The Guston Foundation: The Maintenance of Philip Gustons Legacy
In 2012, Musa Mayer initiated the Guston Foundation, dedicated to maintaining the legacy of her father, artist Philip Guston (1913–1980). It had become evident that Guston’s life and work needed to be available both to researchers and the general public. His reputation, always strong, continues to rise; even among the major New York School artists, Guston’s place in the canon is now seen as distinctive. Today, he is regarded as a painter of consequence, one whose interests included clearly asserted social concerns, among other themes. At ten years old, The Guston Foundation is likely the best resource to seek support for the factual study of Guston and his work.
On both an esthetic and social level, Guston showed unusual courage from the beginnings of his career, an attribute stemming from a resolute honesty in both his person and his work. In addition to his remarkably subtle abstract work, beautiful in its self-containment, Guston’s paintings remind us that the art world also needs to support art as a vehicle for social awareness. Various writers and scholars have noted the passion and deep political concern Guston showed in his early painting efforts, as well as in the 1970s, toward the end of his active life as a painter. In the 1930s, his art was directly political, as evidenced by the work Drawing for Conspirators (1930), made with graphite pencil, pen, and ink. It depicts, in the foreground, a large man dressed in the clothes of the Ku Klux Klan, holding a thick rope. Behind him, along a wall, are a group of similarly dressed figures, who appear to be taking down a wooden cross—the symbolism of unredeemed suffering is clear.
The painting Gladiators, made in 1940, shows the influence of the Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974), whose epic style and political stance influenced Guston strongly as a young painter. A complicated painting with many overlapping elements, Gladiators portrays a dog, an enmeshed group of headless figures (one of them holding a gray shield that would reappear in Guston’s work in the 1970s), and a strong feeling of conflict. In his later, equally politicized art, Guston incorporated both politics and autobiography. In The Studio (1969), the artist depicts a figure (perhaps Guston himself) painting a self-portrait in a long, Klan-like white hood. The figure smokes a cigar while on the wall, a clock marches inevitably toward the greater age and mortality we are heir to—the late paintings often merge personal comment with social criticism. But the emphasis in The Studio is clearly politically driven; by returning to the charged Ku Klux Klan imagery, it is likely Guston was suggesting America’s struggle with racism was not over. And in As It Goes (1978), Guston painted a wristwatch and glasses on a round red table, behind which we see a welter of rounded shields held by fists in an aggressive position. The items on the table likely refer to Guston’s personal effects, along with the militant stance we note in the group of shields.
Guston’s daughter, the noted writer Musa Mayer, led a varied life before devoting herself to the memory of her father through Foundation activities. She spent many years working as a mental health counselor in Ohio. Then she decided, during her period of study in creative writing at Columbia University, to write the highly regarded Night Studio, a memoir of her relations with her father. Published in 1988, the book continues to attract a readership; the fifth edition will come out soon. A year after the book’s first printing, Mayer developed breast cancer. She detailed her experience of the disease in another memoir, published in 1993: Examining Myself: One Woman’s Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery.
Following her illness, Mayer devoted her life to advocacy for breast cancer patients for the next twenty years. After her careers in counseling and in the support of cancer patients, she decided to establish The Guston Foundation in her father’s studio in upstate New York, near Woodstock. The studio, originally an ungainly space constructed from cinder blocks, has since been renovated, keeping the interior as close to the original as possible; now it is the workspace of the Foundation. Several walls of the studio are covered with small reproductions of Guston’s art, along with captions detailing the particulars, as a way of tracking the artist’s body of work. Six employees work on-site, and two web developers are employed remotely. The on-site staff focus on archival activities and documentation of Guston’s work, while the developers continue to build and maintain the Foundation’s website, PhilipGuston.org. The employees also work on checking the color accuracy of reproductions used in books and articles about Guston and other projects, an involved process when replicating the work of an artist who was fastidious about color.
From New York City, a trip to the Guston Foundation takes a while. On a recent summer morning at the Port Authority, I boarded a bus bound for Kingston, one hundred miles north of Manhattan up the Hudson River. From Kingston, the Guston Foundation’s offices are another fifteen-minute drive west. For a number of years, the Guston family summered in the area before purchasing the current property in the 1950s. The family moved there permanently in 1967, and built a studio for the artist to work in. Guston’s painting habits were unusual—he often painted all night, resting or sleeping a couple of hours, and then returning to the studio. Today, the space is bare of actual artwork; with the exception of a panel, in which Guston copied an inspiring quote from Dickens, nothing original exists on the walls. Only the hard surface Guston painted on over the years, the painting wall, is present (Guston liked hard surfaces and used to tack his canvases to this support). Sometimes the wooden brace is still used for Foundation activities such as putting up images of Guston’s work for study and archival purposes.
The comfortable, well-lit workspace is only steps away from the Guston home, where Mayer now lives. The home is separate from the Foundation's office, where Executive Director Sally Radic oversees the day-to-day activities. Radic has had a long, accomplished career in art. Before accepting the offer to run The Guston Foundation, she worked in Spain, as a curator at the Museum Reina Sofia in Madrid, and as a professor at a Jesuit university in Bilbao. And later, as cultural director for the Bancaja Foundation in Valencia, Radic put together more than forty international exhibitions and curated twelve shows of Picasso’s graphics. Radic works closely with Mayer, whose title is President of the Board of Directors of the Guston Foundation. Because Mayer’s home is so close to the office, she regularly comes in and helps direct current projects. Other members of the Board include Tom Mayer as Vice President and Secretary, Rick Reder as Treasurer, and Pamela Mayer and Michael Conforti.
In the office area, the Foundation’s six employees continue work on the catalogue raisonné of the paintings and drawings Guston produced. The group has mostly finished its work on the paintings, although, inevitably, previously unknown pieces occasionally still emerge. Radic indicated during conversation that, now, since the catalogue of Guston’s paintings is finished and the website launched, efforts have begun to document the drawings. Near the end of his career, Guston originated a large body of work in this medium, so there is still much to be done. The Foundation expands upon this responsibility by helping authors and scholars with research, fact checking, and provision of images, without fee.
Collaborating with writers, publishers, galleries, and museums who are working on projects addressing Guston’s life and art, the Foundation plays an important role in developing and fact checking written materials. Given that the Foundation aims to promote as high a degree of certainty as possible, it’s a necessarily demanding task. For example, contemporary art writer and scholar Robert Storr was supported in his research for the major monograph Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting, which was published in 2020 by Lawrence King. Facilitating a project like Storr’s study is central to The Guston Foundation’s purpose, which is to expand the audience for the artist’s work.
Mayer and Radic feel the focus of the Foundation should be to establish, maintain, and promote a legacy of Guston’s notable achievements. Current interest in his contributions to art runs high; in the last twenty years, the painter has become a hero to recent generations of artists just starting out. Youthful painters are taken with his strength of character. His force as a person and artist is especially notable in his change from the more viewer-friendly Abstract Expressionist work, produced during the early to the mid-1940s, to a much bolder and rougher realism that represented his response to the social and political changes of the late 1960s and 1970s. As an example, Guston’s abstract painting Native’s Return (1957) is a forceful square mass of small irregular panels, whose hues include blue (primarily), red, pink, green, and black. The parts coalesce into a collective entirety with skill and a fine sense of color. This kind of work was very popular while Guston made it, but the much more raw, confrontational style that followed, in which the artist paid attention to both personal concerns and public ones, was at first rejected. In The Street (1977), the artist depicts a confrontation. Visually, the painting seems sectioned into three parts. On the left, a large number of thin legs end in shoes whose hobnail soles look quite menacing; in the middle, a group of pink fists grasp dark and light garbage can lids facing the legs and shoes; and on the right, a rust-red, large-handled garbage can is filled mostly with empty liquor bottles. The contrasts between the two styles could not be more extreme. Despite Guston experienced sharp criticism for his later work, ythese paintings are now his most recognized.
Despite the initially negative response to his final efforts, this body of work now stands as a monument to his creative self-determination. His lack of refinement is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Many beginning painters, searching for a frankness of motive, are inspired by Guston’s efforts. Both the moral and stylistic implications of Guston’s work support the social and internal determination of this new generation. Guston intuited American civic problems very early on; his Ku Klux Klan figures, central to his output at the beginning of his career in the 1930s, were clear indictments of American prejudice.
Guston’s involvement in these issues appear to be a reaction to elements in American society, certainly evident in the earlier part of the twentieth century, but also ongoing through the 1970s, when he returned to confronting racism. Indeed, when he revisited the subject matter, it seems that the paintings were a condemnation, ongoing, for white Americans’ indifference to Black suffering. So his use of Ku Klux Klan imagery was a reminder, indeed a warning, that racism had not dissipated. In 2020, when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, delayed a long-anticipated Guston retrospective, the decision indicated worry that audiences might not understand the Ku Klux Klan imagery. But early and late in Guston’s career, it was clear that he was evidencing solidarity with the confrontation of racism. Of course, other artists felt similarly, but Guston’s transparency of imagery is a powerful, uncompromising condemnation of American prejudice. Today, when the notion of social practice plays so large a role in current art endeavors, Guston’s influence stands out as an early example of the concern and anger many have felt in regard to racial bias.
In keeping with Guston’s themes, the Foundation’s mission has been enhanced by its support of social justice, as well as his art. Though the Foundation does not support grants for individual artists, a companion foundation, The Guston Fund, does make grants to charitable foundations, devoting attention to Guston’s lifelong concern with what he called the “barbarity of the world.” Created in 2019, the Fund serves diverse philanthropic aims that focus not only on arts and cultural organizations, but also on social justice, at-risk and underserved populations, medical research, and patient support and advocacy.
One art organization receiving funding is Art for Justice, which describes its mission as “ending mass incarceration and underlying racial bias through art and advocacy.” Other organizations or institutions benefitted by the Guston Fund’s philanthropy include the artists’ residencies Yaddo and MacDowell, the American Academy in Rome, and the Vermont Studio Center. The Studio School in New York City is likewise supported. Undertakings in theater and music are funded as well. As Mayer has indicated, these grants support arts organizations dedicated to helping artists, extending support to the group in order that its members may benefit as well. Moreover, as Mayer correctly points out, by staying close to Guston’s values in contemporary times, the Foundation serves artists in light of larger social interests. They move outward toward engagement with the real world, not always toward the relatively constrained boundaries of art alone, or the support of individuals. Thus, the Guston Fund’s engagement with organizations, meant to reflect current social interests, such as environmental preservation and access to health care, continue to preserve Guston’s far-reaching commitment to reducing want.
Recently, in the last few decades, the art world increasingly has been driven by the need to preserve artistic legacy, planning for the work of current artists after they pass away. In Guston’s case, that future, existing now several decades following his death, is being handled by the Guston Foundation in a highly effective and useful manner. A major, ongoing goal is to expand Guston’s audience, which can now be done through the internet with little difficulty. The Foundation’s catalogue raisonné of Guston’s paintings is currently available on the website for free, making access to the catalogue nearly limitless. As a scholarly resource, the catalogue raisonné is immensely useful to those who want to research the trajectory of Guston’s career. At the same time, anyone registering with the Guston site can study the paintings easily on their own. The enterprise is highly democratic, meaning that scholars, artists, students, and the general public have access to the imagery and chronology of Guston’s work.
All of Guston’s art—its beginnings as an outcry for justice in the 1930s, followed by his murals influenced by the Mexican muralists in the 1940s; his Abstract Expressionist period, notable for its colorful sensitivity; and the inspired, demotic art he began developing in the later 1960s—remains significant more than forty years after his death. The Foundation’s task has been to make sure that the circumstances surrounding the art, as well as the need to promulgate the art as widely as possible, are accurate and open to focused study. And, additionally, the Foundation is oriented toward public responsibility, in which today’s concerns, an extension of the social problems Guston described decades earlier, are treated actively.
Because contemporary artists, even while still alive, are increasingly determined to establish foundations, there is a growing awareness and interest in the practice of undertakings brought into play by an institution such as the Guston Foundation. Now that we have a strong wish to preserve contemporary art, so that it remains undamaged, and scholars in the future can work more accurately, the Guston Foundation is setting a useful precedent. By accomplishing so much within its first decade, the Foundation is not only evidencing its interest in an accurate treatment of the life and work of Guston, it also is providing a model for other artists working to keep their art visible and alive. What is particularly commendable about the Guston Foundation is its support of social justice, accompanying its art archival efforts. As a template for commitment, the Guston Foundation stays true to the additional purpose of Guston himself, demonstrating how art and social interests can merge in original ways.
Before I left to return to New York City, Mayer was kind enough to invite me into the Guston home. The rooms were small but immaculately kept, their walls hung with work by the artist. The art was remarkable; there is, in the living room, a late painting: a red hand clenched in a fist except for the index finger, pointing powerfully to the left. It is as if God were giving us directions. Guston’s strength, as a person and artist, enabled him to imbue even the simplest of images with remarkable meaningfulness, including spiritual suggestion. Symbolism was always a part of Guston’s view; he worked in a way that made the painting larger than the sum of its parts. What comes through is the artist’s drive to describe a content made available to all of us. As an artist, Guston wanted to address as large an audience as possible. As a result, the Foundation also sees this as its mandate. Accessibility is key: with free registration, the catalogue raisonné is available to anyone for use online. Given the huge audience tied into the internet, the goal of extended outreach is more than possible. Mayer and Radic are to be thanked for their ongoing efforts to establish a site online and in actuality, in which Guston’s art becomes a call for an expansive understanding of both motive and form. The forthrightness of Guston’s point of view, abstract or figurative, private or public, thus will receive the attention it deserves.