Today Philip Guston is considered to be that artistic voice which shock the entire art establishment to its core, as one of Americas foremost abstract artists in the beginning his work drew merciless criticism and it would take a few years for the world to realise what a true master he was. Guston received criticism because during the middle of his career he abruptly shifted gears and left many of his fans speechless and bewildered. This is when he was leading the transition from abstract expressionism to neo-expressionism. He is included along the same lines as some of the other abstract artists like Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The way Guston moved away from abstract expressionism into a more crude almost cartoonish form of art was misunderstood by many but today it is widely applauded and appreciated.
Guston was born as Philip Goldstein in 1913 in Montreal, Canada into a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant family. The family moved quietly from Canada to Los Angeles when Guston was a boy in order to start anew. A tragedy witnessed by Guston when he was a teenager – his father hanged himself and the body was discovered by Guston – prompted him to enroll into a good art school here he poured his sorrow into art. At the Los Angeles Monument Art School Guston’s classmate was none other than Jackson Pollock. Despite enrolling into a food art school, Guston mostly self-taught himself art, he was encouraged a lot by his mother. Part of his self-taught notion was also due to the fact that he felt unfulfilled and limited at art school. After leaving art school Guston took up various jobs to make ends meet whilst pursuing the artistic goal. A meeting with maverick artist Lorser Feitelson introduced Guston to the world of Cubist, Dada and Surrealist art movements. Guston famously stated that “…from the moment a thing first appears you are not ready to accept it…” which sums up perfectly how the art world reacted to some of Guston’s initial and mid-career works. It is only now that when we look back we can see that Guston’s vision for that time was far above the rest of his artistic pack. For Guston, there existed no proper analytical process to painting – not when it came to his work. He realized that most artists did adapt a particular process but Guston chose not to. This can be one of the reasons why Guston often used to go back to his discarded paintings, pick them up and then start working on them all over again.
Most of Guston’s paintings which received criticism were often quite confusing for the viewer. If we examine his work The Canvas we can see that the main object seems to be a wall of some worth but right in the middle of the wall is a breakout square with an eye in the middle. It’s all been painted in Guston’s signature deep red, gray and black colors. The eye almost gives the illusion that the canvas is looking at the viewer. To this day Guston remains a soulful and willful artist who had the uncanny ability to unnerve the viewer with his paintings.