Guston Guston had three distinct phases or styles during his artistic career, all of them remarkably successful. After first working as a muralist in a relatively realistic style, he became prominent in the late 1940s and early 1950s as part of the abstract expressionism movement. Beginning in the late 1960s, his late period of clunky, expressive paintings of the human form marked the start of a revolt against the abstract style that had dominated American painting since the early 1950s. Born Philip Goldstein in Montreal, Canada, Guston moved with his Russian-Jewish emigr parents to Los Angeles, California in 1919. His father committed suicide in 1920. In 1927 Guston attended Manual Arts High School, together with American artist Jackson Pollock; both were expelled in 1928. Guston never returned, and his only other formal schooling was three months at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1930.
In 1935 he moved to New York City, and in 1937 married poet Musa McKim and changed his name. During World War II (1939-1945) Guston taught art at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. During his early artistic phase, which lasted from his youth in California until the late 1940s, he painted the human form in a style influenced by the abstract geometry of European modernism and the patriotic themes of Mexican mural painting. Guston painted murals for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project between 1935 and 1940, executing, among other projects, a major commission for the 1939 New York World’s Fair: Maintaining America’s Skills (now destroyed). None of his murals have survived, but canvases that he also worked on during this period, such as Bombardment (1937-1938, Estate of Philip Guston) and The Gladiators (1938, The Edward R.
Broida Trust, Los Angeles), are allegories (symbolic stories) with a strong strain of social protest. By the late 1940s Guston was turning increasingly to abstraction, and by the early 1950s he was a prominent figure-along with Pollock-in the so-called New York school of abstract expressionist painters. Abstractions such as Painting (1954) and The Clock (1956-1957), both in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, though quite different from each other, are typical of Guston’s middle period. Both are marked by a concentration of short strokes of high-pitched colors, jumbled at the center of a field of lighter color. By the late 1960s, Guston had abandoned abstraction, instead drawing cartoonish heads, clocks, lightbulbs, and hooded figures recalling the Ku Klux Klan figure in his early painting The Conspirators (1932, location unknown). In 1970 he exhibited these radically different paintings for the first time, in a major show in New York City.
Reviews were harshly negative, and former friends shunned him. Guston withdrew from the New York City art scene, spending most of his time in Woodstock, New York, and forming close friendships with American poets Bill Berkson, Clark Coolidge, William Corbett, and Stanley Kunitz, all of whom, in addition to Musa McKim, he collaborated with on a series of projects that he called his Poem Pictures. Guston painted at a steady pace throughout the 1970s, producing works in which lone, sometimes hooded figures or disembodied heads, eyeballs, or feet typically lurk in apocalyptic junkyards scattered with clocks, bricks and other debris. Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands), is a self-portrait showing Guston in his studio, which is piled with shoes and lit by a naked lightbulb. The dark subject matter in these works belies their cheerfully naive painting style.
Of Guston’s three phases, the last proved most influential on a subsequent generation of artists, the figurative neoexpressionists of the 1980s, including American painter Julian Schnabel and German painter Georg Baselitz, in whose work the impact of Guston’s expressive and unique imagery is evident.