Philip Guston's daughter on growing up with a giant of American art

Detail of Philip Guston's Mother and Child (c. 1930), now on show in Venice
Detail of Philip Guston's Mother and Child (c. 1930), now on show in Venice

‘My father was never overtly cruel,” says Musa Mayer, the only daughter of the American artist Philip Guston. “He was just largely absent, working. From an early age, I was given to understand that I was not to disturb his important work.”

Along with Jackson Pollock, whom he met at high school in Los Angeles after moving from Canada as a young child, Guston was a principal figure in the abstract expressionist movement that revolutionised American art after the Second World War. Unlike Pollock, though, Guston never quite made his peace with abstraction. In the late Sixties, amid much controversy, he renounced “pure” abstract painting, and started showing figurative canvases, rendered in a deliberately cartoonish, almost brutish style. Since his death in 1980, at the age of 66, Guston’s raw pictures have proved immensely influential. But his single-minded pursuit of art came at a cost.

Guston in his studio in the Sixties Credit: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

“He saw family as interfering,” continues Mayer, 74, sitting in Hauser & Wirth, the London branch of the international gallery that represents her father’s estate. “Yes, it’s sad. In some ways, it’s tragic. But that’s the price of art. I always understood that we were sharing him with the world – we would only get a little piece.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by her honesty. After all, Mayer has flown in from New York, where she lives on the Upper West Side with her neuropsychologist husband of 41 years, to give a reading from Night Studio, her memoir about her father. Begun when she was on a writing course at Columbia University, first published in 1988, and recently reissued in an attractive new edition, it is an extraordinarily candid book.

I longed to be more central, more involved. I treasured the times when I was invited in, when my father showed affection.Musa Mayer

Mayer writes frankly, for instance, about Guston’s propensity for melancholy as well as his alcoholism. She records the strain that his selfishness placed upon her mother, Musa McKim, a painter and poet whom he married in 1937. “My father was a very charismatic man,” Mayer tells me, “and there were many affairs.” While working on the book, Mayer confirmed with her mother something she had always sensed: “My father had not wanted children. He’d been distraught when my mother had first become pregnant.”

As a child, was she aware of this rejection? “No, I longed to be more central, more involved,” says Mayer, who appears as a moon‑faced little girl in Guston’s painting If This Be Not I (1945). “I treasured the times when I was invited in, when my father showed affection.”

Growing up, Mayer enjoyed few material comforts: between 1948 and 1956, Guston sold only two paintings, and the family had to rely on his meagre income from teaching. They lived between New York City and the artists’ enclave of Woodstock, upstate NY, where they spent half of every year, from late spring to early autumn.

“I didn’t realise how poor we were, living in an unheated house out in the woods,” Mayer says. “I was encouraged to see the whole thing as bohemian, exciting, special.”

If This Be Not I (1945) Credit: Ian Jones

Researching Night Studio, Mayer investigated her father’s family background – something he never discussed because his childhood memories were the source of too much pain for him. His own father, Leib Goldstein, a Russian-Jewish blacksmith who had fled the pogroms in Odessa, struggled to find work in Los Angeles, where, from 1919, Guston grew up, the youngest of seven children.

Forced to scratch a humiliating living as a rag-and-bone man, Leib committed suicide when Philip was only 10 or 11 years old (the exact date isn’t known). It was Philip who discovered his father’s body, “hanging,” as Mayer writes in Night Studio, “from a rope thrown over the rafter of a shed.”

“My father struggled with depression his whole life long, and drinking was a way of coping with that,” says Mayer, who now runs The Guston Foundation, which is preparing a free online catalogue raisonné of all her father’s paintings. She pauses. “There’s a recurring image in both the early and late work of a hanging rope.”

Untitled (1955 – 1956) Credit: © The Estate of Philip Guston Collection Lyn and Jerry Grinstein

In 1935, Guston left Los Angeles, hoping to make it as an artist. Still only 22 years old, he changed his surname, possibly to mask his Jewishness – something of which he was later ashamed. He even painted over the signatures on some of his early pictures.

After several years spent honing his skills as a mural painter – commissioned by President Roosevelt’s New Deal government agency, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) – he had established himself by the Forties in New York’s avant-garde art scene. His abstract canvases, though, were different from the grandiloquent offerings of his Ab-Ex friends and peers, including Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, as well as Pollock. Characterised by sensuously applied touches of pink and grey, they were subtle and sensitive, and earned him a reputation as an “abstract impressionist”.

Several of these beautiful works can now be seen in a spellbinding exhibition, spanning Guston’s career, at the Accademia Galleries in Venice. In the first room, his painting Young Mother (1944) hangs beside a 15th-century Madonna by Bellini. “My God, what an honour to have his work there – the Accademia was so special to him,” says Mayer, who first visited the museum with her parents in 1960. “He adored Venice: his love for Italian Renaissance painting was absolute.”

The Line (1978)  Credit: © The Estate of Philip Guston
 Private Collection / Photo: Genevieve Hanson

The official reason for that trip, in 1960 was that Guston was representing America at the Biennale, a figurehead of American abstract art. A few years later, though, his work underwent a profound and surprising, shift. “In 1967,” Mayer explains, “he left New York, moved permanently to Woodstock, built a large, cinder-block studio for himself, and plunged into a new phase – abandoning abstract painting.”

Guston started making simple drawings of everyday objects: cups, books, shoes. Before long, though, he was hard at work on full-scale figurative canvases, characterised by a predominant palette of incarnadine pinks and a raucous, self-consciously crude style, which owed much to the comic strips he had devoured as a boy. Accounting for this rupture in his work, he once said: “I got sick and tired of all that purity! I wanted to tell stories.”

East Coker – T.S.E. (1979) Credit: © The Estate of Philip Guston The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Gift of Musa Guston. 1991 / Digital Image © MoMA, NY

Today, the prolific body of work that he created between 1968 and his death in 1980, which amounts to two-thirds of his complete oeuvre of 1,100 paintings, is the bedrock of his reputation. “The gates were open for a whole new kind of painting that followed in the Eighties and Nineties,” Mayer explains. Many artists, including the British painter Rose Wylie, still cite Guston as a touchstone. “But,” Mayer continues, “you must realise that these late paintings, for which he is now so celebrated, were completely rejected when he was alive. At the time of his death, very few had been sold.” Notoriously, Guston showed 33 of his unsettling new paintings, including 24 that featured hooded figures resembling Ku Klux Klansmen, at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970. The reaction was vicious. Guston was accused of “heresy” for turning his back on abstraction. Even his close friends were appalled.

Deeply hurt, he fled to Italy. Upon his return in 1971, stimulated by conversations with his friend, the novelist Philip Roth, he embarked upon a series of savage and often obscene caricatures of President Richard Nixon.

Untitled (1971) Credit: Photo: Genevieve Hanson

The surprising thing about these drawings is that they are not simply an out-and-out attack on the president. “Yes, the imagery is savage,” explains Mayer, who curated the show. “But there’s also pathos there, even a certain affection [for Nixon]. It’s complicated.”

Mayer makes a similar point about Guston’s infamous Klansmen. “Of course, the hood is a symbol of evildoing,” she says. “But his hooded figures also have this cuteness, this appealing quality – they’re not depicted as characters of evil, exactly. I don’t know why, but most people feel drawn to them.” Certainly, Guston’s cartoonish style makes his Klansmen look strangely comical and beguiling. Like little hooded imps, they ride around town in clunky cars, while chomping on cigars. They may be responsible for terrible deeds, but, somehow, they exert a perversely puckish charm.

Where did Guston find the inspiration for these idiosyncratic figures? “Deep levels of his unconscious,” replies Mayer. “It’s not like he constructed the hooded figures, so much as discovered them. And, as with a novelist whose characters start haunting him or her, once he had discovered them, they started to have an independent life. It was almost like: what are they going to do next?”

The Studio (1969) Credit: © The Estate of Philip Guston Private Collection / Photo: Genevieve Hanson

In The Studio (1969), Guston even presented a Klansman as a surrogate for himself. We see his hooded avatar, puffing away on a cigarette, painting a self-portrait on an easel. What is going on? “I think the Klansmen paintings are about seeing aspects of yourself under that hood,” Mayer says. “To me, the hood is meaningful as our persona, the way we conceal ourselves. The Klansmen aren’t the Other. They’re also us.”

Eventually, Guston stopped painting Klansmen. Strange bulging potato-like heads, with all-seeing Cyclopean eyes, appeared instead – new unflattering proxies for his own heavyset, jowly self. There were also brutally unflinching portraits of the artist and his wife, ravaged by old age, and upsetting vistas, filled with dismembered hairy legs and the soles of shoes, piled high like cast-offs from the victims of a genocide.

“All the horrors are things he witnessed in the world: terrible persecution, cruelty, inhumanity,” Mayer says. “But, as well as suffering, there is a lot of joy and exuberance in the work.”

She pauses. “It’s never simple with my father – and that’s the secret of the paintings, why people are so captivated by them. It’s all mixed in together.”

Philip Guston & The Poets is at the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia, Italy (gallerieaccademia.org), until Sept 3