Wikipedia article "Philip Guston". (b Montreal, 27 June 1913; d Woodstock, NY, 7 June 1980). American painter. He moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1919. He began to paint and draw in 1927 and attended the Otis Art Institute for three months (1930). At this stage he based his technique on a close study of the art of Giorgio de Chirico and painters of the Italian Renaissance such as Paolo Uccello, Andrea Mantegna and Piero della Francesca. He was attempting to integrate the modelled architectural space of Renaissance art with the contracted, reassembled space of Cubism, for example in paintings of sinister hooded figures reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan such as Conspirators (c. 1930; untraced, see Ashton, 1976, p. 10).
The man who changed his mind
May 8th 2008 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
From The Economist print edition
Philip Guston was one of the rare artists who turned from abstractionism back to figurative painting. A new show illustrates why this was important
DESPITE the many twists taken by modern art in the 20th century, its advancement always seemed linear and irrefutable. Progress meant moving away from figurative works and towards abstraction.
Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky pointed the way forward, distilling form into a more “honest” art, free of the gauche literalism of an object. By the 1950s the embrace of abstraction was nearly universal: it became a symbol of post-war freedom, the opposite of the treacly folk art favoured by the Nazis. The energy and vitality of those sexy, hard-living abstract expressionists, with their virile paintings of soaked and splashed colour, promised to seal the deal of art's future. But then Philip Guston decided not to play along.
Guston, born in 1913, was a poster child of abstract expressionism. Born Phillip Goldstein in Montreal and brought up in Los Angeles, he followed his old friend Jackson Pollock to New York in 1935. Revering Italian Renaissance painters, he whittled down his earlier figurative work into something more essential and visceral, losing the object altogether. In the 1950s and 1960s he covered large canvases with vigorous brushstrokes and lush blooms of saturated colour, earning rich admirers, solo shows and copycats. But in 1970 he shocked the art world with a show of politicised, cartoonish paintings, many with figures in Ku-Klux-Klan-like hoods.
Critics gasped and friends abandoned him (except for Willem de Kooning, who argued that the show was about “freedom”). “I got sick and tired of all that purity!” Guston explained. “Wanted to tell stories!” The conflict Guston experienced before renouncing abstraction was fraught. It took him years to abandon the detachment of simple lines and captured movement. Yet he also wanted to avoid the blithe commercialism of Pop Art. He parsed this transition in drawings, and stopped painting altogether between 1966 and 1968. “[P]ainting is ‘impure’,” he argued, tired of righteous claims otherwise. “We are image-makers and image-ridden.”
Hardly any abstract artist had returned to figurative work before. “Philip Guston: Works on Paper” includes some 100 drawings that date from the mid-1940s until Guston's death in 1980. Organised by the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich and the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, where it first opened in March 2007, the New York version of the show concentrates on his ambivalence about abstraction, and makes a convincing case for the importance of drawing in his work.
“Drawings helped him go in a new direction,” explained Isabelle Dervaux, the curator. “It was his way of experimenting with new ideas, and his basis for making art.” The works illustrate Guston's turbulent “tug-of-war” between what he called his “pure” abstract drawings and his drawings of objects. The first pieces from the late 1940s include some identifiable eyes, feet and hands. But these soon morph into his “Untitled” works from the 1950s, with energised black lines and squiggles on paper. His hand is sure, sharp and fluid. Two important works from this period are unique to the New York show, on loan from local private collections.
By the late 1950s, though, figures start creeping back in, along with titles that evoke a narrative, like “Head—Double View” from 1958 and “Celebration” from 1961. His line becomes bolder. “What would happen, I thought, if I eliminated everything except just raw feeling and the brush and ink, the simplest of means without the seduction of colour,” he said just before he died. “It was like testing myself, to see what I am, what I can do.”
The minimalist works that resulted are some of Guston's most visually arresting. With just a black line on paper, he manages to energise the full surface, creating a sense of space and heft. But this was not enough for him. Morton Feldman, a composer, once told an illuminating story about his friend Guston. The two men were looking at one of his paintings of two elongated black shapes on a white background. “That one on the left,” Guston reportedly said, “is telling the other one his troubles.” He craved the comfort of the tangible world—of things, of gravity, of stories.
The second room in the show is full of his drawings dating from 1968 on. Many of these pictures—of sinister heads and hands, and ordinary boots, clocks and sandwiches—are painted in that distinctive fleshy pink of his, at once cheerful and bloody. He drew them with dark outlines, like moody comic strips, but they are also sinister. The Vietnam war was raging on and the president, he thought, was an embarrassment. Guston was no longer satisfied with black marks on paper. Time was running out, he felt, and he still had stories to tell.