Philip Guston: The Vessel and its Voyage

Philip Guston Above and Below 1975 Oil on canvas 170.8 x 184.8 cm / 67 1/4 x 72 3/4 in Photo: Matthew Kroening
Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969. Oil on canvas, 137.2 x 200.7 cm / 54 x 79 in. Photo: Genevieve Hanson
Philip Guston, Vessel, 1960. Oil on panel, 76.2 x 55.6 cm / 30 x 21 7/8 in. Photo: Genevieve Hanson.
Philip Guston, Above and Below, 1975. Oil on canvas, 170.8 x 184.8 cm / 67 1/4 x 72 3/4 in. Photo: Matthew Kroening
CoBo Social Market News

The symbolism of Philip Guston’s paintings often provokes associations of ideas rather than a comprehensive ideology. Ku Klux Klan / Capirote hoods: exclusion, a sense of the clandestine, violence, vulnerability, hypocrisy. The cyclops eye: omniscience, artistic freedom, powerlessness. Spider’s web: the passage of time, fragility.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth


Entitled “Philip Guston: A Painter’s Forms, 1950 – 1979”, Hauser and Wirth’s Philip Guston “survey” at its new H Queens space is curated by the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer. Her selection of nearly 50 artworks provides a loosely chronological and fascinating perspective on the artist’s stylistic evolution towards symbol-laden controversy. Philip Guston’s earliest work was figurative (sometimes inspired by Picasso), however this show chiefly depicts his time as part of the New York School (his preferred term for the scene and style of which he was part), followed by his “cartoonish” figurative style, which has become his signature in the artistic canon.


Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969. Oil on canvas, 137.2 x 200.7 cm / 54 x 79 in. Photo: Genevieve Hanson


Born in Canada, Philip Guston was raised in LA, attending high school with his friend Jackson Pollock in Los Angeles in the 1920s, before moving to New York City at the age of 18. He was on the spot in good time for the abstract expressionist heyday that was to place NYC at the centre of the world’s art scene in the post war decade. A combination of the outsider and the insider, of the introvert and the partier, Guston’s friends ranged across the full spectrum of his New York peers, from artists such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, to atonal trailblazers Morty Feldman and John Cage. We “electrified each other” as Guston remarked. His mind soaked up ideas from outside of New York too, from (inter alia) contemporary existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and Russian absurdist fabulists such as Nikolai Gogol.

Philip Guston’s “solid black paintings” of the 1960s are represented at Hauser & Wirth in works such as Vessel, The Three and Position I. From here the style changes radically. In retrospect, it is perhaps unsurprising that a man of such far-reaching intellectual searchlights should break free of the rigidities of a single art movement. Enquiry was core to his spirit: “Every five or six years I feel I’ve exhausted something.” Coupled with this, the Vietnam war and the febrile political environment of the late 1960s showed up the limitations of abstract expressionism all too clearly. One quotation from the artist is stencilled onto the Hauser & Wirth wall: “What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”


Philip Guston, Vessel, 1960. Oil on panel, 76.2 x 55.6 cm / 30 x 21 7/8 in. Photo: Genevieve Hanson.


From the late 1960s onwards, Philip Guston returned to figurative endeavour with a panache and gusto which bonded contemporary themes with a dark, childlike sense of rose-hued wonder. One of the delights of this survey is to see the small charcoal and ink sketches which were the forerunners of this shift, such as Ink Bottle and Quill of 1968. This room, although some of the sketches are from the 1970s, is a refreshing interregnum between the solemn abstraction of the 1960s and the large, vivid, canvases in the adjoining rooms.

Whilst Philip Guston did not enjoy discussing style, noting that he was too busy “trying to stay alive” to address such pettinesses, the pronounced break from abstraction brought a barrage of criticism, not least from his peers of the New York School, and Philip Guston found himself more isolated artistically-speaking than he had ever been before. Author Philip Roth, who has died exactly a week before the opening of this show, provided support to Philip Guston at this time: Roth was experiencing some of the same emotions, vilified by some for his latest work, “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

There is a combination of whimsy and intensity to his 1970s paintings. “Smoking I” depicts the artist in signature posture (those viewing Michael Blackwood’s “A Life Lived” which is played on TV screens at the gallery will note how the artist is rarely without a cigarette in hand), a finely executed combination of conscious and unconscious action, relaxed and yet cogitative. Philip Guston compared himself periodically to Oblomov, supine hero of Goncharov’s eponymous novel, and this painting manages to be both unpretentiously literary and deeply personal. Artworks like “Head-Legs-Sea” point to the deep love of family through the coupling of two sinking heads, anchored in coyness, vulnerability and a wry acceptance of the oncoming final mystery awaiting us all. Elsewhere, in paintings such as “Above and Below” Guston draws a wry link through the artistic canon to Michelangelo, the spindly, cigarette-like fingers of creation pointing straight downwards to earth, as if in gentle exhortation towards the real and the humane.


Philip Guston, Above and Below, 1975. Oil on canvas, 170.8 x 184.8 cm / 67 1/4 x 72 3/4 in. Photo: Matthew Kroening


Guston grew up in a troubled home, felt the rage of the Scottsboro trials, and the injustice of the Vietnam war. One of his favourite quotations is attributed to Stravinsky, who observed that “The Rite of Spring” was not written by him, but rather wrote itself through him. The title of Guston’s 1960 artwork, “Vessel”, alludes to this simple philosophy.

This show, an odyssey of New York at its most brightly creative, also serves to underline the educational delights which are now open to visitors within the heart of Hong Kong’s Central. In what frame of mind should you visit? An understanding of Guston as a person, or of the times that formed him, is helpful, but not a necessity in a show which has at its heart a simple endorsement of humanity’s ability to constantly innovate, and to find new ways of expressing it’s joy at life itself.



Philip Guston – A Painter’s Forms, 1950 – 1979
29 May – 28 Jul 2018
Hauser & Wirth Hong Kong



Also check Musa Mayer’s guided tour of the exhibition




Nicholas Stephens is from London and has lived in Hong Kong for the last nine years, where he works for a leading Hong Kong gallery, specializing in contemporary ink. His articles on diverse aspects of the Hong Kong arts scene have been published in “Art Hong Kong”. A graduate in Modern Languages (European ones unfortunately!), Nicholas has authored translations of novels and plays by writers including Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.



Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply