Philip Guston was an artist whose career spanned half of the 20th century and whose paintings are still the source of much discussion. Maybe now more than ever.
Painter Philip Guston was born in Montreal, Canada in 1913. His father and mother were immigrants from Russia and when he was seven the family moved to Southern California. His father, despairing over his inability to find work in the new surroundings, committed suicide when Phillip was about10. In part to deal with the grief he turned to art, often locking himself in a little
room in the house, lit with only by a single lightbulb, and drawing cartoons. The graphic intensity of comics like Krazy Kat or Mutt & Jeff, two of Guston’s favorites in childhood, would return to his visual vocabulary much later in life with surprising results.
He entered the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles where he had a classmate who was also interest in art named Jackson Pollock. There the two had their first exposure to European modernism. They also were expelled for distributing literature condemning the school’s turn toward high school sports at what they thought was the expense of the fine arts.
By the early 1930s Guston had become interested in labor unions and was working in a factory when management brought in members of the Ku Klux Klan—which had a significant membership in Southern California in those days—to break a strike. It was his first encounter with an image that would reappear decades later in his paintings.
He became increasingly interested in the visual impact and the political energy contained in murals and in 1935, Pollock encouraged him to move to New York City where he became involved with the arts programs of the WPA. He received a commission to paint a mural at the 1939 New York World’s Fair pavilion which went on to win first prize in the outdoor mural category. But in 1947 he suddenly transitioned from realism into abstraction. It was a transformation that was complete and thorough and he became a major abstract artist with a distinctive vision and style all his own – he was not some copycat of Pollock or de Kooning or Rothko or Still.
But then, after about 20 years of creating some fascinating abstract works, Guston abruptly turned his back on that style and went in a radically different direction again. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, representationalism suddenly returned to his work with a vengeance. Images with the clarity and impact of pop art, yet in no way mistakable for pop, suddenly crowded his canvases. Some of his closest friends didn’t understand the transition and didn’t approve of it at all.
Today more than 40 years after his death, those representational works from later in his career are causing some trouble. More on this next week.