Philip Guston - abstract expressionist

This is the first of a two-part post on the works of Philip Guston. This first post deals with his earlier, more ‘conventional’ abstract expressionist style if you will. The second post focuses on the radical change of style his work underwent in the late 1960s, and for which he is arguably better known.

Philip Guston (1913 – 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 favour of more cartoonish renderings of various personal symbols and objects.

Guston, was born in 1913 in Montreal. In 1919 his family moved to Los Angeles, and with an interest in art, he was encouraged by his mother to take a correspondence course in cartooning. He attended the Manual Arts High School, where he became a friend of Jackson Pollock, a fellow student. After being expelled from that school, Guston independently pursued his interest in art, including comics, as well as delving into various philosophical theories. In 1930 he received a scholarship to the Otis Art Institute. He left after three months.

In 1935–1936 he moved to New York, where he worked on murals for the Works Progress Administration on their Federal Art Project. His works from this period tend toward realist social commentary but also suggest his exploration of more abstract approaches. From 1941 to 1945, he taught at the State University of Iowa in Iowa City.

1945 marked Guston’s first solo exhibition at The Midtown Galleries and a first prize award at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. In 1947, when he had a summer home in Woodstock, New York, Guston came to know abstract painter Bradley Walker Tomlin and became more attentive to the abstract art that was a hallmark of New York’s art scene.

Bradley Walker Tomlin No.13 1952
In 1948-1949, the Prix de Rome took him to Europe, after which he moved to New York, becoming part of a circle of artists, composers, and writers including Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and John Cage.

During the 1950s Guston entered a new phase of abstract expression. Thick strokes in lush hues are woven into complex surfaces, with the brighter colours massed at the centre of the canvas; these works became hallmarks of the artist’s style. They were well received, with The Museum of Modern Art purchasing of one of his paintings in 1956. After traveling to Europe in 1960, Guston had a major retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962.

In 1967, he moved to Woodstock permanently, and began painting in a symbolic style that revived the cartoon like forms and figures that he drew as a young man. In this body of work he created a lexicon of images such as Klansmen, lightbulbs, shoes, cigarettes, and clocks. In late 2009, the McKee gallery in NYC, Guston's historic dealer, mounted a show revealing that lexicon in 49 small oils on panel painted between 1969 and 1972 that had never been publicly displayed as a whole. 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 at his home in Woodstock.

1947-48 The Tormentors [oil on canvas]

1950 Leaving [quill and ink on paper]

1951 White Painting II [oil on canvas]

1952 Painting No. 9 [oil on canvas]

1952 To B.T.W. [oil on canvas]

1952 Untitled [oil on canvas]

1953-54 Zone [oil on canvas]

1954 Untitled

1954-55 Beggar's Joy [oil on canvas]

1955 For M [oil on canvas]

1956/57 The Clock [oil on canvas]

1957 Abstraction [oil on paper]

1957 Native's Return [oil on canvas]

1957 Oasis oil [on canvas]

1957 The Mirror [oil on canvas]

1958 Spring II [oil on canvas]

1960 Painter III [oil on canvas]

1963 Untitled [synthetic polymer on paper]

1966 Untitled (#11) [lithograph]

1969 Edge of Town [oil on canvas]

1969 Edge of Town [detail]

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