Philip Guston’s Moral Courage

Philip Guston. Untitled, 1971. Oil on paper mounted on canvas. Private Collection, Woodstock, NY. © Estate of Philip Guston; image courtesy McKee Gallery, New York, NY.

Would you risk a highly successful career, replete with public recognition, to pursue a line of creative inquiry that was tacitly forbidden? That is exactly what Philip Guston did. Virtually self-taught, Guston’s early social realist works showed the influence of Picasso, Piero della Francesca, and Mexican mural painting. His abstract expressionist works were widely admired for their refined, elegant handling. In 1970, Guston exhibited his work at the prestigious Marlborough Gallery in New York. Prepared to embrace Guston one of America’s leading proponents of abstraction, critics were shocked to see paintings that showed hooded Klan-like figures and other politically charged imagery depicted in a deliberately clumsy, cartoon-like manner. Critics such as Hilton Kramer of The New York Times reacted with disbelief and derision.

What made Guston change his style? The news in the late 1960s was about Vietnam, anti-war demonstrations, and the violence at the Democratic National Convention. Guston felt that he could no longer justify the luxury of adjusting a red to a blue in his abstract painting when the world was in turmoil. Looking back, he recalled, “I was sick and tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories again.”

Guston wanted to invent a new visual language that reflected what was going on in the world. Continue reading