Harvard University Art Museums

Cambridge, MA




Philip Guston: A New Alphabet


In 1967, the American artist Philip Guston (1913-80) left Manhattan and settled in rural Woodstock, New York, where he lived for the rest of his life. About the same time, he abandoned the lyrical abstractions for which he was internationally acclaimed and turned to figurative painting. The four-year period -- from 1968 to 1972 -- during which he made his dramatic transition is the focus of a special exhibition, Philip Guston: A New Alphabet, at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, from September 23, 2000 through February 4, 2001. (left: The Three, 1970, oil on masonite, 30.8 x 35.6 cm, Fogg Art Museum, Louise E. Bettens Fund, 1976.0009.0000 © 2000 President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard University Art Museums)

The exhibition is co-organized by Harry Cooper, associate curator of modern art at the Fogg Art Museum, and Joanna Weber, acting curator of European and contemporary art at the Yale Art Gallery, with the help of Laura Greengold, a recent graduate in painting from the Yale School of Art.

"Harry's and Joanna's research and thinking bring a new generation's mind and eye to the formative transitional paintings that Philip Guston created in the later years of his life -- canvases that shocked the New York art world in the late 1960s," said James Cuno, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums.

The artist was born Philip Goldstein in Montreal, Canada. He moved with his family to California in 1919 and began painting public murals dealing with social and political issues while living in Los Angeles in the early 1930s. He soon followed his friend Jackson Pollock to New York City, where he painted Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals and began exploring abstraction as a new way of working. He married the poet and artist Musa McKim in 1937 and in the same year changed his name to Guston. (left: Untitled, 1968, 45.4 x 50.5 x 2.2 cm, Fogg Art Museum, Bequest of Musa Guston, 1993.0025.0000 © 2000 President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard University Art Museums)

By the mid-1950s Guston had moved from expressive realism to abstract expressionism. He was a crucial member of the New York School, which included Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. The painterly quality of his works was often compared to Claude Monet's, earning him the label "abstract impressionist." His work was exhibited in solo and group shows frequently, with major retrospectives in 1962 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and in 1966 at the Jewish Museum, New York, and the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. He received numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Ford Foundation grant, and the Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts. Critical acclaim for Guston was such that it shocked and even angered the art world when the artist broke away from his "signature" style in the late 1960s and turned to figuration.

From 1968 to 1970 Guston developed a new alphabet of images -- books, bricks, shoes, hoods, easels, paintings, and other objects of studio and domestic life -- and a new manner combining the architectonic clarity of Piero della Francesca with the graphic wit of Krazy Kat. "The heart of our exhibition is in the small paintings themselves, the pivotal moment of Guston's gradual redefinition," said Cooper. "We have presented them for the first time as Guston himself did, hung together on a single wall, where they inspired visitors to his studio to think and to dream."

A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies Philip Guston: A New Alphabet. It includes an essay by Harry Cooper, "Recognizing Guston," and another by Joanna Weber, "Philip Guston and Soren Kierkegard: Facing the Despairing Self." The presentation at the Fogg Art Museum was made possible by the generous support of the Fifth Floor Foundation, Keith and Kathy Sachs, and the Alexander S., Robert L., and Bruce A. Beal Exhibition Fund. The catalogue is available in the museum shop.



Philip Guston: Recollections and Readings, Friday, October 13, Sackler lecture hall, 6-8 p.m.; Free admission. A distinguished group of poets and writers, all of whom were close to Guston during this period, will gather to recall the artist and discuss his work and legacy. The evening also features readings by several of the writers with whom Guston collaborated. Guests include Dore Ashton, Bill Berkson, Clark Coolidge, William Corbett, David McKee, and the artist's daughter, Musa Mayer, reading from her mother' s poetry and her own memoirs of her father.

rev. 9/19/00

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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