Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00


Philip Guston

By John Heliker

It is my deep conviction that Philip Guston was one of the most significant American painters of our time, and his death this past spring was a great loss to the art world. In this brief tribute I will not attempt to discuss his work, which has already been given a great deal of attention by those better qualified to do so than myself. Instead I would rather say a few words about my personal relations with him, for Philip was a close friend and his death was a great personal loss to me.

In 1948, a year after I met Philip, we both received a Rome Fellowship, and in October of that year we sailed for Naples together. At that time Philip was very depressed about his work, dissatisfied with what he was doing, and determined to break new ground. Much of our earliest conversations were concerned with his aesthetic problems, and since he had a brilliant intellect, his self-questioning was a remarkable education for me. It was characteristic of Philip that his concern was exclusively with the quality of his work, with no concern about the possible consequences a change in his style might have on his career. As an artist he had great courage and integrity, and even though change was painful to him, and meant rejecting much of his earlier painting, his sole criterion was what the best way was to fulfill himself as an artist in his work. He was well aware that a drastic change in his style would mean neglect from those who preferred his earlier painting and much criticism from those who did not understand his latest work, but once he felt a change was necessary, he changed, regardless of the consequences. For Philip, in Rilke’s words, “staying is nowhere.”

During our early days in Rome we took many long walks, and I am still deeply moved by the memory of a morning on one of our first days there. We were walking down into Trastevere from the Janiculum, when suddenly we were confronted by a dead-end wall, one of those marvelous ancient surfaces stained by time and the elements, pulsating with the life of that ancient place. We both came to a halt, and suddenly Philip let out a great shout of joy. I was deeply moved by the intensity of his reaction, his capacity to respond to a visual experience openly and passionately, without inhibition, with an almost childlike openness to experience. I never learned why that particular wall in a Roman slum was so liberating for him. But I now know that one element in his genius was a generosity of experience which enabled him to open himself to beauty wherever it might be found.

After Rome, on returning to New York, I often visited Philip in his studio on 10th Street and there we had many long conversations which were very sustaining and helpful to me in regard to the direction my own painting was taking at that time. One of the most positive aspects of his personality was his intense awareness of others’ needs; his insight into the creative problems of fellow artists was profound and penetrating. He was especially sympathetic to young artists and was a very stimulating and creative teacher.

In closing I would like to quote briefly from Dore Ashton’s book Yes But, a particularly fine and penetrating analysis of Philip’s career. She wrote: “The twentieth century posed its question, which was very nearly this: Is there any beauty, in and of itself, or is there ‘meaning’ in painting that denies aesthetic value? And Guston answered, Yes, but … Yes: an affirmation of the meaning not so much of painting pictures, but of creating images. But: on the other hand, yes to the obstacles and intrusions of the world too.”

Dore Ashton also mentions the following quotation from Dickens, which Philip’s wife Musa had found, and which he had lettered large and placed on his studio wall:

“I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands on me, and sometimes for months together put everything else away from me …. Whoever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it.”

This epitomized Philip’s attitude toward his work. And it was the way he lived his life.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters