Philip Guston (1913–1980) was born in Montreal, Canada, to Jewish immigrants from Odessa, in present-day Ukraine. Raised in Los Angeles, he spent much of his adult life in New York. Across fifty years, Guston’s artistic style changed substantially, yet each shift was grounded—perhaps haunted—by his persistent questioning of the place of the painter in the world. In 1977, he explained,
So when the 1960s came along, I was feeling split….The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I...sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.
“Feeling split” proved central to Guston’s practice. What did it mean to witness injustice outside his studio? What might paint render newly visible inside it? For Guston, painting—going into that studio—was the way to process his doubts. The works that resulted remain deeply ambiguous, animated by contradictions, defined equally by dark themes and the joy Guston took in the transforming properties of paint.
This exhibition foregrounds Guston’s lifelong commitment to raising difficult, even unanswerable questions. His paintings are conduits for hard conversations, as much of his work addresses and confronts topics such as white supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, and violence. Multiple paintings here depict Ku Klux Klansmen, truncated body parts, and enigmatic scenes of struggle. These images (as well as their meanings) can appear unmistakable, indeterminate, and everything in between. Taken together, Guston’s works challenge us to grapple with the lived experience we each bring to this museum, and to this city, today.
Message from the Curators
In the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, the four museums planning this exhibition—originally scheduled to open in June 2020—decided to postpone the project. Many took issue with this decision, which was intended to give the organizers time to reframe the show in light of what one press release called the “urgencies of the moment.” Those urgencies figure within a long history, and they persist within an ever-shifting present. We are showing Guston’s work now in a different way than originally planned, yet we also aspire to more far-reaching and lasting change—taking a true, and hard, look at the building in which this art hangs, and the ways in which we care for our visitors. We also know we have not gotten everything “right.” The work of this exhibition is ongoing, much like Guston’s open-ended paintings themselves. Humbly and respectfully—with these paintings as our guide—we invite you to look, and reckon, alongside us.
— The Curatorial Team for Philip Guston Now
"What Kind of Man Am I?"
This gallery introduces Guston by condensing three distinct periods of work into a single space: from the artist’s early use of figuration, to his mid-century abstraction, and a return to the figure in his later paintings. Yet such visual cacophony coheres around Guston’s consistent desire to confront his shifting, fallible, and inescapable self. Throughout the exhibition, you will spot recurring motifs: light bulbs, hobnailed shoes, studio tools. Guston’s most continuous motif, however, may be the head-like form—and its degrees of masking and self-exposure—which provides the through-line in this room.
Of the three self-portraits here, two stare directly at the viewer, while one covers its face. The abstract Head I might be intentionally faceless or else turned away. Guston’s celebrated early canvas If This Be Not I presents a dreamlike press of children, their faces almost all obscured. Nearby, but painted more than thirty years later, Couple in Bed is among Guston’s most intimate and revealing works. Huddled beneath a sheet, the crown of his head merges with that of his wife, Musa McKim. Even in apparent sleep, Guston clutches his brushes. They are loaded with red, blue, and black—the primary colors of the painting—as if Guston climbed into bed while working on this scene.
Who Am I Painting For?
As a young painter trying to make ends meet during the Great Depression, Guston experimented with different formats, materials, and techniques, drawing inspiration from a wide range of sources: Renaissance paintings viewed in books, contemporary Mexican murals studied in person, and even the Sunday comics, disposable yet ubiquitous. Relocating frequently, he also made work for very different audiences, himself included. Easel paintings engaged the narrower realm of collectors, gallery-goers, and critics. His murals, mostly government-funded, imagined a broader public at a time when many American artists sought to address viewers, and politics, directly.
Cultivating opportunities required Guston to subsume parts of himself, too. Anti-Semitism prevailed in the early-20th-century art world, and halfway through his first decade as a painter, like many, Guston chose a new name that masked his Jewish identity: around 1935, the artist born Phillip Goldstein became Philip Guston.
In this gallery, political and personal, mural and easel, street and studio clash but also converge—often through depictions of violence or embattlement. Curious knots of children play-fighting anchor one wall, while the monumental Struggle Against Terrorism anchors another. The epic sweep of that large mural work chronicles centuries of racist terror while also alluding to the artist’s own experiences of the Ku Klux Klan. Long after establishing his career, Guston continued to experiment stylistically, and to explore visceral scenes of public and private struggle.
The Struggle Against Terrorism
Guston painted this mural with two friends on the walls of the Museo Michoacano, a former palace on the campus of the state university in Morelia, Mexico. David Siqueiros, the famed muralist, helped the three secure the commission. The fresco compresses histories of oppression and anti-Semitism into a single, crowded field. Violent men in white hoods dominate, tying the terror of the Spanish Inquisition to the cruelty of the Ku Klux Klan. At the center, a masked medieval priest hurls a cross and Bible down toward his bound victim. At right, the narrative cuts to the present, as two robed Klansmen ascend alongside a swastika. These villains are thwarted by the hand of Communism, fiercely gripping the hammer and sickle.
By this time, Guston had made several images of Klansmen and experienced their violence firsthand (as discussed in the vitrine nearby). When Guston was young, membership in the Klan was at its peak in Los Angeles. Fueled by growing nativism and fears of a communist revolution, some three million Americans joined the racist organization in the 1920s, denouncing, brutally attacking, and murdering African-Americans, immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and members of organized labor. The Klan temporarily disbanded in 1944 but surged again in the Civil Rights era.
How Much Can the Surface Hold?
By 1950, Guston sought a different relationship to the canvas and to paint itself. He began working up close—without stepping back—wanting to “come to the canvas and see what would happen if I just put on paint.” This shift in process coincided with Guston’s increasing abstraction of recognizable forms. The political content he had previously incorporated remained for a time in the late 1940s, if murkily. While teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, Guston likely saw an exhibition of photographs of liberated German concentration camps presented by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer in 1945, two years before making The Porch II. He painted The Tormentors (1947–48) after an article about his work shared the pages of Life magazine with a feature on the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan. Just two years later, however, Guston completed Red Painting (1950), considered his first fully abstract canvas, in which raw paint has submerged forms entirely, becoming the primary content of the work.
"A Different State"
By the late 1950s, critics acclaimed Philip Guston as one of the preeminent American abstract painters. He exhibited internationally and sold paintings briskly enough through his New York gallery that he was able to stop teaching. The four canvases on this side of the room represent work from that period, when Guston temporarily traded in his typical palette. In 1973, he said:
“I feel attached to certain kinds of red and pink and grays and blacks and ochres. I’ve always liked those colors…I had a period where I went into blue and it was very difficult. I don’t understand blue. Some day I’m going to go back into blue. It’s a different state.”
Through Guston’s committed, up-close technique, these paintings appear heavier toward their centers, where the artist labored continually over sections previously painted. In works like Passage and Fable, Guston applied color in nameless shapes that mass together, like piles of pigment, which seem to anticipate more figural piles painted twenty years later. In fact, while legible references to everyday life and historical events would repopulate Guston’s work in the late 1960s, his tendency toward rich brushwork and densely built up surfaces carried forward from this period of abstraction as well.
The late 1960s was a period of increasingly visible protest about systemic oppression. As the evening news flooded American households with images of violence and upheaval, Guston found himself a compulsive witness, “stuck in front of the TV like everyone else.” He absorbed, read, and thought deeply about world events throughout his life, yet the studio was often a world of its own for him, too—a refuge and a bunker, a site for processing ideas and grappling with uncertainty.
This gallery strikes a strong contrast, not only with the atmospheric abstractions in the previous room but also between its two opposing walls. On one, you’ll find vintage media footage from the late 1960s and early 1970s. On the other, a selection of small panels Guston painted in 1968 and 1972, featuring largely familiar, everyday items—all cartoonish contours and meaty colors.
While he took in news of a crumbling world, his output changed, and the visual contrast here also signals Guston’s interest in connecting the physicality of ordinary objects to the weight of daily headlines. Looking over a decade later on this stylistic shift, he described an urge for his work “to come from things, the graining of wood, the feeling of stone, the corruption of the world, the violence of the world, nothing new at all.”
Talking Guston / Guston Talking
Guston loved to talk, especially about painting. In August 1971, documentary filmmaker Michael Blackwood and his crew spent two days with the artist in his Woodstock studio, the only cameras ever granted such access. In spring 1980, Blackwood recorded him again, this time in a gallery setting at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, about to open a major Guston retrospective. Both caches of footage resulted in the hour-long film Philip Guston: A Life Lived, released in 1981 after the artist’s sudden death. This gallery presents a short loop of excerpts from it.
Guston also appears here in spatial dialogue, more than forty years later, with two contemporary practitioners, who opened their own studios to the MFA in order to speak to his legacy. Mark Thomas Gibson (born in 1980) works with paint, ink, and print media, using caricature to highlight how racism operates within American culture. His potent graphic style emphasizes history as not past but instead ever-present. Arlene Shechet (born in 1951) is a sculptor and installation artist best known for her innovative work with clay. She toes an eloquent line between abstract and figure-like forms, and perceives uncertainty and joy in art-making as two sides of the same coin.
What Times Are These?
By the end of 1968, a single figure emerged among Guston’s otherwise object-focused panel paintings— a cartoonish Ku Klux Klansman, represented as a white triangle with black eye slits. Unlike the artist’s hooded imagery of the 1930s, these Klan figures are bumbling, idling, biding their time. Guston pursued them with peculiar focus, presenting dozens of large-scale hoods at New York’s Marlborough Gallery in October 1970.
Critics denounced the new paintings—less for their content, than as a betrayal of the artist’s previously lyrical abstractions. At the time, reviewers (all white men) compared Guston to a “stumblebum,” called the works “redundant” and deemed Klan imagery “outdated,” thereby exposing the art world’s complacency about its own entanglement in systems of white supremacy. In recent years, the art world has decided to elevate Guston’s Marlborough show works as exemplars of an artist reckoning with complicity. Guston himself remained noncommittal about the meanings of these works, claiming that he was only trying to imagine “what it would be like to be evil.”
Regardless of previous readings or remarks, the paintings still reveal—and also center—the casualness of racialized violence. They call out—and are also products of—systems of oppression that flow through our cities, schools, halls of government, museums, studios. We invite visitors to enter this gallery and consider how these paintings operate for each of you—what they do and do not do.
In 1904–05, Guston’s parents fled the terror of pogroms against Jews in Odessa, carrying with them powerful family stories of hiding in cellars. Decades later, Guston spoke about Jean-François Steiner’s controversial 1966 book Treblinka, a fictionalized account of a prisoner revolt at the Nazi extermination camp. Struck by his sense of the camp system’s “benumbing” of both “killers and victims,” the artist continued:
So, as I read this, and my mind…starts running away with everything I read or touch or see, I began to see all of life really as a vast concentration camp. And everybody is numbed…Then I thought, “Well, that’s the only reason to be an artist: to escape, to bear witness to this.”
In a work like The Street (1970), Guston zeroes in on the details of what is otherwise a nonspecific scene: bricks fly over a pile of shoes, wood, and body parts. An authoritarian hand in a seamed glove looms at left, gripping a baton. Grim to describe yet rendered as caricature—does Guston’s comic-strip treatment invite us to laugh through tears? What can humor reveal, or laughter mask?
This room-within-a-room was inspired by Guston's painting wall, preserved at the center of his Woodstock studio building to this day. Still more, this room allows an intimate encounter—or perhaps confrontation—with Guston’s 1969 painting called The Studio. Beneath a lifted curtain, the hooded figure is caught literally red-handed, in the process of painting a fellow Klansman (or maybe himself). We meet this artist-Klansman in his inner sanctum, which is clearly Guston’s as well—that familiar vertical strut of the easel, can of brushes, light bulb, clock, green window shade, smoldering cigarette. It is also the space of a cruel, racist world that seeps in inexorably, staining the painter’s white hood with the red blood of his victims. In this work, the heart of the 1970 Marlborough show series, Guston held himself, and the art world, to account.
The Deluge did not begin as a flood picture, but partway through its making Guston decided to paint most of it out: “I sort of sank the whole world, like it was doomed.” The artist’s working process often involved this kind of full or partial erasure, building up his surface layer by layer and allowing older layers to glimmer strangely through. Here the black paint seems too dense and Guston’s brushwork too active for any glimpses, but in certain light, the Museum’s conservators recognized the contours of three massive, hooded heads beneath the dark floodwaters. This painting now operates not only literally but also metaphorically: hoods (and what they represent) are part of our social fabric as well as our history, present even when “invisible.”
Marking and Meaning
One line is all it takes to create a sense of space—a single horizontal band, for instance, can conjure a landscape, stage, or tabletop. In Guston’s work, the short vertical stroke proves just as evocative. His concise, downward marks bear different meanings depending on their deployment. Each stubby line might represent a word on a page, or a window on the façade of a building. Sometimes it is a stitch in a seam, or splatter of blood on a hood. In every case, these strokes are also simply what they are—swipes of ink, daubs of paint, quick and repeatable.
This group of intimately scaled drawings and painted panels invites material comparisons as well. Loaded Brush demonstrates how much ink Guston could deposit onto paper before his brush ran dry. Ink Bottle and Brush depicts those tools, in charcoal, dusty rather than fluidly black. Untitled (Picture) delivers a modest joke in oil on board, a whole painting of half a painting. Meanwhile, recalling Paw, the largest panel here, Guston once said, “I’m always excited by the thin line which divides the image from the nonimage”: in this work, an animal hand holding one line—a stick of charcoal—appears to have drawn another.
How did you respond to the works you just viewed? Below are some prompts for you to consider, but we invite you to share in whatever way you feel inclined.
- “We are image makers and image ridden,” Guston once said. You might feel similarly today, glued to the television, doom-scrolling on your phone. How do you process what you see? (Feel free to write or draw your response)
- If you chose to spend time viewing Guston's "hooded figure" paintings, what would you tell other visitors about them?
MFA Staff Ask: Why Does Guston Matter?
Truthfully, when we first began convening as a staff group, the consensus was that—despite the art world telling us that Guston mattered—to us, it felt the opposite. Over the course of the next several months, however, as we continued to meet with our curatorial colleagues, our thinking evolved. Examining Guston’s work served as a lens for fascinating and multifaceted conversations—about identity, racism, white supremacy, levels of privilege—made even more meaningful by the fact that many of us had never even sat around the same table before. Each of us brought a unique perspective—as members of different museum departments and as individuals with a range of identities and lived experiences. Throughout the process, we have come to know and see Philip Guston—and each other—a little better. Now, we’ll bring our friends and family to this exhibition, to look at Guston’s art and to have those important conversations—and continue to have them long after the show closes. Guston’s work raises questions still relevant in today’s world—that’s why taking a closer look matters.
Ronald Carroll, Learning & Community Engagement
Mónica Irina Cazacu Pina Garcia, Learning & Community Engagement
Timothy Garvey, Protective Services
Olga Khvan, Communications
What Can I Not Forget?
“I really only love strangeness,” Guston wrote in a studio note in 1978. “But here is another pileup of old shoes and rags…I’ve been there. I’ve seen it before but forgot.” Piling, tangling, and massing were key for Guston. This treatment of forms—gruesome or lavish—appears in paintings from every decade, culminating in a mid-1970s motif of stacked legs weighed down by heavy shoes. Guston referred to all such late works as pileups, a word for both accumulation and collision. Piles, whether of legs, random detritus, or sheer paint, provide an apt image for a buildup of memories.
The haphazardness of a pile can be crucially hard to read, too. Scholars tend to connect Guston’s leg pileups to a historical memory, citing photographs from liberated concentration camps that he first saw in 1945. Another connection could be a personal memory: one of Guston’s brothers had died young, his legs crushed by an automobile. Together, deep memory and a looming sense of mortality drove the artist’s relentless production during the 1970s. He smoked and drank too much and slept too little. His wife Musa suffered a series of strokes; he suffered his first heart attack. Even as his body was falling apart, Guston completed canvas after canvas, each one begetting the next. For him, the process of painting was never finished, its forms and meanings never fixed.
Guston in Boston
From 1973 through 1978, Guston taught at Boston University, visiting from his home in Woodstock, New York once a month to work with students. Their memories of him remain vivid and joyful to this day, as the adjacent video interview attests. This period of teaching also afforded the artist consistent breaks from his otherwise nonstop painting, an affirming oscillation between the solitude of the studio and the community of the classroom. Guston’s trips felt nonstop in their own way, too, as he would stay up late into the night talking with Boston-area poet friends.
The artist’s paintings also spent significant time in Boston, during a tumultuous decade for the city, shadowed by conflict over school desegregation. Half of Guston’s notorious 1970 Marlborough Gallery show, which debuted the cartoon Klansmen, traveled to BU’s Art Galleries late that same year, their only other venue. BU hosted his first show of new work thereafter, introducing the motif of the bean-shaped self-portrait head here in spring 1974—when local and national headlines first focused closely on Boston’s bussing protests. Local art critics were among the earliest to receive these recent paintings warmly, deeming Guston “in the pink” in the fifth decade of his career.