Phillip Goldstein, known professionally as Philip Guston, was born on June 27, 1913 in Montreal, Canada. His Ukrainian Jewish parents had escaped persecution when they moved to Canada from Odessa, Ukraine. When he was a child, Guston and his family moved to Los Angeles. He and his family were aware of the regular Ku Klux Klan activities against Jews, Blacks and others which took place across California. In 1923, his father hanged himself in the shed as a result of the current events of the time and the difficulty in securing income for his family; Guston was the one who discovered the body.
In 1927, at the age of 14, Guston began painting when he enrolled in the Los Angeles Manual Arts High School, where he befriended American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. Both he and Pollock studied under Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky and were introduced to European modern art, Eastern philosophy, theosophy and mystic literature. During high school, Guston and Pollock published a paper opposing the high school's emphasis on sports over art. Their criticism led to both being expelled, but Pollock eventually returned and graduated. Apart from his high school education and a one-year scholarship at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, Guston remained a largely self-taught artist. His early art was figurative and representational before switching over to abstraction in his mature years.
In September 1935, at 22 years of age, he moved to New York where he worked as an artist in the Works Progress Association (WPA) program during the Great Depression. During this period his work included strong references to Renaissance painters such as Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, and Giotto. In the 1950s, Guston achieved success as a first-generation Abstract Expressionist, although he preferred the term New York School. It was during this period that his paintings often consisted of blocks and masses of gestural strokes and marks of color floating within the picture plane. After becoming increasingly frustrated with abstraction, Guston moved to Woodstock, New York in 1967 and began painting representationally again, but in a personal, cartoonish manner. In this body of work he created a personal lexicon of images such as Klansmen, light bulbs, shoes, cigarettes and clocks. Although they were not well received at first, Guston is best known to the world for paintings from this era.
Late in his life, Guston attempted to expand his palette and reintroduce abstraction to his work. He died of a heart attack on June 7, 1980, at the age of 66. After his death, he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate Academician.
Today, the artist’s work can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Tate Gallery, London, among others.