Philip Guston


Philip Guston († June 7, 1980 in Woodstock, New York) was an American painter. He was one of the most important representatives of Abstract Expressionism. He is considered a precursor of the New Image Painting.

Guston was the youngest of seven children of a Russian Jewish family from Odessa who emigrated to Canada in 1905 and moved to Los Angeles (USA) in 1919.

His family was confronted in California with the activities of the Ku Klux Klan against Jews and black Americans. When Philip Guston was 10 or 11 years old, his father hanged himself in the shed, and Philip found his body.

Beginning in 1925, encouraged by his mother, Guston copied comic strips such as Krazy Kat by George Herriman. In 1927, he befriended Jackson Pollock and Manuel Tolegian at Manual Arts High School; their teacher Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky introduced them to contemporary painting.

The following year, Guston and Pollock were expelled from school for satirical drawings; Guston continued his self-taught education. In 1929 they visited the Hindu mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti together in the Ojai Valley.

Guston”s early work was still figurative. In addition to his high school education, Guston also received a one-year scholarship to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Essentially, however, Guston remained a self-taught artist.

Guston found his training at the Otis Art Institute uninspiring and too academic and ended it prematurely. He left the institute after a nocturnal painting spree that left its mark.

In 1931, at the age of 18, Guston was a politically critical painter. That same year, he visited with Pollock the Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco during the latter”s work on the mural Prometheus at Pomona College in Los Angeles. Guston himself created a large mural in a Los Angeles interior that addressed the case of the so-called Scottsboro Boys, an obviously racially motivated justice scandal of the time involving black youths. This mural was defaced by local police. From 1934 to 1935 Guston stayed in Mexico, where through the mediation of Diego Rivera he was able to execute the mural The Struggle Against Terrorism together with Reuben Kadish in the former summer residence of Emperor Maximilian.

In 1935, Guston (as Phillip Goldstein) created a mural at the City of Hope National Medical Center (a tuberculosis hospital) in Duarte, California, with Reuben Kadish, which survives today.

In 1936, Guston moved to New York. He now worked for the Federal Art Project (FAP) (a job creation program for artists under the (WPA) Works Progress Administration program).

In 1940 Guston moved to Woodstock for the first time and now concentrated on the panel painting. In doing so, he combined the clear style of the Mexican Muralists with Picasso”s surreal cubism of the 1930s, but also with the figure conception of the Ashcan School. After moving to the State University of Iowa in Iowa City, he became intensively involved with Renaissance painting, for example with the works of Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Giotto.

From 1947 to 1949, Guston spent time as a Guggenheim Fellow of the American Academy in Italy, where he met Giorgio de Chirico, but also the young John Cage, as well as in Spain and France. On Ischia, he made drawings that represented an important step in clarifying forms towards non-objectivity.

In 1949 Guston returned to New York and was now close friends with Robert Motherwell, who played a central role in the New York art scene. From 1951 to 1959 he taught as a lecturer at New York University.

In Guston”s phase of non-objective painting from 1950 on, he preferred less expressive gestures than layers of short brushstrokes more reminiscent of Claude Monet, which is why the buzzword Abstract Impressionism was coined for these works. However, Guston remained an outsider within the New York School group, comparable to Adolph Gottlieb and Joan Mitchell.

In the mid-1960s he began to feel frustrated with abstract painting. In 1966 he even turned his back on painting for two years. He produced a large number of drawings in which he developed a new representational repertoire, showing mainly everyday objects, things from his studio, hooded men, and repeatedly smoldering cigarettes. Thus he returned to a symbolic realism of harrowing expressiveness that had already characterized his early work. The paintings of this period are still the best known of his oeuvre.

Guston”s statement about his non-objective paintings, “I was just sick of this purity! Wanted to tell stories again.”, illustrates how radical the departure from the leading style of the postwar period, abstract expressionism, was for the painter himself, but also for his contemporaries. By taking this step, he became a key figure in postmodern painting.

Philip Guston lived and worked for many years at the Artists” Colony in Woodstock, New York, where he died on June 7, 1980, at the age of 66. Shortly before his death, Guston was elected an associate member (ANA) of the National Academy of Design. He had been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1972. His estate is administered by the Hauser & Wirth Gallery.


  1. Philip Guston
  2. Philip Guston