Saturday, June 19, 2010

Phillip Guston

Philip Guston's parents escaped the Ukrain to Montreal, Canada where he was born in 1913. They soon moved to LA, where Guston would later come to be one of the preeminent artists of the New York School. The New York School was comprised of the great Abstract Expressionists of the time, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning, yet Guston came to represent a lot more than just the Abstract Expressionist movement, and spearheaded a new type of painting which came to be described as Neo-Expressionism. Like the works of artists such as De Kooning, Guston's later work was also gestural and expressive, yet it incorporated a representational approach which allowed Guston to explore personal subject matter that had evidently stayed with him since childhood.

A recurring theme that surrounds modernist art is that of trauma and depression, and both effected Guston's life. At ten he discovered his father hanging from roof of his shed, and being Jewish he and his family were often confronted with racism and an oppresive and unjust justice system. His paintings are stories, picaresque scenes from the private mind of their creator, and whilst they aren't necessarily literal translations of life experiences, they are still in a way autobiographical...whilst often intangible. To quote Guston himself:

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. They can come from anything and anywhere, a trifle, some detail observed, wondered about and, naturally from the previous painting. 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.

Looking at his paintings, they are utterly beguiling and mystifying. Bold and brash blacks and a sedated palette of pinks and creams form strange contrasts while the figures almost seem magnified on the canvas. It is perhaps the sheer otherworldliness of the work that makes it so captivating, his works are reminsicent of the comic strip artist Robert Crumb, yet there is something more to them that prevents them from being percieved as merely graphical works (which isn't to discredit the brilliance of Crumb), yet it's for this reason that Guston's works have caused great derision amongst the art world, and why he is considered such an important artist of the 20th century.

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