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Monday, April 14, 2014

Philip Guston

"Painting and sculpture are very archaic forms. It's the only thing left in our industrial society where an individual alone can make something with not just his own hands, but brains, imagination, heart maybe."

Philip Guston with Overcoat,
1982, Philip Guston
Have you ever wondered what famous painters did before they were famous painters? Certainly there's always the "starving artist" stereotype, though it's not as common as many would suppose. In the entertainment field there's the similar stereotype of actors waiting tables (which is fairly accurate). I suppose a good many artist have also worked waiting tables. The pay is bad, but the food is good (as compared to Ramen noodles). Actually there probably is no accurate stereotype for unknown artists simply because the differ so much in temperament, background, training, and past experiences. If there is one common trait, it would very often come down to the fact that, before they were famous, they were "a royal pain in the ass." I can think of any number of artists awaiting their opportunity to "claim their fame" for whom that description would be quite accurate. Philip Guston, for instance.
Dial, 1956, Philip Guston
Guston was born in 1918 in Montreal, Canada, the son of Ukrainian-Jews, immigrants fleeing persecution in Odessa. When Phillip was quite young, his parents moved again, this time to California. Once more they encountered religious persecution, this time as a result of 1920s Ku Klux Klan activities in the Los Angeles area. At the tender age of eleven, Philip discovered his father's body hanging in their garage. There was nowhere else for them to move. With a family background such as this, there was little wonder the teenaged Philip Guston had a massive chip on his shoulder, even as he started painting at the age of fourteen. However, unlike his father's life in the Ukraine, in this country, Philip found opportunity. In 1927, at the age of nineteen, he enrolled in the Los Angeles Manual Arts High School where he studied under Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky, a Marxist radical every bit as much a misfit as his troubled young student. It was there, also, where Philip Guston first met Jackson Pollock.
The Street, 1977, Philip Guston
To Fellini, 1958, Philip Guston
Even in high school the two were branded as trouble-makers. They published an underground newspaper chastising the school for its emphasis on sports over art. As a result, they got a little chastising themselves. They were expelled. Pollock later returned and graduated, Guston did not. He moved on to the Otis Art Institute for a year with a full scholarship, all of which comprised his total art education. Guston dropped out of Otis protesting their reliance on plaster models instead of life drawing. (Nevertheless, before he left he spent an entire night drawing every plaster model the school owned.) As an eighteen-year-old, Guston painted an indoor mural for the Los Angeles John Reed Club depicting the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-Americans from Alabama falsely accused of raping a white girl, tried (three times by all-white juries), and sentenced to death. The mural was later defaced by local police.
Philip Guston with his The Struggle Against Terror
(sometimes called The Inquisition), 1934-35, Morelia, Mexico
During the early 1930s, Guston (under the assumed name, Philip Goldstein), and his left-leaning pals, Reuben Kadish, and poet, Jules Langsner, spent time in Mexico where they were befriended by David Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo and her then husband Diego Rivera. There, in the former summer palace of the Emperor Maximilian, Guston and friends were commissioned to paint a massive wall mural titled The Struggle Against Terror, an antifascist work heavily influenced by Siqueiros. Then in 1934-35 Guston returned to California to paint a mural at City of Hope, at the time a tuberculosis hospital located in Duarte, California. This time he was more fortunate--it remains, newly restored (below), to this day.

A portion of Guston's City of Hope mural, 1934-35, Duarte, California.
Guston working on a mural for the Queensbridge
Housing Complex, The Queens, New York, 1940
In 1935, Guston moved to New York where he painted for the WPA, bringing with him the influences of the Mexican mural painters, and American Regionalists, which he combined with the Renaissance influences of Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and Giotto. However his greatest influence of all was that of the Italian Surrealist, Giorgio de Chirico. Several murals and teaching positions later, after the war, Guston's greatest stroke of luck was to be in the right place at the right time when the New York School, made up of Pollock and some of Guston's old friends, turned Abstract Expressionism into dollars and cents. During the 1950s, Guston was in on the ground floor, the first generation, destined to make up the rules as they went along in evolving a new art more radical than anything since Russian painter, Kazimir Malevich, discovered White on White and Black Squares.

If this Be Not I, 1945, Philip Guston
Porch II, 1947, Philip Guston
Guston's abstracts were not all that different from those of some of his colleagues in the New York School. They looked nothing like those of his friend, Jackson Pollock. He was not the "wild and crazy" Kandinsky. His paintings often consisted of gestural blocks and masses of floating color within the picture plane, sometimes compared by critics to the work of Mondrian or Monet. His favorite colors seemed to be blacks, whites, grays. and red. Someone once said, "it was fun while it lasted." Although Abstract Expressionism had a surprisingly long run of some fifteen years, by the mid-1960s, it had pretty well run its course. Philip Guston had not. He lingered on, turning back to the figurative style of his past, if not to the antique Social Realism of his controversial youth.

Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1977, Philip Guston.
(Notice the similarities to the earlier Painter in Bed, below.)
What evolved was Expressionism without the abstraction. Guston created a whole new lexicon of images such as Klansmen, light bulbs, shoes, cigarettes, and clocks. His work remained gestural but his color masses had become more linear as museums, gallery owners, critics, and the public began to appreciate one of the last of the first. Philip Guston died in 1980 at his home in Woodstock, New York. He was sixty-six.

Philip Guston with one of his later works, Painter in Bed, 1973.


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