequently been mischaracterized by critics as “abstract impressionist.”Attar, 1953
With Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Isamu Noguchi, George McNeil and Reuben Nakian, Guston decides to join the Charles Egan Gallery and has a one-man exhibition of his new paintings. But the relationship is short lived.1955
Following Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and Rothko, Guston joins the Sidney Janis Gallery, where he exhibits regularly until 1962. At first his work is met with a favorable critical reception."Recent Paintings Philip Guston" Sidney Janis Gallery, 1956
The much-praised works Guston completes during his early years of abstraction have found their way into major museum collections. By the mid-1950s, however, his paintings evidenced a gathering sense of solidity, with central forms in deeper, more saturated colors against an atmospheric ground, as in Dial, 1956Dial, 1956
Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchase
With his contemporaries Albers, de Kooning, Gorky, Kline, Motherwell, Pollock and Rothko, Guston exhibited a single painting from 1956-57, in 8 Americans at the Sidney Janis Gallery. Describing his state of mind at this point in time, Dore Ashton later wrote that Guston “had been reflecting for some time about the loss of the object in contemporary painting. He considered the loss ‘catastrophic’ and was troubled by the relatively diffuse quality of his paintings.”
© Arthur Swoger Photography Collection
Guston in his Chelsea studio, 1957
By 1958, another show at Sidney Janis reveals Guston distancing himself from the purity and minimalism beginning to take hold of abstract painting—and from his early 1950s abstracts that remind viewers of Impressionism. “If it once seemed plausible to speak of Guston’s work in terms of late Monet, the comparison is no longer relevant,” writes curator Sam Hunter. “When I work,” the artist explains, “I am not concerned with making pictures, or with what the work will look like, but only with the process of creation.”
Whitney Museum of American Art, Gift of Dr. Richard and Carole Rifkind
In a 1961 ARTnews article, poet and art writer Frank O’Hara describes a series of small gouaches that characterize Guston’s work of 1958 in what seems like a prescient analysis, given the figuration that would emerge a decade later. “Larger and brighter forms
play definite roles in the theater of the artist’s mind and hand. They pose, push each other and declaim: they are all purposefully directed and prepared to play subtle comic or mock-histrionic roles.... Here Guston is not only pondering the equilibrium of masses in the plane of his own discovered space...No symbolic aura is about these forms: they seem alive."
Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Hannelore B. and Rudolph B. Schulhof Collection, bequest of Hannelore B. Schulhof, 2012
Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of Musa and Tom Mayer
A Ford Foundation grant enables Guston to spend more time in his studio and to give up teaching to support his family. This support enables a prolific period of painting and drawing over the next several years.
By the end of the decade, Guston’s abstract work is widely shown internationally. In 1959, he is represented with three paintings from 1955-57 in 11. Documenta in Kassel, Germany, the influential second exhibition of European and American contemporary art held every five years.Painter, 1959 High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with Funds from the National Endowment for the Arts
The same year, a survey of 20 of Guston’s abstract paintings from the 1950s is shown in the V Bienal of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The United States representation, selected by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, consists of three parts, one devoted to Guston, one to sculptor David Smith, and the third entitled 10 Painters and Sculptors.
The following year would bring even more international exposure, with Guston representing the United States at the XXX International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, where Kenneth Sawyer, in his catalogue essay, captures the restless, questioning nature of Guston's process that so inspires other painters, yet so frustrates the critics.
“The most striking feature of Guston’s art is the compulsion to explore each idea to its logical conclusion, to elucidate it, to refine it, to exhaust it before turning to another. From the relative safety of one developmental period—his successes have been perhaps more consistent than any other painter in America today—to the terra incognita of the next has been the pattern of his progression as an artist. No sooner do his admirers become accustomed to his leap past the bounds of expectation than he presses on to a further dimension. Yet throughout the history of his art there is continuity—a continuity that is sometimes overlooked because of his persistent refusal to remain in one place.”
“Guston is an artist who will never cease to surprise us, for his is a mind and a spirit incapable of rest.”
In the spring of 1960, the magazine It is publishes the transcript of a panel moderated by critic Harold Rosenberg, in which Guston, Motherwell, Reinhardt and Tworkov participated. "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth that we inherit from abstract art," Guston said, "That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting, is 'impure.' It is the adjustment of impurities' which forces its continuity."
That summer, Guston takes his wife and daughter to Italy. Their first stop is Venice, where 13 of his paintings from the 1950s are on view in the U.S. Pavilion of the XXX Biennale Internazionale d'Arte. After a stay in Rome at the American Academy, the family travels elsewhere in Italy, and to Paris, Amsterdam, Belgium and London.
Guston's newest paintings, exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1961, reveal further changes. Reviewing for ARTnews, art critic Irving Sandler is sobered by what he sees: "His pictures of 1958-59 were confident and lucid compared to the new ones...Guston now seems to have lost himself within these expanses; the obscure, changeable atmosphere predominates...Guston's painting is one of continual renewal; his latest canvases are his most naked, disquieting and daring."
In May, the Guggenheim Museum in New York mounts Guston’s first major retrospective of almost 130 paintings and drawings from all periods of his work, from the 1930’s onward. Over the next year and a half, the exhibition travels to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; the Whitechapel Gallery, London and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Criticism of the direction his work has taken over the past several years continues to mount and to feed Guston’s own self-doubt and questioning. “I got into a collapse about it,” Guston later tells an interviewer, “and talked to the director who was doing the show, and cancelled it, as if I had to act out the fear of myself seeing it all together. Because by not seeing it all together, you could still perpetuate to yourself perhaps certain hopes and myths about yourself that you need. After I cancelled it, I thought then that this was some sort of defeat for myself. I wanted then to have it. It would be a greater defeat not to have it than to have it. I thought I better face it. I thought that in having it, exposing it to myself, and in being willing to be judged on your production, your work, that this might be a way I could get rid of it and move on.”Opening of the Philip Guston retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, 1962 Photo by Dan Budnik
With repeated visits to the museum when it is closed on Mondays, Guston recounts that, “I began to regard the Guggenheim as an extension of my own studio....I have a capacity for self-criticism, and it enabled me to move on. I think I became more ruthless with myself in the work following.."Installation view: Phillip Guston, 05/03/1962- 07/01/1962. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Robert E. Mates
Emily Genauer, critic for The New York Herald Tribune, says she is saddened by the Guggenheim retrospective, “The picture it presents of an immensely gifted artist perpetually frustrated on the one hand by his paucity of ideas, and on the other by his inability to find commitment to formalism sufficient.” Genauer continues to lament the artist’s turn away from figuration more than a decade earlier. “Guston, when he quit representational painting, knew more about the drama and excitement of the forms themselves than many painters ever learn. He failed to develop a new vocabulary of forms as he failed to develop new ideas.”
But it is the deeper response of two poets, Bill Berkson, in Kulchur Magazine, and especially Frank O’Hara, in ARTnews, that seems more prescient, given all that is to come later.
Taking a stand against the “approved” critical formalism of the art taking over the art scene, Berkson quotes Picasso, who had said in 1935: “Nor is there any ‘figurative’ and ‘non-figurative’ art. Everything appears to us in the guise of a ‘figure.’ Even in metaphysics ideas are expressed by means of symbolic ‘figures.’ See how ridiculous it is then to think of painting without ‘figuration.’ “Berkson is able to keenly feel and articulate Guston’s “staggering ambiguities” and “dangerous accuracy, a difficult mixture of painfulness and freshness in worked-over images,” concluding that “Guston has made a lofty, expressive, brilliant and objective art.”
In a review for ARTnews, entitled “Growth and Guston,” Frank O’Hara describes the “introspective aggressiveness” in Guston’s work. “Through most phases of his work there runs a constant interior, and at the same time very ambitious dialogue with art both past and present.” Unlike most other critics, O’Hara finds the last paintings exhilarating. “The new oils have taken on an even stronger identity, an even more severe bulk of imagery.” In these the poet discovers “summations of feeling painted with an almost luxuriant intensity, compounding textural and formal ambiguities of the ‘finding’ of the painting into images of great certainty and power.” And, in a later passage, “the marvelous burgeoning into life of their surfaces, the visual velocity of the painter’s unerring hand, make of Guston’s self-imposed demands simultaneous triumphs.”
At the end of October, the Sidney Janis Gallery opens a space on 57th Street with an exhibition entitled The New Realists. It is the first show of Pop Art in New York, and includes the work of Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal and Andy Warhol. So-called “gestural abstraction”—the new term for Abstract Expressionism—no longer interests the influential critics, who are busy anointing its successors: Pop Art, Color Field painting and Minimalism. In protest against the commitment Janis has made to Pop Art, painters Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston and Robert Motherwell leave the Sidney Janis Gallery.
In January, the Guggenheim retrospective travels to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Whitechapel Gallery, in London, the Palais des Beaux Arts, in Brussels and the Los Angeles County Museum in Los Angeles. “Guston is now in a position in which every move he makes is scrutinized, dissected, and where possible held up to ridicule,” writes Critic John Russell, in The Sunday Times. “This is always an unpleasant position, and it is especially so in the case of one who is essentially a scrupulous and introspective artist. Guston is fighting his way out with pictures which are larger, looser and less obviously fastidious than those which made his name.... The result is a long way from the tender perfections of 1952-53, but, if it wasn’t, Guston would by now be walled up in the history books.”1964
In his role as prime art world tastemaker, critic Clement Greenberg curates an influential exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art entitled Post-Painterly Abstraction. According to Greenberg’s dictum, Abstract Expressionism—or Painterly Abstraction, to use his term—has become the equivalent of the decadent Baroque and Mannerist painting in Europe that followed the classicism of the high Renaissance. “Painterly means, among other things, the blurred, broken, loose definition of color and contour,” Greenberg writes in his catalogue essay. “The opposite of painterly is clear, unbroken, and sharp definition.”
Of Guston and his fellow painters in New York, Greenberg writes dismissively, “It turned into a school, then into a manner, and finally into a set of mannerisms.... The most conspicuous of the mannerisms into which Painterly Abstraction has degenerated is what I call the ‘Tenth Street touch’ (after East Tenth Street in New York), which spread through abstract painting like a blight during the 1950s...Its leaders attracted imitators, many of them, and then some of these leaders took to imitating themselves. Painterly Abstraction became a fashion, and now it has fallen out of fashion, to be replaced by another fashion—Pop Art—but also to be continued, as well as replaced, by something as genuinely new and independent as Painterly Abstraction itself was ten or twenty years ago.”
Speaking to students of this period from a later perspective in the early 1970s, when critics like Greenberg still held the power to determine what was—and was not—acceptable in the world of contemporary art, Guston made clear what he thought of this kind of art criticism:
“I’ve been struck by the fact that because of certain developments in my thinking and painting which have occurred in the last number of years, and the reception to this work, it’s incredible to me how—well, bigoted isn’t the right word—but how doctrinaire the so-called modern movement is. There are certain shibboleths—certain myths exist—which are not at all provable, nor are they necessarily true, you know, like “Painting is flat.” We could make a whole list of things, like: “Do not use an overt subject matter,” “The painting is a concrete object.” I mean, who says so? As if these things are handed down from Mt. Sinai or something! And the original impulse in modern art of the masters, which we enjoy, is so difficult to remember—yet we must remember—is that what was once radical and truly subversive to art, was discovered later to be simply a continuity of art itself. In other words, I am proposing that painting and sculpture must, to continue, be continuously radical and question modern art itself.”
But not all critics embrace these “doctrinaire” views.
That year sees the publication of The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audiences, a volume of essays from Harold Rosenberg, the art critic of The New Yorker.
In his introduction, Rosenberg argues that for the artist in the post-war period, the “social isolation of art” was real, and existential anxiety went far beyond middle-class nostalgic notions of the genius “suffering in his garret.”
© Dan Budnik
“Must one remind budding art historians that the uneasiness of art in the fact of its own situation was not adopted by artists as a manner, in the way that one adopts a leather jacket or a hairdo that covers the eyes?” Rosenberg writes. “Anxiety was forced upon art as the experience that accompanies the rejection of shallow or fraudulent solutions."
In this year Guston mounts a large exhibition of his most recent paintings and drawings at the newly renovated Jewish Museum in New York, curated by the director and art historian Sam Hunter. This is the second major exhibition of Guston’s work at a New York museum in four years.
© Renate Ponsold
In Yes, But..., a biography published a decade later, Dore Ashton traces the path that Guston was taking at the time of the Jewish Museum show:
“Throughout the period of the gray paintings following the Guggenheim exhibition, Guston worked with increasing momentum, seizing upon whatever means he could to encompass the full range of his feelings. Since his feelings seemed always in a state of emerging, he worked from image to image, trapping now one state of mind, now another. The throbbing, heaving surfaces often mirrored both thought and thing instantaneously, in a way that many viewers found difficult to understand.”
Following a painful separation from Musa, his wife of nearly 30 years, and a strained reconciliation after the end of a lengthy affair with a photographer, Guston again finds himself in despair. He has nowhere left to go in his painting, and the forms that have been gathering for nearly a decade are not yet ready to fully declare themselves. Later, of course, these dark, abstract figures and heads will be seen as “prototypes,” to use Dore Ashton’s term, but for this moment, after all the exposure and critical commentary, Guston wants only to withdraw from the art world completely.Guston in his Florida studio
In Florida for a winter teaching position at New College in Sarasota, Guston has stopped painting altogether.
As before, it is drawing that becomes both his refuge and his form of exploration. Over the winter, he makes hundreds of what he later calls “pure” drawings.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, one of Guston’s closest confidants and friends has been the composer Morton Feldman. Reminiscing later, Guston later told this story of that year:
“This winter, Feldman was in Texas and I was in Florida, and again I’m going through some kind of changes...I was doing a lot of drawings and I was really distressed. I was down to a line, a couple of lines.
And he called from Texas and I said, “Oh, I’m going crazy, I’m down to one line.” He said, “Hold that line. I’ll be right there.” I picked him up at the airport, and all these drawings were on the walls and he didn’t say anything. After dinner we went walking along the seashore in the Florida moonlight. And I said, “What do you think of these new things?”
© Renate Ponsold
And he said, “You know, the last trick of Houdini was that he locked himself in a trunk, they threw away the key and then threw the trunk off the Brooklyn Bridge, and he got out.”
And then there was a long pause.
We walked another five minutes and he said, “But you haven’t thrown away the key.”
THE LATE WORK RETURN TO FIGURATION 1968-1971
“There are times in one’s life,” Guston shares in a letter to his friend, the poet Bill Berkson. “When you begin all over again, from the beginning. A true turning over.”
The year 1968 signals a radical change for Guston, a clear break with the gradual evolution of his abstractions of 1950 to 1965. From within the cleansing process of the “pure” drawings, the seeds of figuration begin to grow and flourish. “[It was] about a year and a half of just drawing and this tug-of-war,” Guston explains to students at the Yale Summer Art School at Norfolk a few years later. “I mean, I became very reduced. Some of the drawings are just one or two lines. And then reacting against that, with a very deep desire to paint tangible things. And it began with just the forms around me. I mean, my shoe on the floor. Books. I did lots of shoes and lots of books. Lightbulbs. Just common things around. I wanted to wipe the slate clean. Get rid of ‘Art’.”
Guston leaves his New York City loft for the solitude of a new cinderblock studio constructed on their Woodstock property, but the doctrinaire dictates of abstraction espoused by the New York critics continue to disturb him. “Who is a painter, after all?” he scribbles in a note to himself. “Man is image-making and painting is image-making. The abstract painters—What are they telling us? That this is absolute? Well, all right, so is this beer glass. But what else is man? There are many things that move him.”
Increasingly alienated from the New York art scene, Guston visits the City infrequently, although some connections that reflect his values endure. He occasionally gives talks and critiques at the New York Studio School, founded in 1964 by painter Mercedes Matter and her students at Pratt Institute to uphold studio classes at a time when many art schools appear to have abandoned traditional art education. In a 1963 ART news essay entitled “What’s Wrong with U.S. Art Schools?” Matter wrote about the necessity of “that painfully slow education of the senses,” especially through drawing, required for genuine artistic growth.
Over the next several years, Guston lectures on his own creative process as his work continues to evolve at Boston University, pictured above, and at New York Studio School, where art students can still learn the practices Guston has embraced from his early days of drawing from and studying the Old Masters.
After quitting the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1962, Guston, and the other Janis artists who also left in protest of the gallery’s new focus on Pop Art, decide to join the newly opened Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in 1964.
It is there, in 1967, that Guston first meets David McKee, then working for Marlborough, who begins to visit Guston’s studio regularly and is an essential and primary witness to Guston’s transition to figuration. With his wife Renee, David McKee was to become Guston’s exclusive dealer until the McKee Gallery closes in 2015, a span of 41 years.Guston's new Woodstock studio in winter
With the financial support of a second Guggenheim fellowship, and the moral support of poet friends like Bill Berkson and Clark Coolidge, who begin to visit him in Woodstock, Guston throws himself into the new imagery in the isolation of his new studio with renewed freedom and excitement. “The feeling of going out of my house, practically naked in just a pajama top, to look at the work of the night before,” he explains to a journalist. “No taxis, no trucks, no buses, no openings, no parties. I found my productivity practically quadrupled.”
The riots and police brutality at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago in part motivate a return to imagery that had expressed Guston’s outrage as a young man in 1930, when the Ku Klux Klan were visible and active in Los Angeles. David McKee was among the first to see the new paintings: “They were exciting because they reflected so much of what was happening in the world at that time in America, the civil rights disturbances and the marches and the fires and the anger and the disruption of everything. And we would talk about his own early interests in taking a position against social injustice.”
When asked to explain his departure from abstraction some years later, Guston offers a further insight into the state of mind that propelled these works: “When the 1960s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. Conspirators, 1930 What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"
Whatever their apparent crudeness, to the hooded figures in the small panels and larger paintings of 1968-1970, Guston brings a more mature and complex reckoning of the sources of evil. These enigmatic hooded figures are more than Ku Klux Klansmen, and certainly more than comics. They call to mind the penitents and flagellants who appear in Christian imagery of the early Renaissance, expiating the sins of humanity. The hoods mask identity as figures in Venetian carnivale, or as the faceless mannequins of Giorgio de Chirico.
The Studio, 1969, is an ironic portrait of the artist and the best known of the “little bastards,” as Guston sometimes referred to these enigmatic hooded characters. In his paintings of 1969, they appear in various scenarios: riding around in cars plotting and engaged in dialogue, even as painters. "They are self-portraits,” he later said. “I perceive myself as being behind the hood. . .”
Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Presented by the Conlon Family through Section 1003, Taxes Consolidation Act, 2005
A friend introduces Guston to a fellow exile from New York City, the writer Philip Roth, who has retreated to Woodstock to escape the notoriety following the publication of his novel Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth’s disgust with the New York literary world matches Guston’s growing distaste for the art world. Intellectual companions and connoisseurs of the “crapola” of popular culture, the two Philips spend long evenings discussing their favorite writers, films, food and politics.Riding Around, 1969
"When I went to Woodstock in 1969, I felt isolated, lonely,” Philip Roth later recounted to Dore Ashton. “Philip knew about solitude and isolation. But he was rather elated. He had this secret in his studio.”
By the end of 1969, Guston has filled his big new studio with dozens of paintings of the hooded figures in various scenarios. The small works yield to increasingly large canvases.The Studio, 1969
“It became apparent that this was a cohesive body of work,” David McKee says, recalling a studio visit. “And I said, ‘you know we’ve got to show these’ and he said, ‘you think so? You think people are going to get it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but it’s a wonderful body of work’. To me it was clear that it was a reflection of his sense of social injustice. That’s how I saw it from the very beginning and felt its importance.”
For the most part, the critical response to the 33 paintings in the October 1970 show at Marlborough Gallery is resoundingly negative. In a scathing review entitled "A Mandarin Pretending To Be A Stumblebum", The New
Perhaps John Perrault, the critic for the Village Voice, expresses it best, in this carefully labelled clipping that Guston’s wife, Musa, saves in her files. Immediately after the Marlborough opening, the Gustons escape to Italy, for a residency at the American Academy in Rome, where after a month or two of restless traveling to see his favorite painters again, Guston gets to work. In his studio at the Academy, he begins a series of oils on paper collectively known as the Roma paintings, in which the hooded figures, while still occasionally present, give way to the timeless beauty of Rome, with its pines and ancient ruins.
In May of 1971, Guston ships more than 100 of these new Roma paintings on paper back to Woodstock.Box Tree - Rome, 1971
Untitled (Roma), 1971
After his eight-month Italian sojourn, Guston is ready to go home. On his return, his friend Philip Roth shows him a just-completed manuscript for Our Gang, a biting satire about President Richard Nixon’s administration, an obsession that Guston and Roth have long shared. In Guston’s absence, things in the U.S. have gone from bad to worse.
Untitled (Roma), 1971
Untitled (Roma), 1971
That summer, The New York Times and The Washington Post begin publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, a government study documenting three decades of secret US military involvement in Vietnam, hidden from the American public. Nixon’s attempt to suppress publication is overturned by the United States Supreme Court.
Inspired by Roth’s excursion into satire, Guston embarks on a feverishly productive two-month drawing spree, during which he completes over 200 ink drawings in two sketchbooks on the life and times of Richard Nixon. The drawings take the form of a narrative running from Nixon’s boyhood to the current plans he and his administration are developing for a rapprochement with “Red China,” as the communist Chinese government was then known. This statesmanlike move Guston perceives as a deeply hypocritical and opportunistic act for a politician who has built his entire legal career on the virulent anti-communism of the McCarthy era.
From these drawings, Guston chooses 73, which he collects in book form to tell a story he entitles Poor Richard. Over the next few years, Guston’s writer friends encourage him to submit Poor Richard for publication, but in the end, these extraordinary drawings are not exhibited or published until 2001, 21 years after the artist’s death in 1980.
In 2018, Philip Guston: Nixon Drawings 1971 &1975, the catalogue of an exhibition of over 200 of these overlooked drawings, wins the coveted FILAF d’Or international prize as the best art book of 2017.
THE LATE WORK PAINTER’S FORMS 1972-1980
Dissatisfied with the Marlborough Gallery, Guston severs his relationship with the gallery, asking that all of his work be shipped back to Woodstock. Meanwhile, his painting begins a transformation, leaving the hooded figures behind for more direct and at times confessional imagery.
Two smoking head panels have opened new territory. Despite the turmoil of the past months, there’s real excitement in these unmasked images, Guston tells his poet friend, Clark Coolidge. “I go in the studio to do this and that, and I see them—and those two heads have kept me going. I know I’m going to burst out in these new pictures very soon now that my pictures are back, and the racks are built.”
While the new work continues to baffle the art world, Guston’s overall contribution to painting is honored through a membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Repeatedly and for the rest of his life, Guston is asked to explain his return to figuration. He is called upon to justify his need to evolve, to explore, to go further, rather than to continue in an approved style. As if to forestall these questions, he begins a 1972 slide talk at the Yale Summer Art School in Norfolk by saying this:
“It’s taken me years to come to the conclusion that probably the only thing one can really learn, the only technique to learn, is the capacity to be able to change. And it’s a very difficult thing. But as modern artists that’s our fate, constant change. I don’t mean novelty or anything like that. What I mean is that this serious play, which we call art, can’t be static. I mean you have to learn how to play in new ways, all the time.”
But why did he have to abandon the beautiful abstractions of the 1950s? Guston is asked.Voyage, 1956
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1957
“What was I going to do—live in that world?” he replied. “I know that world of 1956. I like that painting very much, it’s fine. It’s one of my ‘nice babies.’ Do you know when I did that picture, I worked for six months trying to duplicate it. When you do something you love, you want to do more of them. That’s a very natural thing. I know what that picture is: it just moved through me. And then like a dope, I tried to do more for six months, trying to kid myself. But it didn’t work. It’s not rejection. I’m just not there anymore. I don’t live in that world anymore.” And In 1977, responding to a New York Post reporter: “You know a lot of people feel that if I’d stayed with what I was doing, I could have been a nice rich, successful artist. I’m not against money. I’m just for fulfillment more. I felt a range in me, you know… I wanted to be made whole again, between the way I thought and the way I felt. I wanted to become complete again, as I was when I was a kid.”
As none of his new work is selling and he is no longer receiving a monthly stipend, as he had from the Marlborough Gallery, Guston accepts a teaching position at Boston University, traveling once a month to critique the work of graduate students in painting. More than 40 years later, some of his students still claim his profound influence, not so much in form or style, but in the lasting effects of his challenging them to dig deep within themselves and engage fully in the “serious play of painting.”
In spring of the following year, the Boston University Art Gallery holds a one-man show of Guston’s late work, in conjunction with the publication of an interview in the Boston University Journal.Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, purchased with the generous support of the Vereniging Rembrandt and Mrs. Musa Guston, Woodstock, NY, 1983
“They’re really very recent, these recumbent figures,” Guston tells the critic Harold Rosenberg in the interview. “Actually, I think of them as the painter in bed. One of them, the one with the French fries, is called, Painting, Smoking, Eating. Paint cans on his chest, imagining a painting above him. Thinking now about them, they are mostly about painting, they’re paintings about the painter.”
After leaving Marlborough Gallery, David McKee opens a gallery of his own with his wife, Renee Conforte, on the second floor of the Barbizon Hotel, on Lexington Avenue. Within a few years, the gallery is able to expand its space in the Fuller Building, on Madison Avenue and 57th Street. Guston, who recognizes in the young dealer both a champion and friend, has been without a gallery since his own departure from Marlborough."Philip Guston" 1974 McKee Gallery
In November, McKee holds the first of seven solo Philip Guston exhibitions at the gallery over the six years that follow. His dealer’s unflagging enthusiasm, encouragement and support has become crucial to Guston.
“I am in a big painting streak,” Guston writes to his poet friend Bill Berkson that spring. “Keeps on going, stranger and more mystifying than ever…So this is what I’ve been after so many years—a good, heavy foot in the door of this room, finally. What a difference—to live out a painting instead of just painting it.”
That year, Guston receives the Distinguished Teaching of Art Award from the College Art Association.With students at Boston University, 1978
Before going to press with her new book, Dore Ashton shares with Guston the manuscript proofs for Yes, but... A Critical Study of Philip Guston to be published the following year by Viking Press.
His comments to Ashton reveal both the excitement he feels about his new work, and his concern about being depicted as a neurotic and troubled artist.Guston with Dore Ashton, looking at (L-R) Spleen, In the Studio, and Painter’s Head, 1975 Denise Hare © The Estate of Denise Hare
Guston continues working furiously, and on a larger scale. In 1976 alone, 44 of what are to become his best known iconic and allegorical large paintings emerge from his studio.The Door, 1976
“I’ve been painting around the clock, 24 hours or more—sleep a bit and go back—it is totally uncontrollable now,” Guston writes to Bill Berkson that summer. “Phone has been off for months and I look at mail only when a painting is done. They are large, ten feet or so, and take complete possession of me…. It is a new ‘real’ world now that I am making—and I can’t stop. One to another and the sensation that there is always one picture—the last one. But then the need to staple up another canvas. Time—time! Is it my age or does it really take forty years or more to become an artist?”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Edward R. Broida The Painter, 1976 Pit, 1976
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased 1980
David McKee visits the studio regularly. Solo shows are mounted in 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1979, including two month-long exhibitions in March and April of 1977 to accommodate the flood of work from the prior year. But the critical reaction is muted, and the new work still isn’t selling. Hilton Kramer, who remains foremost art critic for The New York Times, calls Guston’s new work, “silly.” “Putting paint to canvas, he is in complete control,” Kramer writes, “But when it comes to investing the results with big, extra-esthetic ‘meaning,’ he becomes mawkish and unconvincing.” Critics remain fixated on the cartoon-like aspect of his paintings. “Put it this way,” says a clearly exasperated Guston, about his early influences. “I remember lying on the beach at Venice, using the comic section of a newspaper for a mat, but I was looking at a book on Giotto.” In May, Guston’s long painting streak is interrupted by a series of strokes that leave his wife Musa hospitalized for a month, with damage to her cognitive and word-finding abilities. She is unable to write poetry, and her role as caretaker and guardian of Guston’s privacy is compromised. “Our way of life will have to change,” he writes despairingly to Bill Berkson. “Continued painting as I’ve been doing is for now, out.”Red Blanket, 1977
Distressed by Musa’s condition, the lack of sales and positive critical response, Guston asks David McKee to send all his work back up to Woodstock. When he does begin to work again, the trauma is movingly expressed in many of his paintings during the rest of that year.Head, 1977
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Musa Guston Bequest
From a letter to Bill Berkson
Couple in Bed, 1977
The Art Institute of Chicago, through prior bequest of Frances W. Pick, and memorial gift from her daughter, Mary P. Hines
As his wife Musa gradually recovers, the new year brings a return to normalcy for Guston, and with it new optimism and energy. A long-overdue in-depth review of the late work is published in one of the major journals, Art in America.
In accounting for the interest of the younger artists who have been flocking to the McKee shows, she writes: “In some ways, Guston is not only underground, he is a young artist again—perhaps younger than ever before. His recent paintings have the peculiar cautionless indulgence of someone who has just found his artistic identity and with that, an incredible amount of energy… In comparison the figurative work of his youth looks old and academic. At the same time, however, Guston’s recent surfaces look as if they have been made by a man who has spent his life painting, whose experience gives him the freedom and courage to paint whatever image has the most urgency for him, without having to worry about the paint.”
Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum purchase, The Friends of Art Endowment Fund
Guston and McKee resume planning begun earlier with Henry Hopkins, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for a major retrospective in the spring of 1980. In December, the museum mounts a preview exhibition of six of the new paintings, accompanied by six abstract paintings. Several major donors contribute to the museum’s purchase of the 1975 triptych, Red Sea, The Swell and Blue Light.The triptych in 2017 installed at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, in the exhibition Philip Guston and the Poets, 40 years after the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired the three works. Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
In January, Guston travels to San Francisco to view this small exhibition of his paintings, and to meet the California collectors who have embraced his new work. After his return, he is felled by a massive, nearly fatal heart attack, spending several weeks in the hospital. But his drive to paint is undiminished. At home, he slowly recovers enough strength to work on smaller paintings.
“So here I am back at the hospital—heart complications. Time wasted!” Guston writes to Bill Berkson in August, after a relapse. He laments that now that he will be forced to “work small” as he is no longer able to stand in front of his large painting wall for long bouts of work. Instead, he can only work for short periods, seated at his drawing table.
“The TRUTH is, I am an old man. I always knew it was a PACT and the price to pay. So, the hell with it! The docs say it will be a year to get back to “normal” if I live right—i.e., change my way of life. And who the hell is going to do that?”
“I must quote you something from an essay by Evgeny Zamyatin,” Guston writes to Dore Ashton.
“No revolution, no heresy, is comfortable and easy. Because it is a leap, it is a rupture of the smooth evolutionary curve and a rupture is a wound, a pain. But it is a necessary wound: most people suffer from hereditary sleeping sickness, and those who are sick with this ailment (entropy) must not be allowed to sleep or they will go to their last sleep, the sleep of death. This same sickness is common to artists and writers: they go contentedly to sleep in their favorite artistic form which they have devised, then twice revised. They do not have the strength to wound themselves, to cease to love what has become dear to them.”
When a solo show of his 1979 paintings opens at the McKee Gallery in October, Guston feels well enough to attend the opening. “Mentally it will be better for me to come in,” he tells Bill Berkson. “I’ve been with doctors, hospitals, etc. for so long…”
Finally, a few of Guston’s paintings have sold and there are more positive reviews, even one from The New York Times, this time from John Russell.
“It is now almost 10 years since Philip Guston abandoned the swoony, deliquescent, freely brushed abstract paintings for which he was best known. In their stead, he began a long series of representational paintings in which a private demonology was set down on the canvas. Sometimes a single common object was summoned before us with hallucinatory force. Sometimes a complete inner landscape — usually of a grim, Beckettian sort — was built up on the grand scale.…These were somber images, but they were saved from bathos by the natural dignity of Mr. Guston's way with paint. That dignity is in no way abated in his recent paintings at the David McKee Gallery, 140 East 63rd Street. If the subject matter is on the whole still very grim, it has now redoubled element of exorcism in that Mr. Guston has lately come through a grave illness…As on earlier occasions, a wild humor breaks out when we least expect it these idiosyncratic works, which are on view through the end of October.”
Guston begins work on a series of lithographs with Sidney Felsen for Gemini G.E.L., his fine arts print studio in California.
Plans for the San Francisco retrospective approach completion. Guston is satisfied now that San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director Henry Hopkins has agreed to place an emphasis on the late work.Renee & David McKee with Guston at his drawing table, 1980
In the new year, Guston signs the first printing of the Gemini G.E.L. lithographs.
Before leaving for the opening of his retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Guston completes a series of 26 small paintings on paper in acrylic, augmented with India ink, and hangs them up on his studio wall.
In mid-May, Guston attends the opening of his retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, comprised of 76 paintings and 27 drawings covering all periods of his work, from 1930 to 1979.
“It’s not so much a painting show. It’s a life. A life lived,” Guston tells a small group of writers and critics assembled in the museum, as captured by filmmaker Michael Blackwood, who is filming at the museum for an hour-long Guston documentary. As the week wears on, the planned festivities, interviews and publicity take an obvious toll, but Guston, fearful of further hospitalization, refuses medical attention.
With the clarity of hindsight, it later appears to his family and friends that Guston has been keeping himself alive through sheer force of will long enough to witness his “life lived” on the walls of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Three weeks after the festivities, on June 7, 1980, while dining at the home of Woodstock friends, Philip Guston suffers a second, fatal heart attack and dies. He is only 66 years old.
After the funeral, the retrospective lives on as a fitting memorial, with Guston’s family and close friends gathering at each venue over the next year, as Guston’s life work moves to The Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC in July, to the Museum of Contemporary Art in
With the retrospective, critical response has changed. Now, the commentary is largely positive, emphasizing the importance of the paintings of the final 12 years of Guston’s life.
Over the decades following his death much is written about the influence of Philip Guston on a younger generation of figurative painters, and his work and career are increasingly revered as an example not only of painterliness and inventive freedom, but of creative integrity in the face of relentless criticism.
Other major surveys of the late work during the decade after Guston’s death followed, the first in 1982 at Whitechapel Gallery in London, curated by Nicholas Serota, soon to become director of the museum now known as the Tate, with the exhibition traveling to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Kunsthalle in Basel.Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1982
© Art Exhibitions Australia.
A large exhibition of late works was held in 1984 at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, traveling to the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth and to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
In 1988, The Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a drawings retrospective that travelled to the Museum Overholland, Amsterdam; the Fundació Caixa de Pensions, Barcelona; the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin; and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome.Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/ Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
In 1989, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid organized another major painting retrospective that travelled to the Palau de la Virreina, Barcelona; the Saint Louis Art Museum; and the Dallas Museum of Art.Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, credit: Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation,
Since his death in 1980, interest in Guston’s work continues to expand, with hundreds of reviews and articles published, as well as many monographs and other books, all listed in the detailed bibliography on the Catalogue Raisonné section of our website.
All other major solo and group exhibitions around the world are also detailed on this website, as are the notable museum collections where Guston’s paintings, drawings and prints appear.