This Day in Jewish History

1913: A Communist Artist Who Wondered About Evil Is Born

Philip Guston, expelled from school with Jackson Pollock and traumatized by the KKK, not only changed styles, he betrayed them.

Philip Guston working on a mural with four children looking on. August 21, 1940.
Sol Libsohn, Wikimedia Commons

June 27, 1913, is the birthdate of the modern artist Philip Guston, who reinvented himself several times over his career, even when doing so meant turning his back on his early critical and commercial success. Only after his death were Guston’s artistic choices vindicated by critical opinion.

Philip Goldstein was born in Montreal, Quebec, the youngest of the seven children of Leib and Rachel Goldstein. Both his parents were Jewish immigrants from Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire.

In Montreal, Leib ran a saloon but had a hard time supporting the family, so that in 1919, they moved to Los Angeles, in search of economic opportunity. Unfortunately, things were not easier for him there, and he ended up driving a horse-drawn wagon and collecting junk.

Memories of the Klan

When Philip was about 10, he found the body of his father hanging from a rafter in their home. Adding to his youthful trauma was the anti-Semitism he apparently witnessed in Los Angeles, with images of hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan later making appearances during several stages of his artist career.

After his father’s death, Philip turned inward, and focused on comics and cartooning, taking a correspondence course in the subject. He began painting after he began studying at the Los Angeles High School of Manual Arts, in 1927, where Jackson Pollock was his classmate and friend. After he and Pollock produced a newspaper article mocking the school’s English department, they were expelled.

Between the Lines: Philip Guston and Bad Painting - a Lecture YouTube

Pollock was eventually readmitted to school. Philip wasn't. He began to work, at a bookstore and even as a movie extra.

He also spent a year at the city’s Otis Art Institute, where he had his first one-man show in 1931.

Guston had communist sympathies, which were reflected in his art and which drew the attention of the LA police department’s Red Squad, which began keeping track of his movements. The police even defaced a mural he’d made protesting the trial of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine young black men charged and convicted of raping two white women in Alabama.

In the 1930s, Guston was employed by the Works Projects Administration making murals for such public institutions as post offices; he took inspiration from such politically engaged muralists as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, from Mexico, where he visited and worked in 1934.

Wannabe evil

Goldstein began calling himself “Guston” in 1935, and went to such lengths to bury his original family name that even his daughter learned of it only when she was in college. Later, in the 1970s, when Guston went through a second phase of employing Klan imagery, he commented that these were self-portraits, comparing himself to Odessan-Jewish writer Isaac Babel, “who had joined the Cossacks, lived with them and written stories about them.”

For his part, Guston wrote, “I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan? To plot?”

In the 1940s and ‘50s, Guston moved around – to LA, New York, Iowa and St. Louis – and his style changed from Socialist Realism to pure abstraction – until he got sick of the latter. It was then that he left New York City for Woodstock, New York.

It was in Woodstock that he befriended Philip Roth, another refugee from the city scene, who later observed that Guston in the 1970s “felt he'd exhausted the means that had unlocked him as an abstract painter, and he was bored and disgusted with the skills that had gained him renown. He didn't want to paint like that ever again.”

Guston returned to figurative art, and introduced a cartoonish element to his works, which were generally received with critical catcalls and brickbats (this short clip describes his creative process). His gallery, Marlborough, too, dropped him as a client. Although highly stylized, his work in the 1970s was political and even partly self-referential (e.g., the Klan imagery), so that some critics have suggested that he was doing penance for having gone to such lengths earlier to hide his Jewish background.

Philip Guston died of a heart attack on June 7, 1980. Since his death, there has been renewed interest in all of his work, including the late, figurative canvases, which have received belated appreciation from the critics.

Jackson Pollock, No. 5, 1948, oil on fiberboard.
Wikimedia Commons