Like many of his contemporaries, the Abstract Expressionist painter Philip Guston was also an accomplished draftsman. Yet unlike his fellow abstract artists, he turned to drawing both as an aid for arriving at painting compositions and as a medium of exploration and creative possibility of its own. Repeatedly over the course of his career, Guston would spend months, even years at a time, concentrating intensely on drawing, until he again felt the need to paint, “anxious to get to the same place, with the actuality of paint and light.” (1) Museum of Modern Art Curator of Drawing Magdalena Dambrowski explains that “drawing became his ‘problem solving’ medium; whether quickly noting a fresh thought, or elaborating a developing sequence of thoughts, it helped him to work out new formal and pictorial solutions.” (2)
The importance Guston placed on drawing—as both a medium in its own right and as an underpinning for painting—derived from his own interests in studying artists from the past. Yet he rejected formal schooling, and drew most of his understanding of art history from books, exhibitions, and viewing fellow artists at work. At twelve, the transplanted Canadian began to draw, often hidden in a closet in his parents’ Los Angeles home, with only the dim illumination of a single incandescent bulb. Encouraged in his artistic promise, in 1930 he received a scholarship to take classes at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles; disappointed in the traditional art curriculum, he left after only three months. It was at the Otis Art Institute, however, where he met Musa McKim, the artist and poet who would become his wife seven years later. During this period of the artist’s early development, he based his technique on a close study of the art of Giorgio de Chirico and painters of the Italian Renaissance, such as Paolo Uccello, Andrea Mantegna and Piero della Francesca. He appreciated the three-dimensional, architectural space of these artists’ paintings, which he fused with a compact, fractured, Cubist pictorial space.
In the 1930s, Guston became increasingly involved in political issues, answering Mexican artists’ calls to use art as a tool for social awareness. In 1934, he joined the mural division of the Works Progress Administration. At this time, the Montreal-born Phillip Goldstein adopted the pseudonym Philip Guston. In late 1935, the artist moved to New York, rooming with Jackson Pollock, an old friend he had known since their days together at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. Among the murals he worked on were Maintaining America’s Skills, now destroyed, for the façade of the WPA Building at the World’s Fair of 1939, the Queensbridge Housing Project in New York, and the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C. The style of his mural work owed much to Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano, especially in the representation of figures in space. Another important source of inspiration was Picasso, whose major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939 was an influential event for most American painters.
In 1940, Guston left the mural project, and for several years served as artist-in-residence at the State University of Iowa and Washington University. He participated in the Carnegie Institute’s 1945 exhibition, Painting in the United States, receiving first prize for his submission. In the same year, Midtown Galleries mounted his first New York solo exhibition. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Guston participated in prominent group exhibitions, one-man shows, and international events, such as the
Venice Biennale and the Bienal de São Paolo. He also received several notable fellowships and awards, including the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, the Altman Prize from the National Academy of Design, a Ford Foundation grant, the Prix de Rome from the American Academy in Rome, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Flora Mayer Witkowsky prize. He continued to teach (mainly drawing) at New York University and at the Pratt Institute until 1959.
Like many of his contemporaries, Guston spent the years after World War II developing a personal style and vision out of the diverse range of realist and abstract influences that challenged American artists of his era. In the early 1950s, he formulated a lyrical abstract style, which towards the end of the decade evolved into single dark images embedded in gray paint. These works stemmed from a desire for a tabula rasa, or in the artist’s words, “simply to locate a form. So I use the most elementary way of making a mark, which is black on white….” (3) A lively member of the Eighth Street Club, Guston formed lasting friendships with Robert Motherwell and John Cage, who both shared his interest in Zen philosophy and Existentialism. He also frequented the Cedar Tavern, a popular watering hole for artists and often the site of a lively debate abut artistic ideals and the nature of creativity. Like his fellow Abstract Expressionist painters, he was represented by the Sidney Janis Gallery, and exhibited his work there regularly until 1961.
In the mid-1960s, the artist explored a new spatial structure, where non-objective forms appeared to exist in different locations in depth, on different planes. The turmoil in the United States surrounding the response to the Vietnam War prompted a desire for the artist to “get into more of what I call ‘tangibility.’ I wanted ‘touchable’ things.” (4) The forms, while sometimes recognizable, do not inhabit a coherent, naturalistic space, and thereby create troubling, even tragic, moods, full of unaccountable events and misunderstood emotions. Guston shied away from purely realistic drawing, feeling that it would not have had the spectral mood of his veiled evocations of race relations, in the hooded figures, for example, or the subtle hint of law in the large tomes intimating Moses’ Ten Commandments.
In 1965, the artist stopped painting altogether, to completely devote his efforts to drawing. (He returned to painting four years later.) From 1968 until his death, the artist produced drawings and paintings based on figurative motifs that were expressive of universal themes. In 1980, Guston died from a heart attack, only one month after a major retrospective of the artist’s work opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
1) Cited in Magdalena Dabrowski, The Drawings of Philip Guston (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988), p. 10.
3) Ibid., p. 32.
10) Ibid., p. 27.
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