Saturday, May 24, 2008


Anh C.
Mr. G
English 12 CP Period 2
19 May 2008

Philip Guston is an abstract artist who later in his life moves onto more self-reflecting paintings (Weber 3). Guston was born on June 27, 1913 in Montreal, Canada (Aston xiii), and the youngest of seven children (Mayer 10). Before he was born, his family moved from Odessa, Russia to Montreal (Storr 11). The reason for their migration is pogroms. Pogroms are often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group, especially one conducted against Jews. This means that Guston is Jewish. “Philip’s mother and father, Rachel and Leib Goldstein” (Mayer 10), and the rest of the family moved to Los Angeles in 1919 when Guston was six (Ashton xiii). His father, also by the name of Louis Goldstein (Mayer 11), before moving worked as a machinist for the Canadian Railway (Mayer 11) but because of the cold weather in Canada, moved to California.

While in Los Angeles, the father had a difficult time find a job and decided to work as a junkman (Mayer 11). Goldstein went around picking up junk with horses pulling a wagon and this is as humiliating as jobs could become. A year later, the father cannot stand life and suicides (Auping 243), leaving behind seven children and a wife. The Guston found the gruesome death as the body hangs from the rope. “Can you imagine how it feels to find your father like that” (Mayer 12)? Guston would tell his close friends.

Through the experience, Guston’s interest in drawing became of importance to him (Ashton xiii). His mother, being supportive of him and his sibling sent his to an art school, the Cleveland School of Cartooning (Storr11). He soon became bored of the lessons on how to draw, Guston moved onto the Manual Arts High School at the age of fourteen (Storr 11). Upon entering, he meets Jackson Pollock (Storr 11) who later becomes his rival with deep love for each other in the way of art. Jackson Pollock is another famous painter of the time (Nicolas Pioch “Jackson Pollock”). The later years are the years he spent experimenting and worked on his art. His only schooling degree is an honorary doctorate from Boston University (Mayer 13). In his college year, he was accepted to Otis Art Institute, LA with one-year scholarship.

Otis Art Institute is where he meets his wife, Musa Mckim (Mayer 14). He marries her in 1937 (Ashton xiii). As he is dating Mckim, without a known reason except to impress her parents, he changes his name, spelling Phillip with one “l” and changes his last name from Goldstein into Guston (Mayer 21). In January 18 1943 his daughter, Musa Jane Guston was born (Auping 247). Before his death on June of 1980, he moved to Woodstock, New York (Weber 3), living for 67 years and spends about 50 years of his life in art.

Art is a way for a person to express himself through drawing, painting, dancing, etc, or a combination. Philip Guston holds true to this, he paints for himself and no other, as his emotions belong to him. In his later work the characters and objects shows his feelings. Placing his emotions into this work, he can only paint when he feels a certain way. The similarities in this painting, gives the audience a look into how he feels. The repetition of the color red, red is a representation of many expressions he feels while painting. In his painting, “The Line”, there are two instances of the use of the color. In his painting of “Painting, Smoking, Eating” the entire painting is red. The paintings relate to the many of others he painted by the objects. Each object leads to bits and pieces of his life. “The Line” is a simple when looked at but holds many meanings for the painter.

Philip Guston paints “
The Line” in 1978 with oil on canvas just two years before his death. The clouds are the first object which I took notice of. The clouds did not cover the entire top of the painting but instead it is center. They are as though a child would paint them, the puffy, round white shapes. The coloring of the clouds is grey, similar to the rain clouds. The outer clouds, which are bigger in size, are white and almost transparent. Guston believe “we teem with meaning “constantly”. “So the “WHAT” is never settled” (Storr 109). Clouds are never still, always blown by the wind carried too different areas but not to stay. They are also different in shape and size. How people look at them is also different. No two people are alike. Just looking at the clouds different people have different thoughts on its meaning or why Guston paints them because “I to puzzle over “meanings”” (Storr 108). Guston also mentions that he paint to paint and nothing else. Meaning is then lost in his artwork if he paints without a purpose or theme. Once a painter know, what he want to paint it is easier to complete.
As the eyes move towards the center, the clouds becomes a darker grey and smaller. They represent more of smoke then clouds. In the beginning of the 1900’s in Russia, there is anti-Semitism, which exists in the form of pogroms (Kozhinov 3). The darkness of the cloud represents the dark period in the lives of his people. At the center before the hole in the clouds, the color is white with lines of grey. The peace the people find by traveling to a different country for refugee is the white. The new start for the people starts rough and that explains the grey lines. Another theory of the cloud being dark in the center comes from his daughter, Musa Mayer, and what she believes her father to be. “Was my father – heroic figure that he was to me then - in some way ashamed of being Jewish” (Mayer 22). Clouds are what usually hide the sun. The sun is the truth bearer and if the sun is blocked, so would the truth. Her father is someone who is afraid of his identity and could be the reason of his name change and that is the truth. The clouds when looking as a whole looks very much like the brain. The fact that it looks like a storm cloud could mean brainstorm. The storm of the mind returns to the time of his first art show. Pollock shows up drunk and “the tension between Pollock and Guston, which was based on deep mutual respect” (Storr 18), is the argument between his transition from abstraction to personal painting. When he moves away from abstractions, he moved onto self-reflect painting. The new painting has him represented someway, whether how he thinks or what he does.

In the center, the hole is black while the hand is red. The hand casts a shadow slightly to the right behind it but is larger then the hand that is also black. The artist is using light coming from the left side. The fact that the hand has shadows, compared to the clouds, it stands out more. Looking exactly where the hand comes out, it looks a part of the picture because it is behind the clouds. The center of the clouds is also the darkest part of the painting when looking at color. There is a part in his life where he cannot as he says, “I didn’t feel a strong conviction about the kind of figuration I’d been doing for about eight years” (Storr 15). The darkest hours of his day reflects onto the paint in this area and in other areas of the painting. The dark lines that form the clouds against the newly painted hand seem like the scars on the hand. A particular one directly above the wrist makes it looks as though the hand would fall off. Reflecting on what he says about the period that he is unsure of himself and what he has done. “I entered a bad painful period when I had lost what I’d had and had nowhere to go” (Storr 15). The pain like cuts from the hand he painted which then leaves a scar like the painful memories in his life that never goes away.

The hand is paint red, the color that shows up in most all of his paintings. The long bumps coming from the hand seems to be veins. The hand is skinny and the bone sticks out at the wrist. It must belong to someone who is worn and old, someone who has work all his life, from childhood until old. The veins start from a straight origin then as it moves onto the back of the palm, it tangles up and very little shows up in the fingers. Above the pinky, a dark line is not part of the shadow. The mark could be another cut or scar on the hand. The painting, as introduce, is done very late in his life (Auping 218). The other thing mention is he paints parts of himself in his paintings. The hand can clearly be seen belong to an elder. He is the elder. Although old, he can still paint.
The skin on the fingers is as wrinkled as the entire hand and shows the age of the hand and the hardship it goes through. The hand is using three fingers to paint the line, the index, middle, and thumb. The index and middle are stretched out hiding behind it the thumb. The thumb is the main finger but it is hidden, probably meaning that the things, which are being done, are not credited to the right person or objecting doing all the work. The other two fingers, the ring and pinky, are both bent at the second knuckle. The hand is a part of the body that does what he wants it to do. In the case of painting, that is not true. Philip Guston cannot paint when he wants to as he mentions the impossibility of painting, “painting seems like an impossibility, with only sign now and then of its own light” (Storr 107). The hidden thumb does not see the light because it is behind the other two. Again, Guston mentions light but where is he leading? At moments where he wants to paint and cannot, he questions what he can do (Storr 108). He compare those moments to the other two fingers that he paints. They on their own can bend at the will. He on the other hand cannot paint at will.

On the red base is a thick black line drawn by the hand of the painting. The line ends two third ways from right to left and slants the opposite of the red base. The line is also thinner as it moves inwards. At the end of the line, it is attached to a black art material, most likely oil, what the painter used to paint the entire piece. All the hand can ever do is the line because this is where Guston stops the hand. The line remains a line and “drawings that didn’t work and were thrown away, were just lines” (Dabrowski 29). Returning to the comment of the shadow and the light direction that the artist uses, the light comes from the left side. “To will a new form is unacceptable” (Storr 107), as the shadow of a single object remains the same and cannot be changed. The line is placed on the right and goes cross to the end of the painting. In theory, the line could just be the shadow cast by the object the fingers are holding and of the fingers. The object the hand is holding might not be for drawing but is a cigarette as Guston is a smoker (Mayer 10). Smoking is one of the many repeating objects in his paintings. All of the shadowing and lighting of the piece falls into the line being just a shadow and not a painted line.

The illusion of the line not being a real line and the hand on the canvas on a canvas that has not painted anything could mean that the old hand, through aging and time, working hard, ends up at a point and everything the hand works for is nothing but the illusion of that line. The head of the hands in the clouds could mean having one’s head in the clouds and thinking but everything thought of is only in thoughts.

The second painting is “Painting, Smoking, Eating” also done on canvas with oil between 1972 and 1973 close to the end of his life but before the first painting. In the painting, the first thing that caught my eyes was the head. The shape of the head is very round and with a long jaw. The only noticeable feature of the head is that it has an ear on one side and a long chinless jaw. The most protruding area is the eye: there is only one eye and one eyebrow looking as if it stretches across the face. The simplicity for the face is for the audience to have very little to judge upon as he states what he believes to be the worst thing in the world. “The worst thing in the world is to make judgments. What I always try to do is to eliminate, as much as possible, the time span between thinking and doing. The ideal is to think and to do at the same second, the same split second” (Dabrowski 46). The time it takes to look at the head and think about what is on the head is very small. There is only one eye, one brow, and one ear present. The audience then moves onto a different part of the painting because there is so much more to look at around the head.

Around the head and body are shoes and painting material. Looking from far away the objects seems unwanted and unused. As noted in the biography of Guston, his father was a junkman. His daughter also mentions, “her grandfather ended up working as a junkman, driving a horse drawn wagon through the streets collecting refuse, a job he found humiliation” (Mayer 11). Part of his life, he was traumatize by the dead of his father. One of the causes of the death is the humiliating job. Hidden within the junk is a cigarette in the unseen mouth of the head and the cigarette is lit. The second word in the title is smoking and Guston is a smoker. A photograph was taken of him walking with Musa McKim at a rally and in his hand is a lit cigarette (Ashton 39). Across the painting about half way lies a plate of food untouched and looks like fries. The food is cater to the lying body and placed there as Guston does not like to cater to what people want from his art. “If you work to please yourself or catering to yourself, why should you cater to a looker or art critic” (Storr 108)? He does as he pleases and the food untouched remains untouched, as catering to others is not acceptable.

Below the plate of food is a blanket covering the body. The covering of the body shows insecurity of the person or thing portrayed by the painting. On the top left corner stands a light bulb. The light bulb I believe is lit because the entire painting except for the bottom is red, as the reds light from the light bulb spreads to every room. From his childhood, the death of his father still lingers to the day he dies. The changes he goes through shows up in his art. One of the past memories he has, is him in a closet. He “begins to withdraw to a closet lit by single light bulb hanging from ceiling to practice copying cartoon strips” (Auping 243). The image of the light bulb hanging over is a repeated image in his later paintings.

Red shows up all over the painting and shows up in most of his paintings. The connection to something as the objects shown here is repeated throughout his later art work. On the far right side of the painting, there is a line wit a loop at the end. That might be the switch to the light but there is a line. The start of every painting or drawing is the line. The most repeating object is not the line or anything else. It is a color and it’s the color red. The first painting, the entire hand is red, it is the biggest part of the painting besides the background. The second painting, for the most part it is a shade of the same red as the hand from the first painting.

Red is a color that can symbolize many feelings and every day life. In life, the period of time when he starts to paint for towards a person level then abstract, red comes into play as being ripe, a fruit, say mango when it is ripe it turns red. This means that the fruit is ready to eat and will soon fall off the tree. The action of fall as Guston is near the days of life when he is about to depart. Red is connects to every day objects. Fire, a useful thing but can be devastating. Compared to his paintings, on a surface level, away from the fire it may not mean much. Closer to the fire and deeper into the painting, Guston connects them to his life and himself, the burns that he went through. On the emotion level of red, it is connect to passion and hate. The two are complete opposites but they exist hand in hand. Guston is trying to point out that life, although is tough and full of the unpleasant, people need to look what is coinciding with that unpleasantness. The other half is the upbeat and better direction to life.

Through his years of painting, Guston starts as an abstract expressionist and ends up expressing himself better by painting what he wants to paint. What he sees, what he sees is himself in the world of his past. He tries to show his audience speaking to them without words of his past. The repeating images, the style, which for the most part is cartoon like, and the colors he chooses.

Works Cited

Ashton, Dore. A Critical Study of Philip Guston. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.

  • Ashton, Dore chooses paintings of Philip Guston and writes about them in her perspective. Most of the work taken is during the abstraction period in his life. She then connects the paintings to points in his life when it was painted with added biography on his life. As mentioned in other books, Ashton writes to Philip Guston for the biography she is writing on him.

Auping, Michael. Philip Guston Retrospective. Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum, 2003.

  • The book is used for the painting information and the collection of every single one that Guston has painted. It also shows a timeline of important events in his life. It is also used for further research in his art work from the point he starts drawing to his death.

Dabrowski, Magdalena. The Drawing of Philip Guston. New York: The Museum of Modern Art 1988.

  • Dabrowski uses Guston’s abstract paintings and explains his style. The style that is mentioned is mostly of her theory. She puts together her book from taking information from other books written of Philip Guston. The most mentioned are pen and ink drawings.

Feld, Ross. Guston in Time. New York: Counterpoint, 2003.

  • Feld, Ross is noted as one of the three closest friends to Guston before he died. Feld is a critic and it was how the two met. Because of a paper written on Guston speaking badly of him, Guston wrote a letter to Feld, thanking him. He gives thanks on awakening his interest. Soon after, a friendship was formed. From since, they continuously write to one another. At one time, when they lived close enough, Feld would stop by Guston’s studio and talk about art on an intellectual level. 2002. “WebMuseum”, Paris. 23 Apr 2008.

  • This is an article explaining the works of Jackson Pollock. It talks about his life from 192, when he started to paint and ends in the late 1960’s. There are also art of his on the site. All of the work shown is abstract work as he and Guston walked the same road in art school until Guston broke off.

Kozhinou, Vadim. Russia XX Century (1901-193).

  • The site is an online copy of the book Russia XX Century. The book is one in four of a series. The one used is written about Russia from 1901- 1939. During the time period, there were repeated attacks on he Jewish people similar to anti-Semitism of today but is known as pogroms because it refers to more then one racial group. The information is translated by an online translator.

Mayer, Musa. Night Studio: A memoir of Philip Guston. New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1988.

  • Mayer, Musa is the daughter of Philip Guston who wrote about him after his death. She writes about his life and work. She starts off with her feelings of his death, and then move onto his birth and childhood. Because of her extensive details of his life before he starts to paint abstractive, it gives me more to expand on my thesis. By the end she talks of form and painting of her mother’s poetry.

Storr, Robert. Guston. New York: Abbeville Press, 1986.

  • Guston by Storr, Robert starts off with an introduction about his life and continues taking the points in his life here his style changes in his painting. Where there are three main changes throughout his life. The biography on Philip Guston was very brief and in general. The details are mainly on his work.

Weber, Joanna. Philip Guston: A New Alphabet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Art Gallery, 2000.

  • The book starts off with the reason of interest that the author has in Philip Guston. The style of work in his late years is towards personal feelings and thoughts. Within the paintings of his later years, objects which he painted can also be seen in his everyday life. The body, cigarettes, ceiling light, and many more are repeated images in these paintings.

Works Consulted

Koppelman, Dorothy. “Philip Guston: The Man, His Life, and His Work.” Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City, Sept. 1997.

  • This article was taken from a paper written by Koppelman, Dorothy. As this and many other book sources are alike, this talks about his life in art. The connection between his life and in his art, how he applies it whether he knows that he is doing so or not. The article also talks about the different style of painting and drawing he concentrates on.

SFMOMA. “Making Sense of Modern Art: Philip Guston.” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1996.

  • The site is a part dedicated to Philip Guston but only to one of his painting in the later years of his life. The one he titled “Self Portrait.” It explains in details part of the painting they believe has meaning. It also takes objects most common in the paintings and explains them.

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