A long-overdue retrospective of Philip Guston’s influential work, from social realism to abstract expressionism to tragicomic, cartoony figuration
Philip Guston—perhaps more than any other figure in recent memory—has given contemporary artists permission to break the rules and paint what, and how, they want. His nonlinear career, embrace of “high” and “low” sources, and constant aesthetic reinvention defy easy categorization, and his 1968 figurative turn is one of 20th-century art’s most legendary conversion narratives. “I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”
And so Guston’s cross-hatched abstractions gave way to large, cartoonlike canvases populated by lumpy, lugubrious figures and personal symbols in a palette of meaty pinks. That Guston continued mining this vein for the rest of his life—despite initial bewilderment from his peers—reinforced his reputation as an artist’s artist; he has become hugely influential as contemporary art has followed Guston into its own antic figurative turn.
Published to accompany the first retrospective museum exhibition of Guston’s career in 15 years, Philip Guston Now includes a definitive chronology reflecting many new discoveries. It highlights the voices of artists of our day who have been inspired by the full range of his work: Tacita Dean, Peter Fischli, Trenton Doyle Hancock, William Kentridge, Glenn Ligon, David Reed, Dana Schutz, Amy Sillman, Art Spiegelman and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Essays trace the influences, interests and evolution of this singular force in modern and contemporary art—including a close look at the 1960s and ’70s, when Guston gradually abandoned abstraction, returning to the figure and to current history but with a personal voice, by turns comic and apocalyptic, that resonates today more than ever.
Born in Canada and raised in Los Angeles, Philip Guston (1913–80) was largely self-taught, reared on Renaissance painters in reproduction, Walter and Louise Arensberg’s modern art collection, and the Mexican muralism of Orozco and Siqueiros. After finding success as a New York School painter, in 1968 Guston began painting in a figurative mode, marshaling all those early influences into his iconic, bleakly funny images of midcentury America’s violence and anxiety. He died in Woodstock in 1980.
Authors: Harry Cooper