Essays by James Hyman

'Philip Guston: Into the Light of the Night Studio'

'Philip Guston: Into the Light of the Night Studio'


James Hyman
Art Newspaper
April 1991


"I have never been able to escape my family. As a boy I would hide in the closet when the older brothers and sisters came with their families ... I felt my remoteness in the closet with the single ugh bulb, I read and drew in this private box".

So wrote Philip Guston, in one of many autobiographical notes that are published for the first time in Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by Musa Mayer. "After a lifetime, I still have never been able to escape my family. It is true that I paint now in a larger closet: much, much larger, with many lights. Yet nothing has changed in all this time. It is still a struggle to be hidden and feel strange". For Guston, the world outside was as nothing. The studio was everything and within it Guston became Everyman painting out his demons, his fears and frustrations, hopes and disappointments, ecstasy and loathing. The strains on his wife and child must have been great, but Night Studio by the artist's daughter, though sometimes painful, is seldom bitter. It is an extraordinary and touching exploration of Guston's life. The stylistic or conceptual gaps, between early and middle or middle and later work, often appear unbridgeable, but connections do emerge. The hooded Ku Klux Klan figures, so characteristic of Guston's return to figuration in the Sixties, have their roots in Guston's childhood and entered his work as early as the Thirties. They provide an iconography that Mayer convincingly relates to an ongoing preoccupation with the self and identity, with the revealed and the hidden, literally with masking and unmasking.

Mayer discusses Guston's disaffection with Abstraction and his return to representation:

`American Abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of the spirit. A mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself..." wrote Guston. "Where are the wooden floors- the light bulbs - the cigarette smoke? Where is what we feel - without notions - ideas -good intentions?" Given the stridency of this rejection of his earlier milieu, a rejection exposed as never before by Mayer's extensive use of new material Guston's isolation, alienation even, becomes less surprising. Night Studio is not an attempt to set the record straight: no papering over the cracks; no proselytising of the late paintings during the l980s.

Mayer takes Guston `s status in the pantheon of twentieth-century masters as given. Instead, what Night Studio does do so successfully is provide an insight into the artist's personal life and, in particular, his relationship with his wife and daughter. Indeed the subtitle, A Memoir of Philip Guston, is a slight misnomer. True, one does gain a striking impression of Guston's temperament, both through the candid testimony of friends and the immediacy of his own writing. Yet, at times the focus moves away from Guston as Mayer explores her own confused feelings about her father, analyses her own relationships or gives generous space to her mother, Musa Guston, a talented artist who gives up her own painting on marrying Guston but some of whose poetry is included.
Mayer's own unmasking of Guston's early years, years that the painter himself rarely spoke of, is a revelation; from birth in the Jewish section of Montreal to childhood in Los Angeles; from the suicide of his father when Guston was about ten (Guston found his father hanging by a rope) to his love of comics (Guston, aged fifteen, won the L.A. Times cartoon contest for teenagers). Most striking is her information about Guston's decision to change his name. In 1935 Phillip Goldstein became Philip Guston, a new guise that marked a break with the past and coincided with a move east and with marriage. Amazingly, despite the amount that has been written about Guston, such details are new. Indeed, when Dore Ashton wrote her pioneering biography of the artist, Yes, But...; a Critical Study of Philip Guston in 1976, Ashton was persuaded not to mention the change of name. Guston even went so far as to paint out the signatures in his early paintings and replace them with toned in "Guston" signatures. The early public art projects, made as a socially committed muralist, are described, as is Guston's student friendship with Jackson Pollock who encouraged his move to New York. Mayer conjures up the New York of the Forties and Fifties, with its artists and critics, galleries and bars, conversation and excitement. Then finally came Guston's almost total retreat to Woodstock and a prolific, though hermetic, last decade of work, plagued by ill health and limited public interest, until his death in 1980.

Through Mayer's writing and the passage of time, the late paintings begin to take centre stage. Guston's `sacred foolishness", as he once described his life in the studio, may have come to an end, but the bulbs burn even brighter

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