Last modified on 30 July 2014, at 13:07

Phillip Guston

Philip Guston (1913-07-271980-06-07) was a notable painter of the New York School, which included many of the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. In the 1960s Guston helped to lead the transition from Modernism to Post-Modernism in painting, abandoning the so-called "pure abstraction" of abstract expressionism in favor of more cartoon-like renderings of various personal symbols and objects.

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  • What is seen and called the picture is what remains – an evidence. Even as one travels in painting towards a state of ‘unfreedom’ where only certain things can happen, unaccountably the unknown and free must appear. Usually I am on a work for a long stretch, until a moment arrives when the air of the arbitrary vanished and the paint falls into positions that feel destined. The very matter of painting – its pigment and space – is so resistant to the will, so disinclined to assert its plane and remain still. Painting seems like impossibility, with only a sign now and then of its own light. Which must be because of the narrow passage from a diagramming to that other state – corporeality. In this sense, to paint is a possessing rather than a picturing.
    • 12 Americans, by Dorothy C.Miller, New York, 1956. p. 36


  • Frank (O’Hara, fh) was in his most non-stop way of talking, saying that the pictures put him in mind of Tiepolo. Certain cupola frescoes. Suddenly I was working in an ancient building, a warehouse facing the Giudecca. The loft over the firehouse was transformed. It was filled with light reflected from the canal. (1955)
    • quoted in 'Ferguson', 1999, p. 18


  • (Painting is..) a kind of war between the moment and the pull of memory.(1959)
    • Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 155


  • There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure’. It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’, which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden. There are no ‘wiggly or straight lines’ or any other elements. You work until you vanish. The picture isn’t finished if they are seen.
    • transcript of the panel, March 1960, held at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p.61


  • There are so many things to paint in the world – in the cities – so much to see. Does art need to represent this variety and contribute to its proliferation? Can art be that free? The difficulties begin when you understand what it is that the soul will not permit the hand to make. To paint is always to start at the beginning again, yet being unable to avoid the familiar arguments about what you see yourself painting. The canvas you are working on modifies the previous ones in an unending, baffling chain which never seems to finish. (What sympathy is demanded of the viewer! He is asked to 'see' the future links.
    • ARTnews Annual, October 1966, pp. 102/103 and 152/153


  • But you begin to feel as you go on working that unless painting proves its right to exist by being critical and self-judging, it has no reason to exist at all - or is not even possible. The canvas is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury and judge. Art without a trial disappears at a glance.
    • ARTnews Annual, October 1966, pp. 102/103 and 152/153


  • To will a new form is inacceptable, because will builds distortion. Desire too, is incomplete and arbitrary. These strategies, however intimate they might become, must especially be removed to clear the way for something else – a condition somewhat unclear, but which in retrospect becomes a very precise act. This ‘thing’ is recognized only as it comes into existence. It resists analysis - and probably this is as it should be. Possibly the moral is that art cannot and should not be made.
    • ARTnews Annual, October 1966, pp. 102/103 and 152/153


  • ‘All these troubles revolve around the irritable mutual dependence of life and art – with their need and contempt for one another. Of necessity, to create is a temporary state and cannot be possessed, because you learn and relearn that it is the lie and mask of Art and, too, its mortification, which promise a continuity. There are twenty crucial minutes in the evolution of each of my paintings. The closer I get to that time - those twenty minutes – the more intensely subjective I become – bit the more objective, too. Your eye gets sharper, you become continuously more and more critical. There is no measure I can hold on..
    • ARTnews Annual, October 1966, pp. 102/103 and 152/153


  • I have a studio in the country - in the woods – but my paintings look more real to me than what is outdoors. You walk outside; the rocks are inert, even the clouds are inert. It makes me feel a little better. But I do have a faith that it is possible if you can move that inch.
    • ARTnews Annual, October 1966, pp. 102/103 and 152/153


  • Painting and sculpture are very archaic forms. It’s the only thing left in our industrial society where an individual alone can make something with not just his own hands, but brains, imagination, heart maybe. It’s a very archaic form. Same things can be said with words, writing poetry, making sounds, music. It is a unique thing.. ..I think that the original revolutionary impulse behind the New York School, as I felt it anyway, and as I think my colleagues felt and the way we talked all the time, was a kind of a.. ..you felt as if you were driven into a corner against the wall, with no place to stand, just the place you occupied as if the act of painting was not making a picture.. ..it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible.. ..I felt as if I was talking to myself, having a dialectical monologue with myself to see if I could create.
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow 1966, as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 66


  • I mean that the things I felt and that I enjoyed about certain painters of the past that I liked, that inspired me, like Cézanne and Manet, that thing I enjoyed in their work, that complete losing of oneself in the work to such an extent that the work itself, even though it was a picture of a woman in front of a mirror or some dead fish on the table, the pictures of those men were no pictures to me. They felt as if a living organism was posited there on the canvas, on this surface. That’s truly to me the act of creation.
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow, 1966; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 66


  • I was forced and pushed into the kind of painting that I did (during the late forties, early fifties, fh) . That is to say, the demands in this dialogue with myself – I give to it, I make some marks, it speaks to me, I speak to it, we have terrible arguments going on all night, weeks and weeks – do I really believe that? I make a mark, a few strokes, I argue with myself, not do I like or not, but is it true or not? Is that what I mean, is that what I want?
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow, 1966; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 67


  • ..there comes a point when something catches on the canvas, something grips on the canvas. I don’t know what it is, you can put your paint on the surface? Most of the time it looks like paint, and who the hell wants paint on a surface? But there does come a time – you take it off, put it on, goes over here, moves over a foot, as you go closer you start moving in inches not feet, half-inches – there comes a point when the paint doesn’t feel like paint. I don’t know why. Some mysterious thing happens. I think you have all experienced it.. ..What counts is that the paint should really disappear, otherwise it’s craft. That’s what I mean by something grips in a canvas. The moment that happens you are then sucked into the whole thing. Like some kind of rhythm.’
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow, 1966; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 67


  • Lots of artists who paint have that experience to one degree or another, this release where their thinking doesn’t precede their doing. The space is shortened between thinking and doing. It’s a funny thing, what I really hate, yet I have to go through with it, is the preparation. You have to go through it, like somebody preparing for sacred vows, the sensation of you putting paint on, and it’s so boring to put paint on and to see yourself putting paint on. You’re really preparing for those few hours where some kind of umbilical cord is attached between you and it. You do it and the work is done and this cord seems to slacken, as if you left yourself there. And what a relief to leave yourself somewhere, to get out of it entirely.
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow, 1966 ; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 68


  • Man is not supposed to make life. Only God can make a tree. Why should you make a living organism? You should make images of living organisms. It seems presumptuous to attempt to make a thing which breathes and pulsates right there by itself. It’s unnatural. What’s inhuman about it is, the human way to create, I think, the way we see, from part to part. You do this and then you do that, then you do that and that. Then you learn about composition, you learn about old masters, you form certain ideas about structure. But the inhuman activity of trying to make some kind of jump or leap, where even though you naturally have to paint, after all a painting is only a painting, the painting is always saying, what do you want from me, I can only be a painting, you have to go from part to part, but you shouldn’t see yourself go from part to part, that’s the whole point That’s some kind of a leap.. ..I’m describing the process of painting.
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow, 1966; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, pp. 68/69


  • I am not interested in making a picture. Then what the hell I am interested in? I must be interested in that process that I am talking about.. I don’t keep the studio very tidy. You have on the floor like cow dung in the field.. ..and I look down at this stuff on the floor and it’s just a lot of inert matter, inert paint. Then what is it? I look back on the canvas, and it’s not inert, it’s active, moving and living.. ..Why I need this kind of miracle, I don’t know it, but I need it. my conviction is that this is the act of creation to me. That’s how I have it.
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow, 1966; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, pp. 63-75


  • If you push it, it feels good; I don’t know what it is. It must have something to do with kinesthesia. I feel now that I am painting I’m not drawing anything, or even representing non-objective art. You know, you can represent abstract art, too, as well as heads figures, nudes. A lot of abstract artists are just representational painters, you know that. And a lot of figurative artists are very abstract. I don’t feel as if I’m doing that. I feel more as if I’m shaping something with my hands. I feel as if I’ve always wanted to get to that state. Like a blind man in a dark room had some clay, what would he make? I end up with 2 or 3 forms on a canvas, but it gets very physical for me. I always thought I am a very spiritual man, not interested in paint, and now I discover myself to be very physical and very involved with matter. I want to be involved with how heavy things are, a balloon, how light things are, things levitating, pushing forms, make me feel as if my hand is pushing in a head, bulges out here and pushes there.
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow, 1966; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, pp. 63-75


  • ..when I see people making quote ‘abstract’ painting, I think it’s just a dialogue and a dialogue isn’t enough, that is to say, there is you painting and this canvas. I think there has to be a third thing, it has to be a trialogue. Whether that third thing - it must be, to reverberate and make trouble, you have to have trouble and contradictions, it has to become complex because life is complex, emotions are complex, - whether that third element is a still life of something, or an idea or a concept, in each case it has to be a trialogue and above all has to involve you.. ..The real thing that matters is how involved you are in that.
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow, 1966; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, pp. 63-75


  • It is the bareness of drawing that I like. The act of drawing is what locates, suggests, discovers. At times it seems enough to draw, without the distractions of color and mass. Yet it is an old ambition to make drawing and painting one. Usually I draw in relation to my painting, what I am working on at the time. On a lucky day a surprising balance of forms and spaces will appear and I feel the drawing making itself, the image taking hold. This in turn moves me towards painting -anxious to get to the same place, with the actuality of paint and light.
    • transcript of a public forum at Boston university, conducted by Joseph Ablow, 1966; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, pp. 63-75


  • I got sick and tired of all that Purity! Wanted to tell stories.. (1967, on his change from abstract-expressionism to figurative painting, fh)
    • Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 207


  • I should like to paint like an man who has never seen a painting, but this man –myself – lives in a museum.
    • Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 207

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[1] Example of his later work