To his artistic peers and to subsequent generations of artists, Philip Guston was a painter's painter. He epitomized the Modernist paradigm that questioned the formulaic boundaries of painting and was in the artistic vanguard at two critical junctures in American 20th century art. Guston preferred to grapple with the questions on the nature of Art and to pursue one's own individual style of image-making. His continuous challenge of established tenets led Guston to play a crucial role in two transformative stylistic developments in American contemporary art that at first appear to be diametrically opposed: the abstract expressionist movement of the late 1940s and 1950s, and the renaissance of figuration in the ``New Image'' painting of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Beggar's Joys is a masterpiece from his first major innovative transition in which he moved away from the figurative painting of Social Realism of the 1930s toward his unique brand of abstraction in the early 1950s. The feathery brushstrokes, internal energy, compelling beauty, complex structure, and delicately shimmering color of Beggar's Joys are all a testament to Guston's refusal to accept predetermined truisms about the creative process and to the glorious achievements that resulted from his aesthetic explorations.
Guston's oeuvre shifts from the opposite poles of objective and non-objective painting, signaling that the key issue for this artist was the on-going creative journey. As such, Guston's great task was not only to go beyond the attempts of outside observers to judge and define his work, but to subvert his own previous aesthetic assumptions as he evolved stylistically. As he is often quoted as saying in a 1966 article titled Faith, Hope and Impossibility, ``To paint is always to start at the beginning again, yet being unable to avoid familiar arguments about what you see yourself painting. The canvas you are working on modifies all previous ones in an unending baffling chain which never seems to finish. For me the most relevant question and perhaps the only one is `When are you finished?' When do you stop? Or rather why stop at all.'' (Art News Annual XXXI, 1966, October 1965, p. 101). The controversial shifts in his aesthetic style were always first questioned by art critics or fellow artists, only to be later heralded as dramatic contributions to American painting.
Guston's non-objective and abstract paintings of the 1950s, among which Beggar's Joys is an important, rare and superb example, were created toward the later stages of the birth of the New York school in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The timing of his emergence as an abstractionist in the 1950s with solo exhibitions at such key venues of Abstract Expressionism as the Peridot Gallery (1952), the Charles Egan Gallery (1953) and Sidney Janis Gallery (1956, 1958 and 1959) emphasized his association with fellow artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. However, Guston never fit easily into the canons of Abstract Expressionist art or Action Painting. He was largely a self-taught painter who meticulously studied the early Modernists as well as Renaissance art, drawing inspiration from figures as disparate as Piero della Francesco and Piet Mondrian. Toward the end of the 1930s, Guston was disillusioned with the realistic and narrative nature of Social Realism, and gradually moved toward abstraction. Vaguely recognizable forms dissolved into a chromatically flattened pictorial space. In 1947, Guston moved to the countryside of Woodstock, setting up a dual existence between urban and rural New York that would continue for the remainder of his life. Upon his return to New York from a year in Rome in 1948, Guston would join fellow New York City artists at the Cedar Tavern and the Artist's Club, where the fierce debate and intense creative ferment had given birth to the soon to be fabled `` New York school''. But his own experimental struggle for a new direction took place in the isolation of his Woodstock studio and home. There, abstract shapes – most often red and black in color – continued to emerge in paintings such as Red Painting (1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York), but it was not until shapes completely disappear and individual brushstrokes take precedence that Guston discovered his singular path toward abstract mark-making.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Guston turned toward drawing as a source of inspiration, primarily the lyrically linear ink drawings done in Ischia while in Europe. Bradley Walker Tomlin was a neighbor in Woodstock and their mutual friend Morton Feldman recalled the two talking for hours about the character of a single brushstroke. Possessing an extraordinary touch in handling oil pigment and a gifted sense of color, Guston's work of the early 1950s became reductive as he strove to find a balance between formalist structure and his innate love for the optical beauty of tactile paint. In this balancing act, Guston shared a common concern with other artists of the New York School – would pure abstraction lead to a loss of form or unifying composition? Could great artistic expression be contained solely in the pure properties of paint? Some artists, such as Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, addressed the questions with the massive scale of their canvas and the broadness of their painterly gesture. Other artists, such as Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, sought to capture the essence of art and its metaphysical resonance. Guston's solution in Beggar's Joys and the other nuanced canvases of the 1950s was unique among Abstract Expressionists. Guston maintained the intimate relationship and scale of easel painting, where his brushwork remained in proportion to the canvas and to the optical field of the viewer. Even as paintings such as Beggar's Joys became modestly larger, Guston stood close up to the canvas surface as he painted. As he wrote of this time, ``The desire for direct expression finally became so strong that even the interval necessary to reach back to the palette beside me became too long...I forced myself to paint the entire work without stepping back to look at it.'' (Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Philip Guston, 1962, p. 20).
Guston's paintings, including Beggar's Joys, were included in Dorothy Miller's show 12 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956, announcing the arrival of the lush and sensuous canvases that would later be described as ``that beautiful land'' by John Cage. In Beggar's Joys, Guston broke down form into ravishing, gently undulating strokes that hovered within a barely discernable yet innately cohesive structure. A master of color, Guston orchestrates a thrilling interplay of lush reds, warm whites and pearly grays, enlivened by subtle hints of green and orange. The 1950s canvases are potent beyond their size, projecting an energy and intensity that generate from the tension between deconstruction, gestural expression, and organizational principles. An atmospheric quality permeates Beggar's Joys, and such intimate works led critics to refer erroneously to impressionistic qualities akin to Monet. Guston's painterly surfaces were in fact a pain-staking process of layer upon layer of strokes and erasures, painted wet on wet, building up a sculpted surface. Within these works, Guston retained the structure of his drawings, and with the addition of the tactile and textured properties of paint, the skeleton was given flesh, a process the artist eloquently described in 1956 as the ``narrow passage from a diagramming to that other state – a corporeality.'' (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 12 Americans, 1956)
Art historians and critics have often noted the warring tendencies in the greatest of Guston's painting. The physicality of paint and the magic of the brushstroke vied for equal attention with the more philosophical qualities of art. As Guston was initially a figurative painter, critics were at first unreceptive to the abstractions of 1950-1954; yet fellow artists recognized the quality of the work and Guston's mastery of the medium. As Andrew Graham-Dixon noted in the 2003 retrospective, ``Guston laid claim to a special immediacy and intimacy related to `touch'....Guston had his pigments ground to create a particularly creamy consistency, and like thick butter applied to a hard surface, each stroke subtly squeezed out at its edges, creating a micro-sculptural effect'' (Ibid., Ft. Worth, p. 41) On the other hand, it is no coincidence that Piet Mondrian was the abstract painter who most profoundly influenced Guston, and Elaine de Kooning recalled the artist studying Mondrian's drawings for his ``plus-minus'' paintings with great concentration. ``It wasn't the geometry of Mondrian that interested Guston, but the scaffolding. In Guston's hands, however, that scaffolding would not sit as a static, ideal diagram, but would invariably shift and bend in search of a form in space.'' (Ibid., p. 43) Guston achieved the restraint and modality that is a common thread from his work to Mondrian and Rothko, just as his celebration of texture, color and paint is a creative link to the paintings of Clyfford Still and later artists such as Joan Mitchell. Rather than be constricted by the formulas of theorists such as Clement Greenberg who defined painting only by its physical properties of color, shape and support, Guston would not abandon the underlying symbolism or metaphysics of art. Ad Reinhardt's tonal masterpieces of the same period and Rothko's Multi-form paintings are perhaps the closest comparables to paintings such as Beggar's Joys. In the same maverick spirit, Guston authoritatively celebrated formalist concerns and painterly properties while he created subtle and soulful masterpieces of refined clarity. The title of Beggar's Joys acknowledges Guston's artistic journey just at the moment of his first critical acclaim as he joined Sidney Janis Gallery in late 1955 and was included in 12 Americans in 1956. As H. H. Arnason wrote for Guston's 1962 retrospective at the Guggenheim, ``Even in 1955, [Guston] was so impoverished that a friend was providing him with money for paints. The title of the painting, Beggar's Joys, reflects both his despondency at his beggar's condition and his exaltation in the final minutes of realizing this painting.'' (Ibid., Guggenheim Museum, p. 27) In addition to Guston's 1962 and 2003 retrospectives, Beggar's Joys was also included in several major touring exhibitions of American abstract art from the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1957 to the 1958-159 European tour and the 1963-1965 exhibition to Japan, India and Australia organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Oil on canvas
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 12 Americans, May – September 1956, p. 41, illustrated
Saõ Paulo, IV Bienal do Museu de Arte Moderna de Saõ Paulo, United States Pavilion, September 1957
Basel, Kunsthalle; Milan, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna; Madrid, Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo; Berlin, Hochschule für Bildende Künste; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne; London, The Tate Gallery; New York, The Museum of Modern Art, The New American Painting As Shown in Eight European Countries, April 1958 – September 1959, p. 43, cat. no. 26, illustrated
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery; Los Angeles, County Museum of Art, Philip Guston, May 1962 – June 1963, cat. no. 25, p. 62, illustrated
Fort Lauderdale Art Center; Memphis, Brooks Memorial Art Gallery; Jacksonville, Cummer Gallery of Art; Wilmington, Delaware Art Center; East Lansing, Michigan State University; Evansville, Evansville Public Museum; Roanoke Fine Arts Center; Vancouver Art Gallery; Fredericton, Beaverbrook Art Gallery; Kingston, Queen's University; Regina, Norman MacKensie Art Gallery; St. John's, University of Newfoundland; London Public Library and Art Museum; Victoria, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, American Impressionists: Two Generations, October 1963 – May 1965, cat. no. 12
Waltham, Brandeis University, Rose Art Museum, Philip Guston, A Selective Retrospective Exhibition: 1945 – 1965, February – March 1966, cat. no. 10
Tokyo, National Museum of Art; Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria; Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Two Decades of American Painting, October 1966 – January 1967, cat. no. 25, illustrated (Australia catalogue)
San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art; Washington D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; The Denver Art Museum; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Philip Guston, May 1980 – September 1981, cat. no. 25, pl. 17, p. 61, illustrated
Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; London, Royal Academy of Arts, Philip Guston Retrospective, March 2003 – April 2004, cat. no. 37, illustrated in color
71 1/8 x 68 1/8 in. 180.7 x 173.1 cm.
Dore Ashton, Philip Guston, New York, 1960, p. 22, illustrated
Dore Ashton, A Critical Study of Philip Guston, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1976, fig. no. 112, p. 107, illustrated
Robert Storr, Philip Guston, New York, 1986, p. 39 and illustrated in color on the frontispiece
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Boris and Sophie Leavitt, Hanover
Christie's, New York, Contemporary Art from the Boris Leavitt Collection, November 20, 1996, lot 4
Acquired by the present owner from the above