Philip Guston (July 27, 1913 – June 7, 1980) was a notable painter and printmaker in the New York School, which included many of the Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. In the late 1960s Guston helped to lead a transition from Abstract expressionism to Neo-expressionism in painting, abandoning the so-called "pure abstraction" of abstract expressionism in favor of more cartoonish renderings of various personal symbols and objects.
Born Phillip Goldstein in 1913 in Montreal, Canada, Guston moved with his family to Los Angeles as a child. Guston's Russian-Jewish parents escaped persecution when they moved from Odessa, Russia. Guston and his family were aware of the regular Klan activities against Jews, Blacks and others which took place across California during Guston's childhood. When Guston was 10 or 11, his father hanged himself in the shed, and the young Guston found the body. Guston began painting at the age of 14, and in 1927 he enrolled in the Los Angeles Manual Arts High School, where both he and Jackson Pollock studied under Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky and were introduced to Modern European art, oriental philosophy, theosophy and mystic literature. This early work was figurative and representational, and though his parents did support his artistic inclinations, he often made drawings in his closet, lit by a hanging bulb. Apart from his high school education and a one-year scholarship at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, Guston remained a largely self-taught artist. During high school, Guston and Jackson Pollock published a paper opposing the high school's emphasis on sports over art. Their criticism led to both being expelled, but Guston returned and graduated. At Otis on scholarship, Guston felt unfulfilled by the academic approach which limited him to drawing from plaster casts instead of the live model. Before dropping out of Otis, Guston spent a night in the studio making drawings of these figurative plasters scattered all over the studio floor. As an 18 year old, politically-aware painter, Guston made an indoor mural in L.A. depicting the Scottsboro Boys. This mural was defaced by local police officers, which impacted Guston's political and social outlook. Guston, as Philip Goldstein, along with Reuben Kadish, completed a significant mural in 1935 at City of Hope, a tuberculosis hospital located in Duarte, California, that remains to this day.
In 1936, Guston moved to New York, and worked as an artist under the WPA program. During this period his work included strong references to Renaissance painters such as Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and Giotto. He was also influenced by American Regionalists and Mexican mural painters. A powerful and enduring influence, whom Guston was to acknowledge throughout his career, was Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. Musa Mayer, Guston's daughter, recalled in her book Night Studio: A memoir of Philip Guston how the artist kept a De Chirico monograph in his studio, to which he would often refer. During this period Guston accepted a teaching position at Washington University, St. Louis. He held this position from 1945 to 1947.
In the 1950s, Guston achieved success and renown as a first-generation Abstract Expressionist. During this period his paintings often consisted of blocks and masses of gestural strokes and marks of color floating within the picture plane, often grouped toward the centre of the compositions. Guston used a relatively limited palette favoring whites, blacks, greys and reds in these works. This palette remains evident in his later work.
In the late 1960s, Guston became frustrated with abstraction and began painting representationally again, but in a rather cartoonish manner. The first exhibition of these new figurative paintings was held in 1970 at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. It received scathing reviews from most of the art establishment (notably from the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer who, in a famous article, ridiculed the new style). One of the few who instantly understood the importance of those paintings was the painter W. de Kooning. As a result of the poor reception of his new figurative paintings, Guston decided to move from New York and settled in Woodstock, far from the art world which had so utterly misunderstood his art. When criticized widely about the impurity of these later paintings, he responded, "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden. There are no wiggly or straight lines..." In this body of work he created a lexicon of images such as Klansmen, lightbulbs, shoes, cigarettes, and clocks. Guston is best known for these late existential and lugubrious paintings, which at the time of his death had reached a wide audience, and found great popular acceptance. Guston died in 1980 in Woodstock, New York.