(Montreal, Canada, 1913 - 1980)
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Purchased, by exchange, with funds raised by the Masked Ball 1955-1963
Each object depicted here held deep personal meaning for Philip Guston. The whip on the right recalls the flagellation of Christ, a common Renaissance subject. Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ was one of the artist’s favorite paintings. The cigarette butts echo one of Guston’s bad habits. The shoes stand in for the image of man—rough and well-worn. The painting does not relate a specific story. Instead, Guston expresses his pensive musing on the human condition.
Opened Box, 1977
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Born in Montreal to poor Jewish immigrants from Russia, Philip Guston, whose birth name was Philip Goldstein, moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1919. The artist attended Otis Art Institute and, though he never graduated, later taught at several prestigious universities. After settling in New York in the 1950s, he moved permanently to Woodstock in 1967. Throughout his life he received much recognition, including international exhibitions and awards. In the late 1970s, Guston greatly influenced a return to figurative painting across the United States.
An ideal summation of Guston's work, Opened Box is a haunting commentary about the quest for meaning that unites many of his lifelong philosophical concerns. The canvas presents a scene as if it were a stage, but the unfolding drama is not clear. This is a world of allegory, with symbols, not facts.
The whip on the right evokes both art historical and personal references. It directly recalls Guston’s love of Piero della Francesca's great Renaissance fresco, The Flagellation of Christ, a reproduction of which hung in his home. Did Guston view the whip as punishment reserved for the seer, whether prophet or artist? The whip first appeared in his early drawings of a violent Klansman; later it appeared in an image of a figure flailing himself, a complex vision encompassing a guilt-ridden survivor, innocent humanity, and a suffering artist.
One could hardly construe Guston’s ominous wooden box as a toy chest or wedding chest; it seems too much a reliquary or coffin. Its primitive form may evoke the primordial box of Pandora, but instead of devils and pestilence, we see symbols of bedraggled humanity such as tongues and soles of shoes. To the scholar the soles may suggest the upturned horseshoes and shields in Paolo Uccello's Renaissance battle murals, which Guston greatly admired. To the student of recent history the empty clothing may recall the discarded belongings of Jews slaughtered in Nazi gas chambers. Those evil events had a deep impact on Guston. On a more prosaic level, the flat-footed and oversized shoes may suggest the routine tasks of living, the donning of worn clothing to stumble through the coming day.
Draped across the shoes is a knotted rope or chainlike cord. This form appears frequently in Guston's late paintings, usually hanging from the ceiling of an artist’s studio with a naked light bulb at its end. The cord can lead to darkness as well as illumination, however; here it may refer to the artist's traumatic childhood discovery of his father, who had hanged himself.
That Guston’s paintings contain humor may seem incongruous given his weighty themes. Nevertheless, his bumbling, flattened images with lumpy edges are directly inspired by the artist’s youthful interest in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics. And there are sometimes private jokes in the canvases. In Opened Box a tongue emerging from one of the shoes appears to slide toward cigarette butts, a reference to the artist's own nicotine habit. His humor often black, Guston took solace in the intellect but was demoralized by the dark side of human nature, by racial and religious prejudice, by abandonment and suffering.
Guston’s rumpled jacket and crumpled shoes in Opened Box are pitiful, even grotesque. But the artist was no nihilist. If his paintings reflect a loss of faith after the inhumanity of the Holocaust, his images of beleaguered shoes and suits can also be considered surrogates for human survival. And though he visualized a world where the clarity of reason no longer reigns, Guston refused to abandon hope. Instead, he continued the eternal quest for meaning.
- Mitchell D. Kahan, 2001
Ashton, Dore. Yes, but... A Critical Study of Philip Guston. New York: Viking, 1976. Revised ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Mayer, Musa. Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
Signed "Philip Guston" LR corner of red box