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Philip Guston,Magnet 1975 Oil on canvas 171.5 x 203.8 cm / 67 1/2 x 80 1/4  in Collection Uli Knecht © The Estate of Philip Guston

Courtesy of the Estate, Gallerie dell'Accademia and Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: A Painter and His Muses


by Deanna Sirlin


Philip Guston made four trips to Italy in his lifetime. Each was significant to him and is reflected in his work. An important exhibition of the artist’s work has been realized in Venice, Italy for the 57th Biennale of Art. Philip Guston and the Poets is a collateral event of the Biennale and will be on view until September 3, 2017 at Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia. The Accademia, as it is often called, has in its permanent collection works by Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Caneletto, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese to name drop a few. The artists that inspired Guston are on view in this museum, and it is fortuitous that the collection and the Guston exhibition are in the same place.

The curatorial aspect of this exhibition is nothing less than brilliant. Kosme de Baranano, a Guston scholar, has distilled and articulated through his choices of work the correspondences between Guston and the poetry of five major poets of the Twentieth Century. D. H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale and T. S. Elliot are the poets, and the exhibition is organized to emphasize their direct influence on Guston. Rather than being arranged chronologically, the exhibition reflects the relationships of Guston to the poetry that accompanied him in the studio and parallels the thought and meaning of his work.

Guston was highly influenced by Italian painting, Renaissance Italian art in particular. In 1948, he won a Prix de Rome and spent the year at the American Academy in Rome. This was his first trip to Italy. He spent most of his time in Rome not painting, but drawing and absorbing the color and weight of Italian Renaissance painting. His passion and enthusiasm are present in a letter Guston wrote to his friend Bill Berkson, “I am immersed in quattro and cinquecento painting more than ever! And when I go north, to Venice, faced with Tiepolo, Tintoretto, and even so called ‘Mannerist’ work like Pontormo, Parmigianino, etc., I cheat on my earlier loves and fall head over heels.”


Philip Guston,Pantheon 1973 Oil on panel 114.3 x 121.9 cm / 45 x 48 in

Private Collection © The Estate of Philip Guston Courtesy of the Estate, Gallerie dell'Accademia and Hauser & Wirth

In 1960, Guston was one of four American Abstract artists to have his work in United States pavilion at the 30th Venice Biennale of Art. The other artists were Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, and Theodore Roszak. Guston was 47 years old in 1960; it was quite an honor to be included in such an important exhibition. Guston showed thirteen paintings at this exhibition, at the height of his abstract work. His painting Untitled, 1955-6 is in the current exhibition at the Accademia, but it was also one of the works in the 1960 Biennale.

Philip Guston in Rome in 1960. CreditVirginia Dortch

I was quite moved by Untitled. It is a magnificent painting, but I was equally touched by the work’s journey from studio to exhibition to collection, then back to Venice for this exhibition. Provenance is important to all works, but here one feels that this work has been restored to its place of origin. Untitled, 75 7/8  x 72 inches, is a rich articulation of red, pink and gray brushstrokes layered into an atmospheric impasto of paint that radiates a kind of light from within the work. The strokes culminate just off center as they move forward in the space of the painting. As these strokes are laid on top level of the painting, there is energy in the brushstrokes that crescendoes with a rich cadmium red. The color in the work is balanced by small touches of viridian green on the sides and bottom and a warm gray blue at the top. The work has depth and movement that call up the palette of rich reds and siennas of seventeenth century Italian art.


Philip Guston, Untitled 1955 – 1956  Oil on canvas 192.7 x 182.9 cm / 75 7/8 x 72

 Collection Lyn and Jerry Grinstein © The Estate of Philip Guston

Courtesy of the Estate, Gallerie dell'Accademia and Hauser & Wirth

But this is not where the exhibitions begins. First, there are the works Guston made before he had ever been to Italy. There are series of pencil drawings from as early as 1937 and several from the 1940s that show the direct influence of Italian painting. There is a painting from 1944 titled Young Mother hung beside Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and Child from 1470. The similarities and influences are clear not only in the pose but also in the emphasis on hands and eyes that will come into play in Guston’s late figurative works.

Giovanni Bellini

 Madonna with Child Blessing


Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Courtesy of  Gallerie dell'Accademia 

Philip Guston,Young Mother,1944, Oil on canvas

100.3 x 74.9 cm / 39 1/2 x 29 1/2 in

University of Iowa Museum of Art

Gift of Dr. Clarence Van Epps, 1947.24

© The Estate of Philip Guston

Courtesy of the Estate, Gallerie dell'Accademia and Hauser & Wirth


Installation view, 'Philip Guston and The Poets'

Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, Italy

Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri

The texts of the poems that are on each section of the exhibition resonate with the paintings whether they are figurative or abstract.  As I read the words of Yeats’s poem “Byzantium” and at the same moment look at the painting, The Magnet, 1975, I experience the presence of the objects in the painting, the hanging lightbulb, the clock, the sea, and the book through the clarity of marks made in red cadmium, pink, gray and black. Things and thoughts are added and removed and put back again so much like the text of the poem, generally thought to be Yeats’s meditation on his own artistic process:

The unpurged images of day recede;

The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;

Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song

. . .

Before me floats an image, man or shade,

Shade more than man, more image than a shade;

. . .

An agony of trance,

An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

. . .

Those images that yet

Fresh images beget

In talking about painting, Guston often emphasized the importance of destroying the images that came to him first and repainting or replacing them, a process that leaves behind marks of the painter’s erasures. As Yeats suggests, the images that come first to the poet are not the ones that remain in the poem but the ones that “fresh images beget.” Guston seeks the essence of the painting in his destructions, erasures, recreations and revisions as he seeks, finds, eradicates, then refinds what he is looking for. In Magnet, 1975, Guston takes objects and presses them up against each other. He opens and closes the forms. Underneath the clock, with a minute hand that is out of control and surges upward over the numbers, you can see the pentimenti of the previous versions. The book is open on the same table to a text that we cannot read with a large question mark on the left hand side. As Guston reveals the making of the work, the objects are in a permanent state of flux. They change as they are painted, but their own earlier versions are both gone and still present, like the ghostly images Yeats describes.

In Painter’s Forms II, 1978 Guston’s large canvas features an open mouth with teeth with feet and legs, soles of shoes, and cigarettes spilling out. It is sort of an explosion from the body of all the symbols that Guston used to represent himself. The palette is also of his typical reds and pinks, outlined in blacks and grays. The erasures are present of forms painted, then removed and painted again, with the evidence of these changes left for the viewer to see. In this painting Guston is spewing out his own self, the legs with rounded knees and oval discs of feet attached to them are about to take a hike in the cartoonist’s manner but the weight of this complicated image resonates with Montale’s poetry.  

Philip Guston, Painter's Forms II 1978 Oil on canvas 190.5 x 274.3 cm / 75 x 108 in

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Museum purchase, The Friends of Art Endowment Fund © The Estate of Philip Guston

Courtesy of the Estate, Gallerie dell'Accademia and Hauser & Wirth

The life that breaks apart

in secret streams I’ve linked with you:

that argues with itself and almost

seems not to know you, suffocated presence.


La vita che si rompe nei travasi

secreti a te ho legata:

quella che si dibatte in sé e par quasi

non ti sappia, presenza soffocata.


from the poem "Delta"

Montale writes of his own poetry, “The subject matter of my poetry . . . is the human condition considered in itself.” Whether one is looking at the earliest period of Guston’s pictorial works, or the period of abstraction, or his object-filled later works, Montale’s words are apt. Guston addresses the human condition through a continued excavation of his own interior states, communicated through an intentionally limited palette and a theater of symbols that express the trauma, joy, and confusion not just of being Guston, but of being human. Like humanity, Guston’s paintings are always arguing with themselves, in the sense that the question of what the definitive version of any given work may be is left open by traces of earlier versions, and in the way he moved back and forth between representation and abstraction, as if debating which is the better way to say what he wanted to say.

Deanna Sirlin is an artist. Here she is at the install of her work Before You Leap, a Public Art Commission  for Emmett O'Brien Technical High School for the Connecticut Office of the Arts (COA). Sirlin is pictured  [yellow hard hat] during the installation of this work  with her insurance agent, Kathy Crooker. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section


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