Search the Collections

Philip Guston
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Woodstock, New York
An American painter and printmaker who evolved from work as a muralist to become a leading Abstract Expressionist artist, Philip Guston then shocked the art world by returning to figurative works in the late 1960s, done in a cartoon-like style, often populated with hooded figures. He was born as Phillip Goldstein in Montreal, Canada in 1913 to parents who had emigrated from Odessa, Russia a few years before. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1919, where his father had difficulty in finding work and committed suicide in 1923. Guston’s interest in drawing led his mother to enroll him in a correspondence course from the Cleveland School of Cartooning. He met Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) at the Manual Arts High School, but after two years both were expelled for circulating a satirical broadside criticizing the faculty for its devotion to athletics. In 1930 he received a scholarship to attend the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. During the three months he spent there he met is future wife, the artist and poet Musa McKim (1908-1992) and the artist Reuben Kadish (1913-1992). A 1930 drawing depicting hooded Klansmen with a lynched black man demonstrated Guston’s interest in political issues, which he expressed as a muralist, inspired by American social realists artists such as Grant Wood (1891-1942) and Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957). Guston traveled with Kadish to Mexico in 1934 where the two painted a mural in the style of Rivera. The two artists then joined the Treasury Department’s Public Works of Art Project and received a 1935 commission for a mural at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, CA (near Pasadena). At this point he began using the name Philip Guston. Soon thereafter he moved to New York City where he roomed with Pollock and worked on murals employed by the Federal Art of the Works Progress Administration. Guston married Musa McKim in 1937. He went to work as an associate professor of art at the University of Iowa in 1941, while continuing to paint in the social realist style. In 1945 Guston received First Prize for Painting from the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, enjoyed his first solo exhibition in New York City and moved to St. Louis where he taught for two years at Washington University. He moved to Woodstock, N.Y. in 1947 and began experimenting with abstraction. He received the Prix de Rome from the American Academy in Rome and a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which allowed him to travel to Italy, Span and France for a year. He moved to New York City in 1950 where his art moved completely into abstraction. Guston began exhibiting with other Abstract Expressionists, such as Pollock, Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970) at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1955, and continued to do so until 1961. Guston’s works appeared in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Twelve Americans” exhibition in 1956. He received a Ford Foundation grant and a prize from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1959, was one of four American artists shown in the American Pavilion of the 1960 Venice Biennale, and was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1962. During the early 1960s Guston’s art moved toward figuration and a 1966 exhibition of his recent work drew a mixed critical reaction. He moved back to Woodstock in 1967, where he became close friends with the writer Philip Roth (b. 1933). Guston stopped painting to focus on drawing from1966 to 1968, then returned to painting in his new figurative style depicting hooded figures, books, brushes, clocks and everyday objects. The 1970 show of his recent figurative work provoked a critical storm, with scathing reviews in The New York Times and Time Magazine. Guston and his wife escaped to Rome, where he was a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, in residence for nine months. There he created more than 100 small paintings on paper depicting landscapes and Roman ruins. On his return to Woodstock he created a series of some 80 drawings describing Richard Nixon’s life, which he intended to publish as a book. The series was finally published in 2001 as Philip Guston’s Poor Richard. He continued to draw and paint through the 1970s, taught a graduate seminar for five years at Boston University, and received numerous awards. He created 25 transfer lithographs in 1980, published by Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. Guston attended the May 15, 1980 opening of a major retrospective of his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, returned home to work on an exhibition to be held at the Philips Gallery in Washington, D.C. and suffered a fatal heart attack on June 7 in Woodstock. (TNB 6/2014) Selected bibliography: Dabrowski, Magdalena. The Drawings of Philip Guston. Exhibition catalog. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988.