Figuration to Abstraction and Back Again: How Philip Guston Shaped 20th-Century Painting

Claire Selvin


July 22, 2020 4:37pm


Philip Guston is best known for his incisive, cartoonish paintings and drawings ranging in subject matter from everyday scenes to narrative political satires, particularly those of Richard Nixon. Guston’s work received varying degrees of critical praise throughout his lifetime, shifting as he changed course.

His works can now be found in major international museums and are the subject of an upcoming online exhibition at Hauser & Wirth opening July 30. The artist’s pieces are also set to figure in a traveling survey, postponed due to the pandemic, beginning in 2021, that will make stops at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Tate Modern in London.

The guide below traces developments in the artist’s style and career, highlighting formal shifts—from narrative images to abstraction and back again—as well as exhibition milestones from the 1930s to 1980.

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Philip GustonMother and Child, ca. 1930, oil on canvas.GENEVIEVE HANSON/© THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

Guston was a largely self-taught artist.
Born in Montreal in 1913, Guston was born the youngest of seven children to Russian-Jewish parents, who had fled persecution in Europe in the early 1900s. In 1919, the family moved to Los Angeles, where he grew up and attended high school with Jackson Pollock. Guston received a scholarship to attend the city’s Otis Art Institute in 1930, but withdrew from the art school after three months. The following year the artist had his first solo exhibition at Stanley Rose’s bookshop and gallery in 1931, and he spent some months between 1934–35 in Morelia, Mexico, painting a mural before moving to New York, in 1935, to work as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration.

Inspired by prominent Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros along with the surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico, Guston’s earliest artworks, which often featured monumental figures with undulating muscles and curves, addressed social and political issues. Mother and Child (1930), the artist’s first painting, which he created at age 17, exemplifies Guston’s early interest in a disorienting, oneiric scenes. Another of his most famed pieces from this era, the Morelia mural, entitled The Struggle Against War and Fascism (1934–35), garnered great attention in the United States.

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Philip Guston, Martial Memory, 1941, oil on canvas.© THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

The artist’s interest in figuration continues into the 1940s.
Guston continued creating figurative paintings into the next decade, but the works he made were more intimate in subject and scale. For pieces like Martial Memory (1941), which depicts a group of children wielding large wooden sticks, trash can lids, and other debris, the artist abandoned the overtly political tones of his earlier pieces.

During this decade, the artist was an artist-in-residence at the University of Iowa and Washington University in St. Louis, and he subsequently held teaching positions at New York University and the Pratt Institute. He also received the Prix de Rome in 1948 and spent a year in Italy studying art.

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Philip Guston, Dial, 1956, oil on canvas.© THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

Guston starts creating abstract paintings and presents them in a solo exhibition.
In the early 1950s, when Abstract Expressionism was already at its zenith, Guston himself began experimenting with abstraction. His earliest pieces in this mode featured clusters of various colors situated at the center of canvases, resembling the approaches of already established artists like Joan Mitchell and Willem de Kooning. Guston often positioned those vibrant groupings of shapes and lines against subdued backgrounds of pinks and blues, colors that would persist in later works. In 1952, Guston presented his new abstract paintings in a solo exhibition at Peridot Gallery in New York.

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Philip Guston, Flatlands, 1970, oil on canvas.© THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

Guston’s work receives mixed reviews at major New York museum exhibitions.
Guston got his first major retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1962, and that exhibition then traveled to Amsterdam, Brussels, London, and Los Angeles. New York Times critic and art reporter Stuart Preston called the Guggenheim show, which traced Guston’s figurative pieces to his foray into abstraction, “rewarding” for those interested in the painter’s stylistic progression. Four years later, the artist had a survey at the Jewish Museum in New York. Critic Hilton Kramer wrote in the New York Times of the 1966 exhibition, “A painter so limited in range of feeling, who restricts himself so severely to a slender and much-repeated visual vocabulary, is not an ideal candidate for an exhibition of the sort currently installed at the Jewish Museum. His art lacks the breadth and depth to sustain it.”

In 1967, Guston permanently moved to Woodstock, New York, where he cultivated a lexicon of images and symbols that would appear in many of his future works. For instance, he started painting hooded figures, which refer to the Ku Klux Klan, in 1968 and would continue to appear in his work until his death in 1980. The political climate of the U.S. in the 1960s also impacted the artist’s shift away from complete abstraction, as he felt that it was a subject that his work could no longer ignore. He once said, “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”

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Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973, oil on canvas.© THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

Into the 1970s, Guston creates a distinct visual vocabulary.
Cigarettes, shoes, enlarged eyeballs, limbs, and other less discernible forms make up Guston’s instantly recognizable later paintings, which have a predilection for shades of pink, red, and blue in their compositions. But those works too received little praise from critics when they were first exhibited at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970, and he left the U.S. for a sojourn at the American Academy in Rome, where he made a series of works focused on the Italian landscape. When he returned to Woodstock after eight months abroad, Guston got to work on his first series, completed in 1971, of satirical, cartoonish drawings of Richard Nixon.

Following the Watergate Scandal, the artist made additional drawings with the president as their subject, as well as the now iconic painting, San Clemente (1975), with its large, bandaged foot referring to the disgraced president’s bout with phlebitis. While those works were not publicly shown for decades, Guston did present a selection of his drawings from 1938 to 1972 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibition curated by Henry Geldzahler. (They were also the subject of an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in New York in 2016, that opened the week before that year’s presidential election.)

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Philip Guston, Untitled, 1980, acrylic on paper.© THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

After his death, the artist’s work is more widely celebrated.
Guston died in 1980 shortly after a retrospective of his work opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, an exhibition that contributed to a growing interest in the artist’s work. Today, his pieces can be found in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, Tate in London, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and other major art institutions around the world. His auction record of $25.8 million was set at Christie’s in 2013 for the abstract painting To Fellini (1958), and, more recently, his Smoking II (1973) sold for $7.65 million at Phillips in New York in 2019.


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