Growing up with Philip Guston — my father
Philip Guston was one of just a handful of 20th-century artists to make the journey from figuration to abstraction and back again. With the publication of a new book about her father, Guston’s daughter Musa Mayer discusses his legacy
On an autumn evening in October 1970, Philip Guston unveiled 33 of his new paintings at Marlborough Gallery in New York. Outside, fans and the press were anticipating a new selection of abstract canvases in line with the celebrated colour-field works he had been making over the previous two decades.
Instead, recalls Musa Mayer, Guston’s 78-year-old daughter, they were greeted by crude pictures of objects from Guston’s studio — shoes, clocks, lightbulbs and books — as well as images of his now-infamous cartoon villains in white hoods.
‘Critics were horrified and saw them as an outrageous departure from my father’s abstract works,’ Mayer says. ‘The response was resoundingly negative. Reviews were filled with words like “clumsy”, “embarrassing” and “simple-minded”.’ The New York Times published a scathing assessment under the headline: ‘A Mandarin Pretending To Be A Stumblebum’.
‘It may be difficult today to comprehend what a courageous act it was for my father to exhibit these works,’ Mayer continues, ‘but times of change and transition were always challenging for him, and he came to trust that if he delved deeply enough into his own thinking and was receptive, new forms and images would come to him.’
One man who did comprehend what Guston was striving for was Willem de Kooning. According to Mayer, de Kooning told her father, ‘Do you know what the real subject is, Philip? Freedom!’
Guston was born Phillip Goldstein in 1913 in Montreal. His parents had fled persecution in Ukraine, and he was the youngest of seven children. When he was six, the family uprooted to Los Angeles, where his father was forced to makes ends meet working as a junkman. Aged 10, he discovered his father’s body hanging from a shed rafter.
The young Guston found solace in drawing, says Mayer, copying Old Masters from library books and enrolling on a cartooning course. At school he found a friend for life in Jackson Pollock — the pair got their first taste of controversy, she recalls, after they were expelled for ‘circulating posters criticising the school’s focus on military training and athletics’.
Mostly self-taught, Guston got his first job as a mural painter for the Works Progress Administration. ‘Philip was highly influenced by the social realism of the Mexican muralists,’ says Mayer. ‘He was moved by their concept of art for the people, embracing issues of equality and social justice.’
In the 1940s, Guston started teaching at Mid-Western universities, first in Iowa, then St. Louis. He also started to experiment with easel paintings — figurative and allegorical scenes influenced by Picasso and de Chirico. In 1948 they won him the Prix de Rome and an invitation to the city’s American Academy. He spent 12 months in Italy making studies of the Old Masters he loved, including Giotto and Masaccio. But on his return to the US, he decided to destroy them all.
‘I felt I’d reached the the end of this preoccupation,’ Guston later explained. ‘Then followed a year of destroying everything… the forms I wanted to make couldn’t take the shapes of things and figures… I felt I had to drop figuration and let it go.’
In search of new ideas, Guston followed Pollock to New York. He rented a studio on 10th Street, where Pollock, de Kooning and Mark Rothko had already begun sowing the seeds of Abstract Expressionism.
‘They were all giving themselves over to the fundamental process of creating, without preconception or figuration,’ says Mayer. ‘The idea of Philip immersing himself in the process of painting, allowing his unconscious mind to guide him, to paint spontaneously in the moment — all of this was very freeing for him.’
Mayer saw little of her father during these years, as Guston gravitated towards the city’s artistic underbelly. His evenings were spent at the local painters’ hangout, the Cedar Tavern, and she recalls him waking up to nurse his hangover with black coffee at the same time she was coming home from school.
Aged 11 or 12, she started to go to parties with her father, but remembers the poker nights and costume dances as unpredictable and sometimes violent. After one night of excess, Pollock tried to push Guston from an upper-storey window.
Guston became a hugely successful abstract painter. He was invited to join Sidney Janis gallery, and was awarded a retrospective that toured the Guggenheim, LACMA, the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. By the end of the 1960s, however, Guston was restless again.
‘If you examine the entire scope of my father’s 50 years of work, the one constant seems to be self-questioning and change,’ says Mayer. ‘The pull back to figuration and “telling stories” was strong, and he spoke of wanting to be “whole again” as he had been as a kid.’ He retreated from the city to Woodstock and again started from scratch.
‘My father always worked alone in his studio, often late at night, usually for many hours, sometimes for days on end, stopping only for a quick meal or nap,’ says Mayer.
‘When he had finished a painting, he would sometimes invite my mother to see what he’d been working on all night. A small group of friends, mostly poets, would sometimes be invited to see recent work. Growing up, I knew never to disturb him and was never invited in. The studio was always separate from the living space, so it was always clear that area was his.’
It was in Woodstock that Guston’s focus returned to the subject of the Ku Klux Klan — something that had lingered in his psyche since boyhood, according to Mayer. He started to paint crude, figurative cartoons of hooded figures boozing, smoking and riding in cars. ‘I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan,’ said Guston. ‘What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot?’
‘My father set a time bomb with those paintings that is only now beginning to fully resonate, in today’s climate where systemic racism is at last being acknowledged,’ says Mayer. ‘In these paintings, Philip created work that carries a profound message about the banality of unexamined racism and evil amongst the white population, a message that most people haven’t been ready to hear, and probably still aren’t.’
In 2020, a touring Guston retrospective was postponed because of fears about how audiences would respond to these images. ‘Philip was accused of “appropriating images of black pain” when in fact these hoods confront white culpability,’ says Mayer.
After the almost universal rejection of his return to figuration at Marlborough Gallery, Guston became more withdrawn and his motifs became depressive. A painting of a lone figure in a bed, for example, echoed the famous Dürer engraving Melencolia I — a reproduction of which Mayer remembers hanging on her father’s kitchen wall.
Other works showed piles of rubbish, or limbs stacked one on top of the other, influenced by the images of Nazi concentration camps and the carnage of the Vietnam War that haunted the artist.
Guston continued to exhibit his latest figurative works once a year at the McKee Gallery in New York, but the critics remained sceptical and, according to Mayer, there were no sales.
In 1979 he suffered his first heart attack. Unable to continue his marathon 36-hour painting sessions, he hunched over a drawing table, focusing on smaller works in his signature palette of titanium white, mars black and cadmium red. ‘He once said that working with a limited palette actually gave him more freedom,’ says Mayer.
In 1980 a small group of collectors from California started buying his work, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organised a career retrospective. Mayer and her father, who was by now pale and often short of breath, flew out for the opening. ‘I wish I were painting what I’m painting now, being 30 years old,’ he told the press. ‘I love painting. I mean, painting is my life. Painting is what I live for.’
He died three weeks later after another heart attack, on 7 June 1980, shortly before his 67th birthday.
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After his death, the work Guston had made during the last 12 years of his life underwent a radical reappraisal. Today, those images are considered some of the most innovative of the 20th century.
As for the postponed retrospective, it is now due to open at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on 1 May 2022.
‘I do worry that following the recent controversy people will only remember the hooded figures when they think of Philip Guston, and not understand the full sweep of his half-century of painting, how he returned to his earliest concerns about social justice, and the complexity of all the work in between,’ says Mayer. ‘Hopefully, in 2022, they will have a chance to see for themselves.’
Philip Guston by Musa Mayer is published by Laurence King