"I don't know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint? It might be things, thoughts, a memory, sensations, which have nothing to do directly with painting itself. The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see."
Philip Guston was one of the leading Abstract Expressionists painters of the 1950s, praised for his sensitive brushwork and lyrical colour. Gradually, however, abstract painting became insufficient and in the latter part of his career, Guston's work became more figurative, darker and meancing in tone. Guston was also an accomplished draftsman who turned to drawing as a medium of exploration and creative problem solving.
Philip Guston began to paint and draw in 1927. He was primarily a self-taught painter. In 1930, he studied at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles on a scholarship for three months. During this period, Guston became increasingly involved in political issues. In 1934, he joined the mural division of the Works Progress Administration and traveled to Mexico where he saw the murals of David Siquieros. This trip reinforced his desire to use art as a tool for social awareness and to create large murals with a strong political/social message. In 1935, Guston moved to New York City and received commissions for the 1939 World's Fair, the Queensbridge Housing Project in New York City in 1940 and the Social Security Building in Washington DC in 1942. The style of these murals owed much to the Italian painter Paolo Uccello, especially in the representation of figures in space, and to Picasso. In 1940, Guston left the mural project, and for several years served as artist-in-residence at the State University of Iowa and Washington University.
At the end of World War II and by 1951, Guston had eliminated all figurative elements from his work, focusing instead on increasingly large, textural abstracts. He became one of the leading abstract painters of his generation. In 1965, the artist stopped painting altogether, to completely devote his efforts to drawing. He returned to painting four years later.
By the 1970s, abstract painting became insufficient in his desire for new expression and once again Guston returned to figuration, prompted, in part by his awareness of the actual political climate. With the new figurative subject matter, at times nightmarishly cartoonish in image, and often charged with social consciousness, came an impure, painterly language. The new simplified, crude and vigorous style, allowed him to express his anger and despair. The sense of menace is ever present in his subject matter-depictions of Cyclops-like heads, Ku Klux Klan members, and such everyday objects as shoes, bottles, and clocks- all painted with deliberate crudity in harshly discordant colours as seen in Room, 1976. "We are the witnesses of hell," he wrote.
Philip Guston received several notable awards, including first prize in the Carnegie Institute annual exhibition in 1945, the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, the Altman Prize from the National Academy of Design, the Prix de Rome from the American Academy in Rome, and the Art Institute of Chicago's Flora Mayer Witkowsky prize. He was a member of the faculties of Yale and Columbia Universities and the University of Iowa. From 1973 until his death in 1980, Guston taught at Boston University.