Philip Guston
Biography of Abstract Impressionist Painter and Muralist.

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Dial (1956) Whitney Museum, New York.
An excellent example of Guston's
Abstract Impressionism.
For other similar works, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Philip Guston (1913-80)


Early Life
Phase 1: Figurative Realism - Mural Painting
Phase 2: Abstract Impressionism
Phase 3: Return to Figurative Art

The Clock (1956-57)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

See: Art: Definition and Meaning.


One of the most talked-about modern artists and a significant figure in American art, Philip Guston is famous for three styles of fine art painting. The first (c. 1930-40), consisted of figurative mural painting of socio-political subjects, inspired by the Mexican murals of Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). The second, which lasted from then until 1970, comprised his signature style of Abstract Expressionism, sometimes known as Abstract Impressionism, for its similarity to Claude Monet's late Impressionism, that is his series of water lilies. The third, which saw him return to representational art, involved a completely new set of aesthetics, and featured a repeated cast of pink cartoon figures and objects. A precursor of New Image Painting - a type of Neo-Expressionism launched in 1978 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, championed by Jonathan Borofsky (b.1942) and Susan Rothenberg (b.1945) - Guston's late style was important for its blurring of the boundaries between abstraction and figuration. It also confirmed his status as one of the most innovative Expressionist painters in America.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


Early Life

Born Philip Goldstein in Montreal, the youngest of 7 children of an emigrant Jewish family from Odessa, he moved at the age of six to Los Angeles, an unfortunate choice of destination in view of the prevailing anti-Jewish sentiment stirred up by the Klu Klux Klan, and the lack of employment opportunities for his father. After four years, Guston's father hanged himself and it was Philip who found the body. The experience never left him. Withdrawing into a world of comic books, he was persuaded to enrol in a drawing correspondence course at the Cleveland School of Cartooning, and so took his first step towards becoming an artist. In 1927, he attended the LA Manual Arts High School where he studied under Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky and was introduced to modern art from Europe, notably Cubism. One of his student friends was Jackson Pollock (1912-56). To compare the latter's style, see: Jackson Pollock's paintings (1940-56).

After being expelled for writing a leaflet criticizing the school for valuing sports over arts, Guston won a scholarship to the Otis Art Institute in 1930, and in 1931 had his first one-man exhibition. Unfortunately, the style of academic art practised at Otis (drawing from plaster sculptures) was not to Guston's taste and in 1932 he quit.



Phase 1: Figurative Realism - Mural Painting

In 1934 he spent some time travelling around Mexico, studying populist left-wing fresco painting, by Mexican muralists including David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) and Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949). While in Mexico, he and two other friends completed "The Struggle Against Terror" - a huge anti-fascist mural in the state capital of Morelia, which was highly praised by the Mexican master Siqueiros. While in Mexico Guston also met Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo.

As it happened, the Mexican Mural Renaissance triggered a similar campaign of mural decoration in America during the Depression era of the 1930s. This campaign - based on the style of social realism championed by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) - was commissioned by the Federal Arts Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In September 1935, at the urging of Pollock, Guston moved to New York, applied (successfully) to the WPA, and began work as a muralist in the WPA program. Over the next five years, he painted murals throughout the country. The Mexican fresco painters and the American Regionalism movement exerted a strong influence on him at this time, as did Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), the inventor of Metaphysical Painting, as also did the 1939 Pablo Picasso Exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Phase 2: Abstract Impressionism

Between 1941 and 1945, Guston was artist-in-residence at the State University of Iowa, and afterwards at Washington University in Missouri until 1947. He then returned to New York after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, although he continued to teach at New York University and at the Pratt Institute. During this period he went back to easel painting but - like many members of the avant-garde art world - he switched from figuration to abstract art, and became associated with Abstract Expressionist painting and the New York School.

However, he followed a very individual course, avoiding the action painting of Pollock, the gesturalism of Franz Kline (1910-62) and Willem De Kooning (1904-97), the Colour Field Painting of Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Barnett Newman (1905-70), and the concrete art of Josef Albers (1888-1976). Instead, he developed a unique style of Lyrical Abstraction - frequently referred to as Abstract Impressionism - whose shimmering forms were reminiscent of the late Impressionist paintings of water lilies by Claude Monet. The result of numerous influences - among them Buddhism, Chinese calligraphy, and the "plus and minus" compositions by Piet Mondrian - Guston's abstract paintings brought him national renown, and are still highly respected today. During his abstraction phase he participated in several major international exhibitions including the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (1950), and the Sao Paulo Biennial (1957).

Phase 3: Return to Figurative Art

The social and political upheavals of the 1960s caused Guston to become increasingly dissatisfied with abstraction. Accordingly, he switched back to representationalism and produced a completely new set of works, which stunned his supporters when it was launched in 1970 at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. A highly original type of cartoon-style realism, featuring images of enigmatic Klu Klux Klan-style hooded figures, cigarette buts, stained coffee cups, messy beds and lonely men, it represented a decisive break from the slavish devotion to abstract art practised by so many critics and curators. During his final decade, Guston produced ever more mysterious compositions populated by clusters of weird figurative images.

Although ridiculed initially by some critics, and cut loose by New York's Marlborough Gallery, Guston was supported by his artist-colleagues, and justified his "ugly" iconography as an reflection of the ugliness of modern life. However, because of the poor reception of his new figurative paintings, Guston withdrew even more to his home in Woodstock, New York, where he died in 1980.


Guston had a number of major solo exhibitions during his lifetime including those at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1962); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1964); the Jewish Museum, New York (1966); the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1973); and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1978). After his death, major retrospectives of Guston's art were staged by the Philips Collection, Washington DC (1981); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1982); Museum of Modern Art, New York (1988); La Fundacion La Caixa, Barcelona (1988); Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2000); the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2003); and the Royal Academy of Art, London (2003).


Guston was one of the few major abstract painters to find his way back to figurative painting after more than two decades of abstraction. This, together with his suggestions about how painters might address pop culture from a semi-abstract viewpoint, and his erasure of the normal boundaries between abstraction and figuration, constitutes his most important legacy to the history of art.

Paintings by Philip Guston can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

• For biographies of other Neo-Expressionist artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more details of American painting, see: Homepage.

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