Phillip Guston

Guston working on a mural with a group of children looking on, 1940.

Philip Guston (1913-07-27 – 1980-06-07) 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 1960's 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.

Quotes of Philip GustonEdit

1950 - 1960Edit

  • O’Hara was in his most non-stop way of talking, saying that the pictures put him in mind of Tiepolo [Spanish wall-painter, c. 1750]. 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. [quote in 1955]
    • Guston's quote in 'Ferguson', 1999, p. 18
  • 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
  • [Painting is..] a kind of war between the moment and the pull of memory.(quote in 1959)
    • as quoted in 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

Interview with David Sylvester, BBC (March 1960)Edit

Source: interview (March 1960) with David Sylvester, edited for broadcasting by the BBC but remains unpublished; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001

  • Actually, one of the real problems that always bothers me [in creating a painting] is sustaining a feeling. I mean, when I look at Poussin now, well, I think that's the most incredible thing to maintain the feeling for a year, however long it took Poussin, I'm telling you, to paint this vast structure. Bur perhaps that is not given to us now. I don't know... Actually all all modern art puzzles me. I don't understand it. II really don't. I don't know whether it is fragmentary [as w:David Sylvester the interviewer suggested]. I have a sickening nostalgia for this other state of sustaining a feeling for months, being able to construct and build a picture. Well Mondrian, I think, did that, of course. He was almost one of the last artists to do that. I wish I could get there.
    • pp. 91-92
  • You use things; the idea is, of course, to eliminate things [in making a picture]. And just as fifteen or eighteen years ago [when Guston made whole figurative series of children's pictures: 'all sort of props and so on'] I stretched out to get that, - put it in and took it out - to get that look in that's kid's eye and the way his mouth was open or wasn't - I mean a very particular kind of look - I'd do the same now. In other words, I can't find any freedom in abstract painting [but Guston did abstract painting in 1960 - till in 1967 he moved to figuration]. I'am just as stuck with locations, a few areas of colour in relation to some kind of totality that I want, as I was before. And so the problem of figuration is somehow irrelevant to me. I think some of the best painting done in New York today is figuration, but it's not recognised as such.. ..Well I think of my pictures as a kind of figuration.. ..I think every good painter here in New York really paints a self-portrait..
    • pp. 92-93
  • Sylvester: What about figuration in a more literal sense?
Guston: I try
Sylvester: You do?
Guston: Yes and I think there is a psychological problem involved here. I've tried and I really want to [Guston really did 7 years later, c. 1967!], but I don't think it is possible. I can't. Perhaps another generation can.
Sylvester: When you say you tried...
Guston: By that I mean the isolation of the single image which is what figuration means. Is that what you are talking about?
Sylvester: Yes.
Guston: You mean like a Rembrandt?
Sylvester: Yes.
Guston: The self-portraits of Rembrandt.. ..I was in Washington the other day and looked at that late self-portrait by Rembrandt. Honest to God, I didn't know what I kept looking at. .You know the more you think about these things, the less the thing appears as they are supposed to appear [in the painting]. In those great Rembrandt's there is an ambiguity of paint being image and image being paint, which is very mysterious.
  • pp. 93-94
  • What I really want to do, it seems, is to paint a single form in the middle of a canvas. ..That's all a painter is, an image maker, is he not? And one would be a fool, some kind of fool, to want to paint a picture. The most powerful instinct is to paint a single form in its continuity, which is after all what a face is. This happens constantly on a picture. I remember last year I became so nervous about what I was doing that I finally reduce it down to the can on the palette with brushes in it. Well, that's real, tat can with brushes. And I painted the an with brushes sticking in it, and I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't face it. It was as if it didn't contain enough of my thoughts or feelings about it.. ..I became signs. Exactly.. ..It seemed to become signs and symbols and I don't like signs.
    • pp. 95
  • I maintain that the frustration is an important, almost crucial, ingredient. I think that the best painting involves frustration. The point about the late Rembrandt [paintings] is not that it's satisfying but on the contrary that it is disturbing and frustrating. Because really, what he [Rembrandt] has done is to eliminate any plane - anything between that image and you. The Van Dyck [portrait] hasn't. It says [only] I'm a painting. The Rembrandt says: I am not a painting, I am a real man. But he is not a real man either. What is it then, that you are looking at?
    • p. 97

1961 - 1980Edit

  • I got sick and tired of all that Purity! Wanted to tell stories.. [Guston's quote in 1967, referring to his swift from Abstract expressionism to figurative painting]
    • Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 207
  • So when the 1960's came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. 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 a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.
    • In: 'It's About Freedom' - as quoted in 'It’s About Freedom, Philip Guston’s Late Works in the Schirn'; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt 11/6/2013 – 2/2/2014 [1]
    • Guston's quote is describing his departure from Abstract Expressionism
  • Everything is possible, everything except dogma, of any kind.. ..That’s what it’s about. Freedom. That’s the only possession an artist has — freedom to do whatever you can imagine.
    • In: 'It's About Freedom' - as quoted as last lign in 'It’s About Freedom, Philip Guston’s Late Works in the Schirn'; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt 11/6/2013 – 2/2/2014 [2]
  • 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

Oral history interview with Philip Guston, 1965 January 29Edit

Source: 'Oral history interview with Philip Guston', October 1966; Interviewer: Joseph S. Trovato; Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,

  • I went to New York in 1936 where I first worked as an assistant to Reginald Marsh as a non-relief artist since I had to await my residency requirement. This was the mural for the Customs House building in New York City. I didn't actually paint on this mural but Marsh asked me to design some lunettes between his panels. Next I went on the WPA mural division. I worked under Burgoyne Diller who was my supervisor, he was, I think, the supervisor of the New York City mural division.
    • n.p.
  • While I was still on the WPA I was submitting designs for the Section of Fine Arts competitions which I did on my own time. Burgoyne Diller gave me a mural to do in the Community Building of the Queensbridge Housing Project on Long Island. I worked on the design and cartoons for about a year. Everything was approved and the walls prepared - casein tempera painted on the wall... .[It was] about 1938. Holger Cahill asked me through Diller to do the outdoor facade mural of the WPA Building at the World's Fair. 1 stopped work on the Queens mural and began working on the Fair mural which was finished on schedule in time for the opening of the Fair.
    • n.p.
  • My wife [woman-painter w:Musa McKim,] on her own, did several other murals for the Section of Fine Arts. Then in 1940 and 1941 we moved out of New York City and came to Woodstock [at the age of 54] where we did the Laconia murals and several murals for the Presidents Lines, which were later turned into troop ships. I then went to teach at the University of Iowa where I finished the mural for the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C., in 1942 or 1943, I'm not sure which. With the exception of some visual aid material for the navy flight program in Iowa - navigational maps, etc. - this marks the end of the mural period.
    • n.p.
  • [On the question: 'What was your main stylistic influence up to this time']: The Renaissance chiefly - Piero, Mantegna, Uccello - but I was attracted also by the modern idioms - Léger, Picasso - and was close to the abstract painters on the project such as Stuart Davis, w:Burgoyne Diller, Arshile Gorky, w:Balcomb Greene, etc. At the time I did the Queens project, there was already a marked change in my work - it was becoming more concerned with cubist concepts of treating space.
    • n.p.
  • To answer your first question - most significantly the [Federal Art Project] project was my training ground in the real sense of the word. I feel very strongly about this. We were all poor, or most of us, and to have the time and opportunity to continue working - I was then in my twenties which is the important period - the crucial period for the young painter. This was most important and figures significantly in my own development. Although I feel that my personal image as a painter did not come about until I began my easel painting with personal imagery which was about 1941. The project kept me alive and working - it was my education.
    • n.p.
  • I have two thoughts [on the question of interviewer Joseph S. Trovato: 'Were the projects a good thing for American art?']. That practically all of the best painters of my generation developed on the projects such as Pollock, de Kooning, Brooks, Hague (sculptor), B. Greene, and Baziotes. I could go on and on. My second thought is that the reason it was good is that it had a broad base due to the economic situation we were in - the depression - and all kinds of art and styles, plus all degrees of talent were employed. Everybody was given an opportunity to prove himself. The many painters I mentioned above who have come such a long way is proof of this.
    • n.p.

'ARTnews Annual', October 1966Edit

Source: 'ARTnews Annual', October 1966; pp. 102/103 & 152/153,

  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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..
  • 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.

'transcript of a public forum at Boston university', conducted by Joseph Ablow 1966Edit

Source: '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

  • 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.. 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.. 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.
    • 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.
    • p. 66
  • I was forced and pushed into the kind of painting that I did [during the late 1940's / early 1950's]. 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?
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • pp. 73-75
  • 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.
    • pp. 73-75
  • ..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.
    • pp. 73-75
  • 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.
    • pp. 73-75

Quotes about Philip GustonEdit

  • A year later he [Guston] was in the thick of Communist Party circles around the John Reed Club. And he became the target of an LAPD Red Squad raid for his contribution to an exhibition devoted to the racially motivated trial of the Scottsboro Boys, for which he painted a picture about lynching that was the first of many of his works to feature ominous images of 'Ku Klux Klansmen'. Shortly thereafter Guston was on his way to Morelia in central Mexico to work on a commission under the patronage of revolutionary muralist w:David Alfaro Siqueiros - later Pollock's teacher in New York. By the end of 1934 he was back in California, where he joined the New Deal-sponsored Public Works of Art Project and realized a mural for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
  • Philip, do you know what the real subject is? It’s freedom.
    • Willem de Kooning in: 'It's About Freedom' - as quoted in 'It’s About Freedom, Philip Guston’s Late Works in the Schirn'; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt 11/6/2013 – 2/2/2014 [3]
  • 'In the anti-historical position, each artist is.. ..himself.' In one of his ruminations, Guston confidently maintains the singularity that marks the artists he has enshrined. But, in another, he challenges the notion of 'himself' and expatiates on the relationships that bind the family of artists he admires throughout history. He is, as almost all writers on his work have recognized, a man of dialogue. His work is clearly cyclical. His painting tone alternates, now caressing, now strident. His tastes veer from the sublime equilibrium of certain fifteenth-century masters to the dark reveries of the Romantics. Irreconcilables are the staff of his life. Guston's reflexive dialecticism is well known to those who have followed him over the years. They have learned to be comfortable with shifts in conversation from one position to another which, in the long dialogue of his life's work, are finally not inconsistent.
    • w:Dore Ashton, quote from her 'Introduction' in A Critical Study of Philip Guston. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, p. 1 [4]
  • At one time or another Guston has met with all the contradictions in the modern tradition (The art of painting in the twentieth century has careened wildly between extremes..). Like most complex artists, he has had several relationships with his time, and those not always exclusive. Yet certain of the inherited problems in his case have found more or less consistent answers, as for instance in the problem of content. Can matter alone carry expressive meaning? He says no. It is not enough to make a mark on a canvas, even if it creates radiant light or rhythmic sequence. Although he experiments constantly, his final answer is no, paint alone is not enough. As for the problem of space as posed in our time: Is the canvas really a two-dimensional surface whose frontal plane must not be violated? - Guston again answers no. The modern shibboleth of planarity is not enough. He has devised means to suggest depth, complicated perspective, close-ups, and he has used tonal modulation to find fresh spatial illusions. He refuses to reject the long history of painting as an art of spatial illusion.
    • w:Dore Ashton, quote from her 'Introduction' in A Critical Study of Philip Guston. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, p. 4; [5]

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