Philip Guston American, 1913-1980


Philip Guston, born Philip Goldstein in 1913, is one of the most important artists to come out of the New York school. First living in Montreal, then in California, Guston will quickly enroll in the Manual Arts High School where he will befriend Jackson Pollock. Guston will quickly feel concerned about the social issues of his day. Some of his early works will take on very political attributes, protesting and accusing racism and discrimination. In the 1930’s this appetite for social and political stands will take him to Mexico, where artists are experimenting with revolutionary mural painting. There he will create, along with Reuben Kadish, the impressive The Struggle Against Terror, influenced by the work of David Siqueiros. He will spend time with Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera, before first returning to California, and in 1935 move to New York City to join Pollock, in what will become the first generation of abstract expressionists.

Guston fully committed to abstraction in 1950. His close social circle in New York included John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Robert Motherwell. By 1955 he is represented by the famous dealer Sydney Janis, joining artists such as Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko at the gallery. The MoMA will even buy one of his works, Painting 1954, which was part of the exhibition “12 Americans” at the Museum.

Accords II, work created in 1963, has strong elements of the works made in the 1950’s. A black and red block is centered inside of a mass of gestural strokes floating within the picture plane. Inspired by the Impressionists, but also by the Hudson River School, Guston uses a relatively limited palette, where one can find pastel colors such as pink, light grey, white, purple and red.

Throughout the late 1960’s and in the 1970’s Guston’s style will shift towards a more figurative approach. Often referencing the cartoon style which took him back to his early years, these works will continue to explore issues of race, discrimination, and racism, which are not only rooted in the early works that shaped him as a young artist, but also in the burden of the holocaust, which he experienced far away from the battlefield, but deeply resonated in his conscience, as a Jewish American.

One might look at his works from the 1970’s, which he has become internationally renowned for, and understand the rupture with his abstract works of the 1950’s and 1960’s, but one must not miss to see abstraction throughout Guston’s complete artistic production. The artist’s involvement with the abstract expressionists was fundamental in developing his own style, and in a larger sense the New York School style.

“The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane, which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so that what you see is not what you see.” - Philip Guston.

The works of the 1960’s, started by a series of works in the style of Accord II, foreshadow a new found need for Guston to gain back some figuration. The abstraction turns more geometrical, more logical. It is a transition period. He leaves New York and settles down in Woodstock in 1967.