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Philip Guston
Holdings (5)
2 paintings, 3 edition prints/proofs

Wikipedia About Philip Guston

Philip Guston (June 27, 1913 – June 7, 1980) was a notable painter and printmaker in the New York School, which included many of the Abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. In the late 1960s Guston helped to lead a transition from Abstract expressionism to Neo-expressionism in painting, abandoning the so-called “pure abstraction” of abstract expressionism in favor of more cartoonish renderings of various personal symbols and objects. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Philip Guston, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

The distinctive episodes that mark Philip Guston’s painting career make it tempting to treat his creative life as the progressive evolution of a style. This hereditary approach, however, ultimately fails to do justice to an artist as complex as Guston. From high-school hijinks with friend Jackson Pollock (both were expelled from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles for distributing satirical leaflets) to his beginning as a federally sponsored muralist with the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, the artist who emerged might be better understood as suffering from a chronic, nagging painting itch that required constant scratching.

Large-scale public works with David Alfaro Siqueiros in Mexico, metaphysical compositions influenced by Piero della Francesca and Rembrandt, exquisite tonal tours de force as well as bleakly humorous, incompetent-looking “comic-book” paintings—Guston’s fifty-year case history testifies to a diagnosis of vital conflict between abstraction and figuration: what to paint, and how to paint it, compounded with a catatonic, “My God, did I do that?”1 Like a cycle of substance abuse that alternates between cold-turkey abstinence and falling-off-the-wagon binges, his addiction to the application of paint to canvas was marked by years of complete temperance, spectacular introversion, and persistent aesthetic restlessness. Painting was both a symptom and a self-medication.2

The Walker Art Center’s two major Guston works fall on either side of 1970, the year in which the artist first exhibited a group of canvases that demonstrated how he had found a completely novel way to manage his painting affliction. If for the past twenty years he had been pursuing a highly acclaimed abstract program with an almost homeopathic subtlety, his new narrative paintings were dramatically risky and invasive procedures. With all the unorthodox faith and some of the logic of cranial trephination, his insistence that he “wanted to tell stories” resulted in the release of a torrent of wonderfully undignified and seemingly flat-footed, cartoonlike canvases.3 He admitted that “when the 1960s came along, I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The [Vietnam] war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines … and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? I thought there must be some way I could do something about it… . I wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.”4

Guston’s polluted, congested, suggestively figurative, and teasingly titled “dark paintings” of the early 1960s—of which Winter is exemplary—were replaced with a freshly biographical and topical lexicon. Feeling that the artist had dishonored his mastery of abstraction in favor of a bastardized Pop Art, however, most supporters (including his own dealer at the time) were appalled at the new work, with one disingenuously grumbling that Guston was “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum.”5 The suicide by hanging of the artist’s father during his childhood; the mendacity of the Nixon administration; the racial friction, violence, cynicism, and stale malevolence lurking in everyday American society all spewed into these compositions. At first, the canvases were peopled by “hoods”—Guston-surrogates with clownishly anachronistic Ku Klux Klan–like outfits. The hoods drove around town in cars with their conspirators, pointed accusatory fingers at each other, painted lame paintings, and puffed on cigarettes.

Bombay (1976) is like a cantankerous Color Field painting, as if the artist were doodling on the works of his onetime Abstract Expressionist peers. Mark Rothko’s quasi-spiritual blurs become what we might imagine as a dirt “field” and a cloudy “sky,” and the gray band along the lower edge lazily casts the “zips” of Barnett Newman as a wall or a road. What look like hobnailed boots, nail-studded shoe soles, or horseshoes often appear in Guston’s work of this period, in conjunction with spindly, hairy leg stumps. Here these motifs occupy the middle ground, bunched together like a cluster of tombstones. The twinned forms at the bottom of the composition are either gazing upward, if we read them as disembodied, roving evil eyeballs; or standing side-by-side, if we see them as headless torsos staidly posed, tourist-photo style, in front of a panoramic landscape.

Cobbling together a shamed, antiheroic prospect for painting from the detritus of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam social order, Guston’s figurative “bad painting” interlude—like Francis Picabia’s “pinup” paintings of the 1940s—is a crucial maneuver in the legacy of twentieth-century painting. The sensibilities of dysfunction, bitter irony, and apparent recklessness that Guston birthed would be regurgitated in fresh forms by a new strain of New York art that emerged in the 1980s.

  1. “Philip Guston Talking,” transcript of a lecture given at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, March 1978, in Renée McKee, ed., Philip Guston Paintings 1969–1980, exh. cat. (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1982), 55.

  2. Bad Habits is the title of a Guston painting from 1970.

  3. “I got sick and tired of all that Purity! [I] wanted to tell stories.” Quoted in Bill Berkson, “The New Gustons,” Artnews 69, no. 6 (October 1970): 44.

  4. Quoted in Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston (London: Thames & Hudson, 1991), 171.

  5. Hilton Kramer, “A Mandarin Pretending to Be a Stumblebum,” New York Times, October 25, 1970, sec. B, 27.

Andrews, Max. “Philip Guston.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


artist’s quote artist’s quote Guston, Philip, 1978

You see, I look at my paintings, speculate about them. They baffle me, too. That’s all I’m painting for. Philip Guston, 1978