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'We Work Until We Vanish' - the Philip Guston Exhibition at Tate Modern

By Yoyo Hou

‘Probably the only thing one can really learn, the only technique to learn, is the capacity to be able to change.’ -Philip Guston

Fig. 1: Philip Guston, Legend, 1977. Oil on Canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, now on display at Tate Modern. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

What is the purpose of artistic creation? It seems like the only thing artists do is painting or sculpting―putting some paint on top of canvas or carving a piece of stone. The Tate exhibition on Philip Guston (1913-1980) gives a different answer. His artworks encapsulate his life, his life encapsulates his growth, contemplation, memories, sensations, achievements, failures and his everchanging self.

The exhibition charts the 50-year career of Guston, and it is also an exhibition for us to contemplate about our own existence. The themes that run throughout the exhibition is flux and change; Guston’s practice changed when the world around him shifted. Although Guston’s works are displayed neatly in chronological order, the exhibition is not a boring biography of Guston’s life through art. There is so much more to it: you will get to know Guston, you will feel that he is someone you are very familiar with, maybe like your neighbour down the street who does art with his lovely wife.

As a child of Jewish immigrants who fled to Canada and then Los Angeles from present-day Ukraine, Guston (originally Goldstein until 1935) actively engaged with politics during the 1930s when the Ku Klux Klan were at their height across the US, noticeably by producing indoor murals in raising money for the defendants in the Scottsboro Boys Trial, nine Black teenagers maliciously accused of a rape in Alabama and sentenced to death. The works he produced in his early years were heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance art books that he was passionate about, with the influence of Dali’s surrealist style embedded within. A light bulb, an egg, a hanging pelvic bone and a nude man represent subjects seemingly piled up at random eccentrically within Nude Philosopher in Space-Time (fig. 2). Guston clearly demonstrated the absurdity and the never-ending conflicts of race, gender and politics, which is combined with the superb depiction of detail and light by a young, virtuous artist. The painting is a record of the 17-year-old artist’s mastery and a reflection of an age of conflict and suffering.

In the 1930s and 40s, Guston painted recurring scenes of fighting children in response to the futile suffering of civilians during the Spanish Civil War and in the Holocaust. The abstracted figures in his Martial Memory (fig. 3) dissolve and become relatable to the audience, the sense of chaos and fragmentation indirectly reminded the hardships of normal people during wars. They were depicted so beautifully and brutally with a powerful juxtaposition of children who should symbolise hope and happiness, and a disheartening fighting scene of destruction.

Fig. 2: Philip Guston, Nude Philosopher in Space-Time, 1935, Oil on Canvas, The Metropolitan Museum Art, now on display at Tate Modern. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Fig. 3: Philip Guston, Martial Memory, 1941, Oil paint on canvas, Saint Louis Art Museum, now on display at Tate Modern. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Dissatisfied with figural painting, Guston persisted in his pursuit of abstraction from the late 1940s. In Mirror to S.K. (fig. 4), the brash strokes of orange, powder blue, dirty pink and grey disorderly overlap each other with a chunky black square in the middle, distinguishing itself from Guston’s earlier works with absolute precision in every detail. These changes represent a truly evolving artist. ‘ S.K.’ in the title alludes to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The central black square could be construed as a head set against a morass of chaos. Guston was consistently addressing politics through the art he made overtime; he was an observer bearing witness of said chaos and a critic restlessly making daring responses to the human nature.

Fig. 4: Philip Guston, Mirror to S.K., 1960. Oil on canvas, 160.0 x 189.9 cm. Now on display at Tate Modern. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Later in his career, Guston changed his style again. He restlessly questioned about his role of being a political artist. Guston actively and realistically responded to the atrocity of the KKK, the horrors of the Holocaust, the war in Vietnam and all the brutality of the world. At the same time, he felt conflicted that his work was merely ‘going into [his] studio to adjust a red to a blue.’[1] For example, his 1969 work The Studio (fig. 5) could be construed as a self-portrait. In an eccentrically grotesque, comic format, Guston sneers at the contradiction of himself of being so politically engaged in art but not taking any direct or physical action at all to change the status quo. Despite his staunch anti-segregationist and leftist political stand, Guston depicts an artist wearing a KKK hood, set against a dusty pink background. The figure looks calm in his hood, smoking, outlining the contour of another hooded figure on a canvas with his massive, creative hand. The hanging light bulb deliberately alludes to Guston’s early paintings, representing the unchanged only thing through time―the artist himself. The painting humorously addresses a ubiquitous evil, not just the KKK, but the evil that is inside potentially everyone―the complexity of evil acts that we all share. Of course, this painting aroused a storm of controversies due to the almost cheerful palette with the playfully cartoonish representation of the Klan/artist. Children in the exhibition room copied this work with crayons because they said that the first impression of figure to them was ‘cute.’ How can a social evil be represented as cute? Guston uses the absurd juxtaposition between his leftist stance and the image of a hooded artist, courageously inviting us to look at the complexities of life, and the relationship between conscious and unconscious evil, that sometimes evil is invisible.

Fig. 5: Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969, Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, now on display at Tate Modern. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

The exhibition ends with an oil painting, The Line (fig. 6), which Guston completed two years before he died in 1980. Enigmatic and dreamlike, a forceful hand descends from the sky like a bolt of lightning. The oversized fingers and the bulgy, protruding veins are indicative of the painter’s experience in his life as an artist. By the end of his life, he is still grasping a charcoal, sketching the most simplistic and yet essential element, a line. Everything he painted is conjured up with thousands of lines, encompassing his anger, excitement, fear, uncertainty and the always-changing world around him. Guston’s friend John Cage said to him, that ‘when you start working, everybody is in your studio―the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas ... But as you continue painting, they start leaving. Then if you’re lucky, even you leave.’[2]

Fig. 6: Philip Guston, The Line, 1978, Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, now on display at Tate Modern. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

If exhibition-goers ask about the purpose of art, Guston gives a full answer. Guston restlessly sought for new and different practices throughout his career, playing in the face of politics and exposing life’s brutality, complexities, irony and insanity. It was late at night, Guston was painting, he was looking, and the world was changing. And he never stopped responding.


[1] Philip Guston, quote in the Exhibition Brochure, Tate, October 2023.

[2] John Cage, 1970s.


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