5 things to know about Philip Guston

One of the 20th century’s most captivating painters

With our Philip Guston exhibition open at Tate Modern, find out more about the influential artist whose work captured the turbulent world around him.

1. He constantly changed his painting style

Philip Guston Dial 1956 Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, USA) © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

As an artist, Philip Guston didn't typically stick to a single painting style over his career. He constantly pushed himself to evolve in new and different directions. Moving between surrealism, abstraction and figuration, he developed his best-known style in the late 1960s and 1970s creating images of strange figures, piles of shoes, light bulbs, cigarettes and clocks.

Guston painted these often mysterious items many times, inspired by his time in his studio, life and childhood.

2. He started his career painting murals

Philip Guston, Reuben Kadish and Jules Langsner in front of their fresco The Struggle Against Terrorism, 1935, in Morelia, Mexico.

Image courtesy of The Guston Foundation

Growing up, Philip Guston loved drawing and comic books. He taught himself to sketch and published his first cartoon when he was just 13. In school he became good friends with Jackson Pollock and they created art and mischief together (they were expelled around the same time). Guston was inspired by Italian Renaissance painters and Mexican muralists. He soon started to create his own murals, like The Struggle Against Terrorism (1935).

It was painted with two friends in Morelia, Mexico. A bold, massive fresco work, the mural shows people through the ages resisting the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition, the rise of Nazism, and hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Guston made a life-long stand against racism. Very early on, he used his paintbrush as a powerful tool to protest the frightening events shaping the world around him.

3. His art was influenced by politics and real-life events

Philip Guston Flatlands 1970 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco, USA)

© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Guston’s Jewish parents fled present-day Ukraine for Los Angeles when he was nine. From a young age, he was interested in communism and leftist politics. At times in his life, he made work in protest against racial violence and injustice. Later in the 1960s, he was involved in the civil rights movement, helping raise money for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Commenting on the violence and evil he saw in the world, he started to put nightmarish images in his later paintings. Guston uses comic-style visuals, satire and humour to create striking imagery including his eerie cartoonish figures of the Ku Klux Klan with triangle hoods and black slit eyes.

'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 everythingand then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?'

4. He worked with poets

Philip Guston I Thought I Would Never c. 1972 - 1975 Private Collection © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Guston lived to paint, but also loved poetry, saying ‘they [the poets] see without the jargon of art’. He created 'poem-pictures,' vibrant illustrations of everyday items to accompany poems, for his wife, poet Musa McKim and others.

Poets like T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and D.H. Lawrence inspired him, particularly in his later years when he read a lot of their work. ‘Throughout his life, he always felt a certain allegiance to poetry,’ said his daughter Musa Mayer. ‘I think it’s because of the way symbols and imagery are used to suggest something larger, something deeper.’

5. His paintings influenced other artists

Philip Guston Sleeping 1977 Promised gift of Musa Guston Mayer to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Guston’s hugely popular works from the 1970s (many painted late into the night in his studio) include some of his most famous paintings, Monument (1976) and Sleeping (1977). At the time, most critics didn’t like them. However, these paintings have influenced many artists since, like William Kentridge, Tacita Dean or cartoonists like Art Spiegelman – and not just because their subject matter got people talking.

His distinct use of colour with various shades, swirls and layers of pinks and complex brushwork makes his already mysterious, dream-like images even more striking.

Philip Guston is on at Tate Modern 5 October 2023 – 25 February 2024.