Philip Guston: Praise song 6 to the courage of a life

Philip Guston, 1913 – 1980, Canadian-American


1903: Philip Guston’s family were Jews.  His people fled Odessa (now in the Ukraine) 


1913:  He was born in Montreal


1919: Guston’s family moved to Los Angeles 



Self-portrait, 1944, oil on canvas.

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, Canadian-American.  Promised gift of Musa Mayer Guston to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY



1922:  Guston’s father took his own life.  His younger brother, Nat, died in an accident 9 years later


Guston was largely self-taught when it came to the arts.   He started as a figurative artist


Here is a painting he completed at 17 and showed at his first exhibition, at a Hollywood bookshop




Mother and Child, c. 1930, oil on canvas.

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, Canadian-American.  Promised gift of Musa Mayer Guston to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY




His interests covered a large swath of the history of the visual arts from the High Renaissance to the modernists of the 20th century, to the Mexican muralists to comic strips


1922: Los Angeles Police stood by and watched the destruction of a mural Guston had painted.  It criticized the activities of the Klu Klux


1920-1970’s: the Klu Klux  was on the ascendant.  They did not target African Americans only.  They had their sights also on Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, immigrants and union members


Guston and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, American) were schooled together in Los Angeles and became life-long friends and fellow artists


1936:  Guston moved to New York at Pollock’s urging.  He was soon in demand for murals by the Federal Arts Project


1930s and 1940sGuston was deeply affected by the circumstances of his own family and by the rising social violence he witnessed.  Many of his works are of this violence at home and in war abroad


1947-1950:  Philip Guston began his transition to abstraction


1950s:  The artist matured into a full-scale Abstract Expression.  (The New York School, he preferred to call it). He relished the freedom abstraction gave him from the strictures of realism




Summer, 1954, oil on canvas.

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, Canadian-American.  Private loan to the National Gallery, Washington, DC in 2023



He became, over the next 15 years, a celebrated and very successful Abstract Expressionist




Philip Guston Painting 1954 MOMA


Painting, 1954,  oil on canvas. 

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, Canadian-American. Exhibited at the MOMA, NY I don’t recall when.


Painted at a time when the artist relished direct expression.  He said that even the time it took between palette and canvas in the making of this work was too long for him.




Early 1960’s: the artist, falling into depression which had never been far, stopped painting for a year


1963: when he returned, his much darker palette was not well received




Smoker, 1963, oil on canvas.

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, Canadian-American. Private art collection loan to the National Gallery, Washington, DC in 2023




November, 1970:  Philip Guston had an exhibition of 30 recent paintings at the Marlborough Gallery, NY which showed that he had turned completely away from Abstract Expressionism


I got sick and tired of all that purity. Wanted, he said, to tell stories. 


American art, he said, is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit…It is an escape – from the true feelings we have – the ‘raw’ – the primitive feelings we have about the world – and us in it.  In America. 


Bridges blown to smithereens with his former colleagues and the powerful of the art world





Head, 1968, synthetic polymer paint on panel. 

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American-Canadian.  MOMA, NY



He used a cartoon style – which further defied this art world – to tell the stories he felt were urgent



The social and political circumstances in which Guston turned to story telling using figuration have to be recalled


September 15, 1963:  four African-American girls were blown up during Sunday morning services in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL



Untitled, 1970, black crayon on paper

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American-Canadian.  Baltimore Museum of Art



1960s and ’70s: The Klu Klux Klan was again resurgent



Cross burnings.  Massive social intimidation in the face of widespread political and social movements for the civil rights of the very groups whom the Klu Klux had targeted: American Blacks, homosexuals.  Add to that women and the Jews who were always the target of the Klu Klux’s deluded self-representation of Christian supremacy 


Add to this the Vietnam War.  Uncounted total numbers of dead.  Huge protests in the streets followed by the cessation of hostilities and the emergence of stories of atrocities in the ‘fog of war’





Cabal, oil on linen, 1977.

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American born Canada. Whitney Museum of (North) American Art. 

The  background is the Watergate scandal




Philip Guston could not stomach working in his studio on personally meaningful and communally irrelevant images in the midst of this tumult



Among the iconic symbols he adapted to his story-telling was that of the masked klansman 


With this figure and with the practice of masking he had a fraught relationship.  The Klu Klux was the generator of evil




Head II, 1969, charcoal on paper mounted to paperboard. 

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American born Canada. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 



But the artist did not see evil as confined to the activities  of a  few men and women. He never ceased to ask himself to what extent he had tolerated evil and was implicated in its sway


Sometimes it is he the masked klansman in an image




The Studio, 1969, oil on canvas.

Philip Guston, 1913-1980, Canadian-American. Promised gift of Musa Mayer Guston to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

A double self-portrait which the artist never sold.




1980:  Philip Guston, who had withdrawn permanently in 1970 from the city of New York to his house in Woodstock, NY, died.



Widely accepted by the public, the New York art establishment continued to shun him




Philip Guston, 1964, Woodstock, NY.

Dan Budnik, American, 1933-2020.  Philadelphia Art Museum




May 2020:  George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis, MN


September 2020: four museums – the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Tate Modern, London – jointly announced the postponement by 4 years of a planned exhibition of the work of Philip Guston 


The presentation of Guston’s work, particularly the Klan imagery, needed ‘rethinking’, they said


This decision masqueraded as a sensitivity towards public sensitivities


Whether it was caution or cowardice, it permitted these museums to evade reference to and discussion about the racism and police violence of our every day in the United States


Instead, there are signs up in the museums diverting people away from images of hooded figures in case these upset them


In the end, the retrospective was rescheduled to begin in 2023, one year earlier, after an outcry from artists


The exhibition is currently in DC.


Its entrance is just below  the magnificent painting which Robert Motherwell executed for the opening of the east wing of the National Gallery in 1978:




Reconciliation Elegy, 1978, acrylic on canvas

Robert Motherwell, 1915-1991, American




Robert Motherwell, Guston’s exact contemporary, said that what he was trying to show was the burden of an individual’s life

in the midst of the architectural splendor of this building:  a building whose collections were initiated by the accumulated wealth of its wealthiest citizens and the power of the State 


What an irony


We are not reconciled with this handling of Philip Guston’s legacy


We have, since, become more anxious that our great institutions – of all kinds – will survive poorly the current political and social disorders for lack of the courageous action and moral clarity that Philip Guston – one single man, an immigrant from a family with no social advantages  – showed throughout his life.


Throughout his life, Guston’s primary urge was to question what kind of a man he was and how he was to conduct his life in a world so full of evil and human vulnerability. 






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