Expressing the ‘banality of evil’ through his art: Philip Guston

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Philip Guston – The Studio, 1969 (oil on canvas) | Via Collecteurs

June 27, On This Day 

Philip Guston | Via Asiasociety.org

This painter “frequently depicted racism, antisemitism, fascism and American identity, as well as, especially in his later most cartoonish and mocking work, the banality of evil”.  

Philip Guston, born Phillip Goldstein in June 27, 1913, was a Canadian American painter, printmaker, muralist and draftsman. He is today regarded one of the “most important, powerful, and influential American painters of the last 100 years”. 

As a young boy of 10, in 1923, Guston had found his father hanging in the shed, possibly owing to persecution or the difficulty in securing income. 

Years later, his mother saw his interest in art and enrolled him in a correspondence course at the Cleveland School of Cartooning. At 14, Guston began painting, and enrolled in the Los Angeles Manual Arts High School where he met Jackson Pollock, who became a life-long friend. The pair later published a paper opposing the high school’s emphasis on sports over art, which led to expulsions, although Pollock eventually returned and graduated. 

Philip Guston, Zone, 1953–1954, oil on canvas, The Edward R. Broida Trust, Los Angeles | Via Wikipedia
Philip Guston, Cherries III, 1976, oil on canvas, Honolulu Museum of Art | Via Wikipedia
Philip Guston, Passage (1957–58). Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston/©the estate of Philip Guston. | Via Artnet News

Although an abstract artist for years, Guston eventually became increasingly frustrated with abstraction and began painting representationally again, but in a personal, cartoonish manner. By the 1960s, Guston had renounced abstract expressionism, and helped pioneer a modified form of representational art known as neo-expressionism. 

He pivoted to making paintings in a dark, figurative style, including satirical drawings of Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War as well as several paintings of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen. 

Wikipedia reports that curator Michael Auping said of this: “It disappointed many when he returned to figuration with aplomb, painting mysterious images in which cartoonish-looking cups, heads, easels, and other visions were depicted against vacant beige backgrounds. People whispered behind his back: ‘He’s out of his mind, and this isn’t art.’ “He could have ruined his reputation, and some people said he did.” 

Philip Guston – City Limits, 1969 (oil on canvas) – Image courtesy MoMA | Via Collecteurs
Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973). Courtesy of the Stedelijk Museum/©the estate of Philip Guston. | Via Artnet News
Philip Guston – Courtroom, 1970 (oil on canvas) – Image courtesy National Gallery of Art D.C. | Via Collecteurs

Musa Mayer’s biography of her father in Night Studio says that famous painter Willem de Kooning was one of the few who instantly understood the importance of these paintings, telling Guston at the time that they were “about freedom”. 

Due to the poor reception of his new figurative style, Guston isolated himself even more in Woodstock in New York, far from the art world that had so utterly misunderstood his art. Here, he died of a heart attack at the age of 66 on June 7, 1980, reportedly at the dinner table of friends. 

Philip Guston – The Studio, 1969 (oil on canvas) | Via Collecteurs

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