PRINT January/February 2021

Now You See Me

Philip Guston, If This Be Not I, 1945, oil on canvas, 42 1/4 × 55 1/4". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

TO BE A JEW in twentieth-century America was to be an outsider. We Jews gathered in temples and schools, we bought properties, physical and intellectual, to maintain control of our environments. We formed our own magazines. We exploited ourselves and others. Ashkenazi Jews can pass as non-Jewish when it suits us, or Jewish again when we wish to be “chosen.” And when blame is to be assigned, or walls erected, we can once again pass or not pass depending on the ideological needs of the times. The tension inherent in assimilation and rejection, donning and discarding a mask, is at the center of Philip (Goldstein) Guston’s work. It also accounts for some of the resentment, bitterness, and neuroticism embedded in so much twentieth-century art and entertainment. Guston lives in this tradition with Joan (Molinsky) Rivers, Saul Bellow, Rodney (Jacob Cohen) Dangerfield, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Philip Roth, and Howard Stern.1

No need to repeat what Jason Farago brilliantly summarized in his response to the Philip Guston “postponement”2 (now a vaguely rethought exhibition opening in 2022). Let’s stick to Jews. I was struck by how casually Kaywin Feldman labeled Guston a white artist who “appropriated images of Black Trauma.”3 Guston, a Jewish artist who was aware that his very existence was contingent on his parents’ having escaped from Ukraine, whose extended past was cloaked by his new name and then exterminated in the Holocaust, was not “appropriating” anything. His family experienced pogroms, he saw the Klan marching, he knew the fear that all Jews feel and was aware of the implications of his imagery. It is unquestionable that Black people suffered most at the hands of the Klan. Anti-Black bigotry was at the organization’s heart. It is also true that Jews and immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, and, until recently, Catholics were impacted by the Klan and other horrors of the twentieth century. To flatten Guston’s Jewishness and to disallow his use of historically and ideologically loaded symbols is to preclude the nuance necessary for thoughtful interpretation. Just as Guston’s Jewishness matters, so does the fact that his Klan paintings are not themselves racist or anti-racist statements. They are paintings of ambiguity, pain, humor, terror, love, and confession. Actions such as the postponement perpetuate bad-faith readings of artworks and discourage the conversation and thinking that art might engender. Mark Godfrey’s disgraceful suspension from Tate Modern in London is proof of exactly that. The net effect of the present Guston event is that more scholarship will be forced into the private domain. Galleries, some of which already pretend to be museums, and which do make valuable contributions, but always as means, not ends (with corresponding compromises), will consolidate ever more power over the narrative. I’m plenty cynical, but there’s no replacing the training and care to be found within museum publishing departments. 

Philip Guston, Drawing for Conspirators, 1930, graphite pencil, ink, colored pencil, and wax crayon on paper, 22 5/8 × 14 5/8". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

The only upside to the controversy is that I can focus on the abundance of recent books on the artist. The catalogue for “Philip Guston Now” is suddenly the show itself. In form and content, it’s an ideal example of what museum publications do best, providing a granular historical record together with multiple entrance points to the paintings via artists’ statements and essays by Harry Cooper, Alison de Lima Greene, Kate Nesin, and, most crucially for me, Mark Godfrey, whose superb “Jewish Image-Maker” has greatly informed my thinking. Robert Storr’s enormous monograph Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting (2020) encompasses both Guston’s entire career and his culture. Storr is erudite, expansive, and respectful but not worshipful. In his journey through Guston’s painting world, he reengages with the histories of related twentieth-century arguments, ideologies, and artworks. In one memorable passage, Storr carries off a deceptively casual disquisition on the rise, politics, and international reception of Abstract Expressionism, then focuses on 1950 as its “banner year” through highlights by Jackson Pollock (with an aside on José Clemente Orozco), Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Barnett Newman. Reading Storr in full swing is one of the great pleasures of a life in art, and A Life Spent Painting delivers. There are images in its nearly 350 pages that few have seen, writings by the artist, and a time line that shows the man and his family as living beings in full.

These two books sit atop a growing stack of Guston-themed publications. Distributed Art Publishers and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, have published a new edition of Poor Richard, Guston’s Nixon satire from the summer of 1971, pitched to publishers at Philip Roth’s urging,4 with no takers until the University of Chicago Press finally issued a now-rare 2001 printing. It sits alongside Saul Steinberg’s volumes in a picture-story genre that is neither graphic novel nor artist’s book. Add to those Guston’s daughter Musa Mayer’s scrapbook of that year, Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971, which accompanied a September 2019 exhibition of the same name at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles that was intended to act as a supplement to “Philip Guston Now,” which did not have a Los Angeles venue. Mayer has also authored a forthcoming introductory book on her father. Her autobiographical Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston (1988), rereleased by Hauser & Wirth in 2016, remains one of the best accounts of Guston’s life and of the aching gap between artist and father and the emotional toll artists can take on innocent bystanders.5 This teetering pile of books is all the more reason, some might argue, to not sweat the show’s postponement. But Guston’s stature is not what the argument is about—it’s about intellectual honesty and a tolerance, if not an embrace, of ambiguity. There are so many brutal facts; why not maintain some mysterious beauty and horror? That is, after all, where Guston came from.

Philip Guston and Reuben Kadish, with Jules Langsner, The Struggle Against Terrorism, 1934–35, fresco. Installation view, Museo Regional Michoacano, Morelia, Mexico. © The Estate of Philip Guston.

GUSTON, BORN PHILLIP GOLDSTEIN in the same Montreal slum as Saul Bellow, was one of seven children raised by Leib (later Louis) Goldstein and Rachel Ehrenlieb, who emigrated from Ukraine to Canada in 1904 and 1905, respectively. Like many of their landsmen, the Goldsteins followed the sun, arriving in 1919 in Los Angeles, then home to the largest Jewish population west of Chicago. Goldstein grew up impoverished in a kosher home and attended religious school. His father was a junkman who committed suicide in 1923. In 1932, Guston’s beloved brother, Nat, died from injuries sustained when his car rolled backward, crushing his legs. Dislocation and tragedy, the stuff of Guston’s moral anxiety, were there from the start.

The cultural and religious education of a young Jew, as I experienced it, values both theology and doubt. We must read, and we must question. There is not one without the other. Broaden that mode, and let’s call it dialectical thinking without hope of resolution, which, in some cases, opens onto a spectrum of taste that finds the sacred in the profane and vice versa. As is often noted, Guston, like so many other immigrants of his time, loved comic strips, an art form forever struggling with its own duality in its constituent parts (writing/drawing) and its aspirations (comedy/drama). Comic-strip drawing as we now recognize it proliferated at the turn of the twentieth century. It was rooted in caricature, a form dependent on reducing human beings to easily discernible types. This vocabulary remains embedded in our visual language. What is Mickey Mouse but a minstrel figure? The racial and ethnic stereotypes baked into the language of comics were the text and subtext of, among others, the great Black cartoonist George Herriman (a Guston favorite) and the Yiddishkeit genius Milt Gross, both of whom had also moved west to LA. The vast urban immigrant population could open the newspapers and see the nation’s lives. The tragicomic figuration universalized the “other” like an ethnic horror house of mirrors and enabled comics to find an international audience. It is this history, burrowed so deep in our consciousnesses that we barely recognize it, that Robert Crumb would tap in 1966 and that Guston would coincidentally return to a couple years later.

Dislocation and tragedy, the stuff of Guston’s moral anxiety, were there from the start.

During Guston’s boyhood, comic strips produced famously wealthy cartoonists, like two of his favorites, first-class communicators Chic Young (Blondie) and Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff), and a concomitant boom in the cartooning-lesson business. At age thirteen, Guston published a sambo comic strip in the Los Angeles Times called Little Snowball—Toot! Toot! He also completed three correspondence lessons, likely from the W. L. Evans School of Cartooning and Caricaturing in Cleveland, which emphasized line weight, crosshatching, and spiky figures seemingly built of straw. He was learning how to communicate in the visual language of America. 

After attending high school at Manual Arts, from which he and his friend Jackson Pollock (“He was Jack, then,” Guston exhaled in a 1980 interview) were expelled for publishing a paper critical of the school’s conservatism, Guston did a few months at Otis College of Art and Design, where he fortuitously met and was mentored by Lorser Feitelson, who, with his wife, Helen Lundeberg, was a key proponent of a California Surrealism then in its infancy and very much nurtured by Walter and Louise Arensberg’s collection. Guston was especially intrigued by Giorgio de Chirico’s Soothsayer’s Recompense, 1913, and The Poet and His Muse, ca. 1925.6 Beginning in the late 1920s, Guston developed a painting mode that conjoined a de Chirico–influenced metaphysical style to a need, as he would put it in later years, to “bear witness.”7 His Drawing for Conspirators, 1930, imagines the aftermath of a lynching, a Klansman in the foreground fingering a rope as a pious man might prayer beads; for his entire life, he would talk about the Los Angeles Police Department’s defacement of a fresco he helped paint in protest of the wrongful conviction and death sentences of nine Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Alabama; in Morelia, Mexico, at the recommendation of David Alfaro Siquieros, Guston and friends Jules Langsner and Reuben Kadish painted the sadly-no-longer-extant 1,024-square-foot fresco The Struggle Against Terrorism, 1934–35, in which two Klansmen tumble into a multiperspectival space and are met by strong workers and godlike hands holding a hammer and sickle. Painting and politics were one.

Philip Guston, The Porch, 1946–47, oil on canvas, 56 1/4 × 34". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

Guston, like many Jews, was aware of the forces gathering in Europe in the ’30s. Maybe his family heard from relatives in Ukraine; perhaps he discussed the news with friends. But then there was the silence of the early ’40s. The not-knowing. The first pictures of the concentration camps were published in the spring of 1945. It was only then that Guston would have realized the extent of the catastrophe. Imagine living through that: knowing of Isaac Babel’s Cossacks, suspecting it was happening again, and then to rather suddenly see the photographic evidence of it. And to be educated enough to understand it as part of the continuum of Jewish history. But where was Guston’s Jewish identity in this historical moment? After all, Guston knew what he was not doing as a Jew: He had not used his surname since 1935, nor kept a kosher house. When he left Los Angeles for New York in 1936, he mostly cut off his family. The Jew Guston had once been, he understood, was now hidden in every way.8

And it was then, Dore Ashton has noted, that Guston began “peering inward, already searching for what is behind the visible fact.”9 If This Be Not I, 1945, with its gaggle of masked children (including his daughter Musa) arrayed in an amalgamation of de Chirico classicism, sidewalk junk heap, and tenement space, broke through to a tactile evocation of memory and destruction. Guston’s ’40s paintings, which he made while teaching in Iowa City and Saint Louis, belong to a history of American magical realism and socially conscious painting that also includes the work of Ben Shahn, Henry Koerner, and Guston’s student at the University of Iowa, Stephen Greene—allegorical pictures rooted in specific settings, with an almost suffocating surfeit of emotional atmosphere.

Guston would often refer to creation from a void, to pigment as life-giving.

Twenty years later, Guston would air out that atmosphere and strike the sets, making his last decade seem closer to a flowering than a sudden new growth. The central figure in The Porch, 1946–47, is based on photos of concentration-camp survivors with food bowls hanging from their necks; the painting’s compressed horizontal expanse and attenuated bodies of children suggest Max Beckmann, whose work Guston knew and admired and who, in a bit of serendipity, taught at Washington University in Saint Louis just after Guston. Speaking of these paintings in 1973,10 Guston remembered what’s often thought of as a turn toward abstraction: “I destroyed a lot of work and was very anxious to lose figuration altogether. . . . And I felt the need to abandon representation forms and the construction of the picture altogether. I wanted to see what would happen if I just started painting again almost from scratch.” Guston was also reckoning, as many artist and philosophers did,11 with the question of what to make after the Holocaust. What was art supposed to be?

Philip Guston, The Tormentors, 1947–48, oil on canvas, 40 7/8 × 60 1/8". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

Storr maps the terrain, echoing the artist himself: “Awareness of the carnage wrought by the recent global conflict, and the possibility of the utter destruction of civilization, strengthened existentialism’s hold on the minds and imaginations of Guston’s generation . . . To go forward, if that was in any way conceivable—and most of the best artists sincerely doubted that it was—it would be necessary to start over from scratch.”12 He named The Tormentors, 1948–49, as the first painting in this mode, and though it, too, began with Klan figures, it’s closer to the cartographic abstraction of Guston’s old WPA friend Arshile Gorky.

In 1949, Guston settled in New York with his wife and daughter, finding himself in the company of other old compatriots from his WPA days such as de Kooning and, older still, Pollock, as well as new friends such as the composer Morton Feldman. In downtown Manhattan, surrounded by the “new” painting, Guston himself took the path cleared by Mondrian (this nesting doll of a history is unpacked brilliantly in Storr’s book) and disintegrated his figures into expanses of marks. These ghostly canvases call to mind exploded crosshatching—the representation of light and texture on paper blown out in atomic ’50s space. They have the smell of my grandparents’ long hallway—of wood paneling and framed prints of figures and brushy voids. In these years in New York and Woodstock, in a succession of studios Ashton called “dim retreats,”13 Guston would often refer to creation from a void, to pigment as life-giving: “The paint was a living thing. It was living matter. It was not inert.”14 

Philip Guston, Painter II, 1959–60, oil on canvas, 69 × 57". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

THE FIGURES began to reassert themselves in the black-and-gray abstract compositions with Painter II, 1959–60, and carried on throughout the ’60s, floating noggins like private dicks in Sunday film matinees. Guston would later remember: “I was definitely becoming involved with some kind of figuration again, even though I couldn’t name it. The unnameable. I definitely was heading towards a figuration, but I wanted it done all at once, just as I did in the earlier, more simple, reduced paintings that I have shown.”15 In those years, Godfrey notes,16 Guston gave two interviews, one with Ashton and one with Harold Rosenberg, in which he spoke of a golem, the figure of Jewish folklore made from the mud of Prague to defend the Jews of the city from pogroms. I can imagine the golem as a painted being emerging from pigment or as the painter himself—a man who created himself from paint: not Goldstein but Guston, an autodidact holding forth on music, art, and literature. But let’s not get confused: Guston was not a holy man. Like Bellow and Roth, he partook of the pleasures of the flesh. He ate and drank too much and cheated on his wife. He was not an ascetic like Barnett Newman nor a mystic like Clyfford Still, but was of the earth, destined never to grow old or rich, but to die after a final, prolonged burst of paint life that still has the power to disorient an entire museum.

Talking in 1968 to his then closest confidante, Morton Feldman, Guston noted that he had lately been reading Treblinka (1966), Jean-François Steiner’s account of the concentration camp. He wondered at what was necessary to make the killing efficient: “And one of the problems was to take care of the incredulity of the tormentors. To benumb the killers, the guards of the camp, just as they had to benumb the victims.”17 Guston, aware that his kind were the victims, asked, like Babel amid his Cossacks, what life was like among the killers. What enabled humans to inflict horrors on one another? This was not idle curiosity. He must have thought of his own family and the confessed shame of his name change—of the lineage he broke. Guston was wondering, as he had since his youth, what lay beneath the mask—his own and others’. That year, in the wake of these memories, in the wake of the grotesque violence at the Democratic National Convention and elsewhere, the hoods returned, and the artist spent his final decade exploring life behind the mask. 

Dan Nadel is curator at large for the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, University of California, Davis. His most recent book is Peter Saul: Professional Artist Correspondence, 1945–1976 (Bad Dimension Press).


1. The finest account of Jewish life today is Josh and Benny Safdie’s 2019 movie Uncut Gems, which walks some of the same fault lines as the rest of the paragraph. While I have you, here’s a friendly suggestion: Why not live a little and watch a clip at random of Dangerfield on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson or Rivers on The Howard Stern Show?

2. Jason Farago, “The Philip Guston Show Should Be Reinstated,” New York Times, October 1, 2020. Let’s face it: When you postpone a wedding and then marry someone else, generally you refer to the first wedding as canceled, not postponed.

3. Hrag Vartanian, “Gallery of Art Director Discusses the Decision to Delay the Philip Guston Exhibition,” Hyperallergic, October 1, 2020,

4. Philip Guston, Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, ed. Clark Coolidge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 228. Roth and Guston were close friends while living in Woodstock in the early 1970s. Poor Richard was drawn in response to Roth’s Nixon satire Our Gang (1971). After his first heart attack, in 1979, Guston asked that Roth, Morton Feldman, and Ross Feld recite the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning, at his funeral. 

5. For a higher-body-count but equally compelling look at the collateral damage of an artist’s life, see Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2002).

6. The Arensberg home would for the next couple of decades be a place of great importance for American art. It was there that Walter Hopps and William Copley each received their formative educations, and it was the Arensbergs who were the Surrealist anchor on the West Coast, particularly for Marcel Duchamp. This history is brilliantly examined in the recent volume Hollywood Arensberg: Avant-Garde Collecting in Midcentury L.A., by Mark Nelson, William H. Sherman, and Ellen Hoobler (Los Angeles: Getty, 2020).

7. Guston, “Conversation with Morton Feldman,” in Collected Writings, 81.

8. Mark Godfrey’s writing and generous conversation greatly informed my thinking about the Jew Guston was and was not, as well as the painter’s possible perception of the Holocaust. 

9. Dore Ashton, Philip Guston (New York: Grove, 1960), 13.

10. Guston, “Talk at Yale Summer School of Music and Art,” in Collected Writings, 214–15.

11. In his 1949 essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” Theodor Adorno famously declared, “After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.” This topic is also covered in Mark Godfrey’s book Abstraction and the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

12. Robert Storr, Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting (London: Lawrence King, 2020), 50.

13. Ashton, 7.

14. Guston, “Talk at Yale Summer School,” 218.

15. Guston, “Talk at Yale Summer School,” 219.

16. Mark Godfrey, “Jewish Image-Maker,” in Philip Guston Now, ed. David Frankel (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2020), 197.

17. “Conversation with Morton Feldman,” 80.