Philip Guston

1913–1980

Philip Guston, ‘Cornered’ 1971
Cornered 1971
© The Estate of Philip Guston
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In Tate Britain

Biography

Philip Guston ('ust' pronounced like "rust"), born Phillip Goldstein (June 27, 1913 – June 7, 1980), was a Canadian American painter, printmaker, muralist and draughtsman. Early in his five decade career, muralist David Siquieros described him as one of "the most promising painters in either the US or Mexico," in reference to his antifascist fresco The Struggle Against Terror, which "includes the hooded figures that became a lifelong symbol of bigotry for the artist." "Guston worked in a number of artistic modes, from Renaissance-inspired figuration to formally accomplished abstraction," and is now regarded as one of the "most important, powerful, and influential American painters of the last 100 years." He also frequently depicted racism, antisemitism, fascism and American identity, as well as, especially in his later most cartoonish and mocking work, the banality of evil. In 2013, Guston's painting To Fellini set an auction record at Christie's when it sold for $25.8 million.

A founding figure in the mid-century New York School movement, which established New York as the new center of the global art world, Guston work appeared in the famed Ninth Street Show and in the avant-garde art journal It is. A Magazine for Abstract Art. By the 1960s, Guston had renounced abstract expressionism, and helped pioneer a modified form of representational art known as neo-expressionism. "Calling American abstract art 'a lie' and 'a sham,' he pivoted to making paintings in a dark, figurative style, including satirical drawings of Richard Nixon" during the Vietnam War as well as several paintings of hooded Klansmen, which Guston explained this way: “They are self-portraits … I perceive myself as being behind the hood … The idea of evil fascinated me … I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan.” The paintings of Klan figures were set to be part of an international retrospective sponsored by the National Gallery of Art; the Tate Modern; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2020, but in late September, the museums jointly postponed the exhibition until 2024 "until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston's work can be more clearly interpreted.

The announcement spurred an open letter, published online by the Brooklyn Rail, and signed by more than 2,000 artists. It criticizes the postponement, and the museums' lack of courage to display or attempt to interpret Guston's work, as well as the museums' own "history of prejudice." It calls Guston's KKK themes a timely catalyst for a "reckoning" with cultural and institutional white supremacy, and argues that's why the exhibition must proceed without delay. As of October 3, 2020, however, the earlier exhibition dates had not been reinstated.

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