Philip Guston, Open Window, 1969, Private Collection
Philip Guston was one of the most courageous and controversial painters to come out of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Critics called the 1950s Guston’s “mandarin” (influential) years. For years, he’d been creating paintings that were abstract and lush. Suddenly, he deviated, yearning to break free. He said, “I got sick and tired of all that purity! I wanted to tell stories!”
Thus began the paintings of political and social satire derived from Guston’s sense of profound distaste with current affairs. His disapproval and unrest accelerated with Nixon and the Vietnam War. To contend with the tumultuous time, he often portrayed himself, the painter, shrouded in a Klu Klux Klan hood, in the studio, cigarette dangling, paintbrushes in hand. His iconography remains visceral and vulnerable.
Philip Guston, Dial, 1956
Adding to this imagery, Guston began to paint primarily with pink and red tones. Scalding pinks, scathing reds – fleshy cartoons in bubblegum pink and blood red. Seen up close, one becomes aware of the torment he felt as he painted. The colors are in-your-face with thick impasto brushstrokes. The work is fresh, honest, and immediate. 
Choosing these colors and the cartoon-like images incited much criticism at the time. Critics slammed him. Robert Hughes in Time magazine wrote in 1970: “We are left with a group of sumptuously painted canvases, sometimes witty, occasionally moving, and for the most part caricaturally blunt. As political statement, they are all as simple-minded as the bigotry they denounce.
Today, people take offense with Guston’s white-hooded figures, offering trigger warnings; “Emotional Awareness.” This is the topic of the pink card you take before you even enter Philip Guston Now at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. The exhibit had been postponed because museums also on the tour – National Gallery of Art, in D.C; Tate Modern, in London; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – were afraid of audience reaction. Shock? Guston’s relevance today is shocking. Our fraught times appear to be worse.
Philip Guston, City, 1969, Private Collection
To make a statement of terror, when Guston painted his pink and red paintings during the late 50s through the 70s, how could he be subtle? His father committed suicide and Guston, at 10 years-old, found him hanging in the shed. Guston’s brother died of gangrene after losing both legs in a car accident. In the news, nine teenage black boys were wrongly sentenced for rape of a white woman. Guston’s lifelong close friend, Mark Rothko, committed suicide. An unethical war and American president raged. Through it all, Guston painted, pushing himself into unknown territory, fearful of hubris, rejecting the way artist statements and press releases obscured the work and alienated the general public. He was clear, direct, and obvious. Accessible to everyone.
Guston’s pink paintings are not really pink – they are thick with white and black. He used white as an erasure tool, with his heavy hand illuminating the absurdity of the tragic. He said of his hooded figures that he was showing “dumb human beings always committing these senseless acts.” 
Throughout his life, Guston studied 15th century painting and demonstrated his indebtedness to these masters in his painting, “Pantheon.” This obvious tribute is spelled out in red on pink. Guston does not hide his devotion and gratitude.
Philip Guston, Couple in Bed, 1977
He paints himself lying in bed with his wife, Musa, in Couple in Bed (1977). His skin is red and he is under the covers, holding three paint brushes, one of which is thick with red paint. Painting, Smoking, Eating (1972) is a self-portrait with his proverbial cigarettes, paint brushes, single light bulb, and “lima bean” shaped head. These are repetitive forms that he used in his paintings to, as he said, “symbolize what I was feeling.” In another self-portrait,  Painter’s Forms (1972), Guston incorporates alcohol, a cigarette, a shoe, and an open mouth talking ‒ Guston was a great conversationalist and lecturer. 
Philip Guston Now exhibits 73 paintings along with 27 drawings. The most striking sensation when entering the exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Art is the surprise and delight in the color pink. His favorite color was cadmium red, a difficult color because of its ability to dominate. By mixing it with white, and often yellow ochre (another favorite), alla prima (wet on wet), he gave himself a backdrop of luxurious pink to highlight what he called his “crappola.”
Guston averaged around 40 paintings a year through to 1978. He died at the age of 66 in 1980. He said that painting is “colored light.” Pink is red and white mixed. Blood and flesh. His paintings throb with life. And light. He said, “I like a kind of troubled beauty.” He also told students, “Don’t paint to be loved.”
Dian Parker’s essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. She ran White River Gallery in Vermont, curating twenty exhibits, and now writes about art and artists for various publications. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. To find out more, visit her website
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