January 8, 2010

Philip Guston

The Mirror, 1957, oil on canvas, 68 x 60 inches

Multiplied, 1972, oil on canvas, 66 x 80 1/2 inches

Philip Guston was an artist who achieved success with a series of beautiful abstract paintings, made of a mesh of active brushstrokes, who then made an abrupt shift into representational art. What he chose to paint were not subjects anyone had seen as high art; they were cartoon-like images of feet and cigars, of cars and klansmen. They were a bombshell. I was at the first exhibition of this new work at Guston's New York gallery, Marlborough, because a friend was his student; we all were stunned. Of course the reviews were devastating.

What a remarkable act of courage it was to turn away from success, although I imagine Guston must have felt he had no choice, that he had to paint what had meaning to him. If we had looked closely at the new paintings, we would have seen what we all acknowledge now, that they were painted with as much intensity, passion and lush bravura as his abstract paintings; that they were about the human condition, unfortunately often abject; that they were brilliant works, goofy yet profound.

Untitled (Light Bulb), oil on panel, 12 x 14 inches

Untitled, oil on panel, 12 x 9 1/4 inches

Untitled (Wall), oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches

When I was recently in nyc I had a chance to see an exhibition of small panel paintings in oil by Philip Guston at David McKee Gallery that were painted during the years 1969-1973. In these small works, Guston isolated elements of his larger paintings: one lightbulb, a wall, an easel, painting them with a vigorous sureness of touch. For me, the greatest pleasure in these paintings is the paint itself, which is so rich as to make me want to run my finger through it. I also love the imagery, that wonderful lightbulb that has become animate, every thing invested with organic life. Guston's color sense stayed consistent through the years, with pinks, reds, and grays predominating. He was able to use pink without sweetness, instead giving us life.

Update: reader rappel reminded me in an email that there was a flowering of artistic comics in the 70s and it's very possible that these influenced Guston. When I look at the work of R. Crumb, which I loved during those years, I can certainly see a resemblance of form and narrative content.


  1. It's strange, but when I look at these paintings, Picasso's quote comes to mind: "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” There's something quite innocent about Guston's paintings that I can't quite put my finger on. Is it the coloring, the timbre, the broadly defined lines, or the representation? I don't know. I do know, however, that I like it. Thanks for posting!

  2. Oh, Altoon, you give me a new bit of insight on these paintings...yes the pink is alive and the paint has great quality....good to look again and then again.

  3. What a wonderful post Altoon!
    I really liked reading your words about Guston and hearing the story about that definitive moment in his career which i didn't know about.
    What you say about the way he used pink is apt. I remember being shocked when first seeing his work when (If I recall accurately) it was shown in Canberra, (AUST) in the 1980's. It shocked ones senses into engagement with it....and yet one may feel reverence... the shock is not an insult, rather it awakens!

  4. I'm so glad you all liked the Guston post; he's an artist whose work means a lot to me. And thanks for the reminder of the Picasso quote, J.R.; how perfect it is for this work. The paintings have such a gorgeous physical presence that it would be great if everyone could see some "in the flesh".

  5. What was your own immediate reaction at the opening? (How amazing to have been there!) Did it take a while to understand and accept the new direction he was taking?

    I seek out his paintings in whatever museum I am at -- most recently the Nat'l Gallery. I never get tired of them. Interesting how I look at his work and that of some contemporaries like Pollock, de Kooning, Newman, Kline. When I see those others, I want to get physically close, to feel their material presence, include them in my immediate environment. With Guston, who painted on the same scale and with somewhat similar marks, I get caught up rather in the narrative and emotion.

  6. Well, Helen, it was 40 years ago, and I was a callow youth, but I do remember the physical layout of the gallery and that we were all flummoxed by the cartoonish klan figures. Yes, it took a long while for me to catch up with Guston and understand what he was doing, till the early 80s I think. By then, lots of new representational art was being shown, and young artists looked to Guston.

  7. Your "art appreciation" posts really help expose me to artists that I'm not familiar with.
    Though I understand what you're saying about his later work, I still like The Mirror best of the paintings listed. Now I'll have to do a google search on Guston and find out more.
    Thanks, Cheryl

  8. Thanks for this post, Altoon. Guston's daughter Musa Mayor talks in "The Night Studio" about his nervousness before openings--walking around the block many times to avoid going into the gallery. Understandable, given how much his work changed. No matter what one thinks of the later paintings, a shift like that takes alot of courage.

  9. I own one of the Guston panels that were in the McKee show. It is an incredibly powerful little gem. Also, as you very rightly put it, they are small but tremendously painterly pieces. They served as a kind of alphabet to Guston for his larger and more famous compositions.Also, his shift to figurative painting was sth he deemed necessary and unavoidable in the face of what was going on in the world around him at the time (late 60's): the race riots,the Vietnam War, Nixon;confronted to all this, Guston stated that he "got sick of all this purity" (referring to abstract painting) and that he "wanted to tell stories". It all came to life in his Klan paintings...

  10. Hello - I am a total novice in the art arena, and I purchased a small oil on board simply because I liked the subjects of the painting. The small oil was presented as a Guston, but that meant nothing to me at the time I purchased the oil. I am now curious if it is an authentic Guston - it is signed only in "P.G", and I don't see many of his works with that monogram. Can anyone direct me to someone who really knows Guston's works, and can give an amateur opinion? Thanks very much in advance. Jody

  11. Simplyfy, try McKee gallery in NYC; they represent his work. Link is above.

  12. Thank you for the advice! I have already written McKee and provided pictures. I hope they will indulge me and actually answer my note.