Philip Guston

(American, born in Canada, 1913–1980)

The Young Mother

, 1944
Oil on canvas , Image: 39 7/16 x 19 1/2 in.; Frame: 50 x 39 3/4 in.
Gift of Dr. Clarence Van Epps, 1947.24


The three oil-on-canvas paintings by Philip Guston in the SMA permanent collection provide an opportunity to contemplate the ways in which Guston developed and changed over the decades.

One of Philip Guston's closest high-school friends in Los Angeles was Jackson Pollock, and it was Pollock who urged Guston to move to New York. Both were deeply influenced by Mexican mural painting and worked on social realist murals for the WPA.

"In the solitude of the Midwest for the first time I was able to develop a personal imagery."
Philip Guston

In 1941 Guston left New York to teach at the University of Iowa (19411945). Buildings around Iowa City, the spire of St. Mary's Church for example, near the Guston home at 725 Summit Street, appear like Italianate views in Guston's paintings of this period. His interest in the orderly compositions of the Renaissance (a reproduction of Piero della Francesco's The Flagellation hung in his kitchen for over twenty-five years) led Guston to place his figures in strongly organized compact spaces, while his fascination with surrealism led him to portray mysterious moods. One of Guston's primary goals was to create a sensation of mystery and ambiguity for the viewer. His artistic hero in this regard was the artist Giorgio de Chirico (see Disquieting Muses in the SMA collection).

In The Young Mother, Guston presented his wife Musa McKim and daughter Musa Jane, born in Iowa City in 1943, as a secular Madonna and Child with a faint reminder of the monumentality of Social Realism. A melancholy and lonely mood permeates the interior scene. Guston's wife was said to have had a quality of "dreamy inwardness," which is suggested in the portrait. The assortment of earth and mineral-derived pigments—siennas, ochres, umbers, and blues—that Guston used, and the dry quality of the pigment, were also influenced by the materials and techniques of fresco mural and early Renaissance painting.

Guston said that what ultimately caused him to leave his figurative narratives of the 1940s was seeing early pictures of Nazi-death camps. It is easy to imagine how those shocking images of stacked bodies could override any potential idea for figuratively realistic composition.

His transition to abstraction began in 1949/1950. Figures and things were soon represented by abstract shapes. In Edge, as in other paintings from around 1960, Guston used white pigment to "erase" the black pigment he didn't want; the emerging dark forms floated and congealed in a gray environment. To get at the essence of the relationship between objects and their surroundings Guston pursued a sensation of being "inside" a painting and wanted viewers to experience the same phenomenon. He challenged himself to represent three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface. For Guston the edges of his paintings were particularly significant because they functioned like window frames, stage sets, or mirrors. The upper right area in Edge appears to extend beyond the sides while dense forms in the center appear to wrestle each other, fighting for attention at the surface of the painting as if struggling for air from under water. The sensation of struggle and of ambiguity—one questions what one is seeing—is different from, yet similar to, the surreal, timeless uncertainty and illusory spaces of The Young Mother. The mystery of Edge lies in the manner in which it breathes and pulsates like a living organism.

In the late 1960s Guston's abstract forms morphed into iconic characters painted with a heavy cartoon-like style. Guston had invented an original language of personal props. In Ramp, arms attached to garbage-can lids; a graphic evolved from images used in earlier paintings of childhood street war games, and smoldering cigarettes that represent the artist, are heaped in a kind of trophy/monument to the ultimate chaos of the world. Supporting the heap of arms extending garbage-can lids instances of self-protection or deflection and cigarettes is a kind of road, ramp, or base for the trophy/monument. Guston was only interested in colors for what they provided in relationship to each other. In Ramp, as with much of his work of the 1970s, Guston used cobalt blue and cadmium red medium with black and white.

Guston could not have known that within several months of painting Ramp he would have his first heart-attack, and within months of that his last.

"I want to end with something that will baffle me for some time."
Philip Guston