American, born Canada
1913, Montréal, Québec
1980, Woodstock, New York
Philip Guston grew up in Los Angeles, the youngest of seven children of Russian Jewish immigrants. After high school, Guston moved to New York and worked as a mural artist in the New Deal program, where he painted in a social realist style. By the mid-1950s, he had become an established member of the dominant school of spontaneous, gestural abstract painters. He created large canvases in which vividly colored brushstrokes define a nexus of activity against a muted background.
In 1970, however, Guston shocked the art world with a radical change of style and subject. His new paintings featured cartoonish figures in a lurid palette of pink, red, and black. Some of these later works are allegorical treatments of modern evil (represented, for example, by figures dressed in the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan), while others include autobiographical emblems of Guston’s own childhood struggles, adult life, and artistic process. Though at times he was heavily criticized for this shift away from abstraction, Guston remained devoted to figuration for the remainder of his career.
Curator Michael Auping on Guston’s varied painting styles
Curator Michael Auping, of the Modern Museum in Fort Worth, Texas:
Guston’s a guy who, at every point in his career where things started to go well, he felt a need to change. And at that point in his career, say between 1966, ‘67, he’s isolated himself away in his Woodstock studio—and he finds himself getting up one morning and making figurative images. Strange profiles of strange figures. And then the next morning, getting up and making abstract paintings. And flipping back and forth, back and forth. And he himself is not sure where this is taking him. And he spent two years in his studio doing this.
In 1970, after two years working in seclusion, Guston shocked the art world with his new works. Most critics, and even many friends, devoted abstract painters among them, were baffled by this new direction. Figures had returned with a vengeance—crude, grotesque heads; clunky, cartoon shoes. The pinks and reds and fleshy colors which characterized his palette were still there, but in the new figurative work these colors seemed provocative, even indecent.
Guston continued to paint these cartoonish forms until his death in 1980. To his early champions, the late work was a puzzle, even an embarrassment. But to younger audiences, it is this late body of work which truly distinguishes Guston from all of his peers.
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