Philip Guston

Great Artists

Gladiators, painting by Philip Guston

Philip Guston

Philip Guston (1913-80) was born Phillip Goldstein in Montreal, Quebec to Jewish parents who had fled persecution in Ukraine. His family moved to Los Angeles, CA, when he was a young boy, and Guston grew up to become one of America’s most influential modern artists in a range of artistic styles, including figuration, muralism, and abstract expressionism. 

Philip Guston photo
PHILIP GUSTON, Images from the National Gallery of Art and MoMA

Guston was a founding figure in the New York School abstract expressionist movement in the 1950s and a contemporary of Wolf Kahn. His work continues to provoke and raise social and political questions about freedom, brutality, violence, racism, and civil strife. In 2023, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., featured Philip Guston Now, an exhibition of more than 150 paintings and drawings that follow Guston's 50-year career.

Living in poverty and losing his father to suicide when he was 10 years old, Guston retreated into art, hiding away in a closet where he read and taught himself to draw under a bare lightbulb, according to the National Gallery. 

Guston's bold art has sparked controversy and debate over when and where to show work that includes his haunting, hooded Ku Klux Klan figures. As a teenager, Guston painted a fresco in Los Angeles attacking the KKK. It was destroyed by the LAPD's red squad. In response to the violence of war and social unrest of the 1960s, Guston returned to the KKK figures he had first depicted in LA in the 1930s. After World War II, Guston addressed the horrors of the Holocaust, especially in a pair of paintings called The Porch (see above). "The only reason to be an artist," Guston said, "is to bear witness." 

4 pieces of art by Philip Guston
Credit: Art by Philip Guston: Clockwise, top, The Porch (Holocaust paintings, 1945); Gladiators (1940); City Limits (1969). Images from the National Gallery of Art and MoMA



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