As Kristof Santy’s first solo exhibition with Unit London enters its final few days, we explored the artist’s greatest influence. Santy cites the Canadian American painter, printmaker, muralist and draftsman, Philip Guston (1913-1980), as his most important inspiration. Here, we take a closer look at Philip Guston’s artistic development and how his work has shaped Santy’s visual language, as well as his broader influence on abstract and figurative contemporary art.
What was Philip Guston known for and who was he inspired by?
Philip Guston is best known for his perceptive and cartoonish artworks that span a wide range of varying subject matters. Principally a self-taught artist, his works cover everyday scenes, satirical narratives and socio-political commentaries that confront racism, antisemitism, fascism and American identity. Early in his artistic development, Guston was inspired by Renaissance masters, such as Michelangelo, Giotto and Piero della Francesca. These Old Masters would continue to fascinate Guston for the rest of his life. After a trip to Los Angeles with Jackson Pollock, Guston became fascinated by the prominent Mexican muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Riviera, along with the surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. In 1930, he completed his first major painting entitled Mother and Child. The painting’s monumental mother figure, with her prominent muscles and undulating curves, was typical of Guston’s style in his early career, which was interested in mysterious and dreamlike compositions. These visual elements of Guston’s style can be found in Kristof Santy’s work, whose figures mirror the same stocky and staunch qualities and inhabit a world with a similarly simplified aesthetic. Both Guston and Santy depict these everyday narratives in unusual ways, drawing attention to the parts of life we might perhaps overlook.
Philip Guston, Mother and Child, c.1930, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm (Credit: https://ocula.com/art-galleries/hauser-wirth/artworks/philip-guston/mother-and-child/)
In the 1930s, Guston also produced his first political works, creating a number of murals that responded to social injustices. In 1932, Guston conceived an indoor mural to fundraise for the defendants of the Scottsboro Boy’s Trial, nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused and sentenced to death. The mural was subsequently defaced by local police and irreversibly damaged. Another of Guston’s most celebrated works from this era was his mural at Museo Michoacano in Morelia, Mexico. The Struggle Against War and Fascism (1934-35), which received great attention in the United States, takes viewers on a journey of persecution and discrimination, from the Middle Ages to the Second World War.
Philip Guston, Reuben Kadish, Jules Langsner, The Struggle Against War and Fascism, 1934-1935, 1220cm high, Museo Michoacano. (Credit: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/518295)
Philip Guston and Abstract Expressionism
In the 1950s, Guston’s style began to shift as he achieved success as a first-generation abstract expressionist. The movement was already at its peak and Guston was personally close with prominent abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, with whom he shared an apartment when he first moved to New York City. During this period, Guston’s pieces focused on form, colour and mark making. Gestural strokes occupied the centre of his canvases, recalling the aesthetics of established abstract artists such as Joan Mitchell and Willem de Kooning. In his painting Zone (1953-1954), a mist of cross-hatched marks of colour float against a tonally subdued background of pinks and blues. Unlike his earlier, more figurative works, Guston’s abstract paintings suggest a sense of calm that avoids narrative or political messaging. This use of vivid colour and avoidance of narrative has influenced Kristof Santy’s own work, which depicts everyday items in rich tones and larger than life perspectives. Equally, Santy evades any sense narrative in his artworks, eluding specificity to emphasise the universal nature of each piece.
Philip Guston, Zone, 1953-1954, oil on canvas, 116.8 x 121.9 cm (Credit: https://www.mutualart.com/Artwork/Zone/8ACC618506EE7FF8)
How did Philip Guston’s career evolve?
By the 1960s, Guston had decisively renounced abstract expressionism to help develop an adapted form of representational art known as neo-expressionism. He shifted to a darker, figurative style that included politically barbed satirical drawings of the American president, Richard Nixon, during the Vietnam war. During this period, Guston began increasingly to incorporate images of hooded figures into his artworks. These provocative figures had appeared in earlier works, but later became the artist’s most recognisable motif. The hooded figures represent members of the Klu Klux Klan, acting as visual symbols of evil. During the 1960s, the political climate in the United States encouraged Guston’s transition away from a purely abstract visual language. Guston felt that there were subjects that he could not ignore, stating: “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”
Philip Guston, Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971 (Credit: https://www.apollo-magazine.com/philip-guston-nixon-drawings-satire/)
Philip Guston, Open Window II, 1969 (Credit: https://www.artnews.com/feature/philip-gustons-kkk-paintings-history-meaning-1234572056/)
Guston’s Klan images were set to be part of an international touring retrospective in 2020, sponsored by the National Gallery of Art, Tate Modern, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. However, the exhibition was postponed. The delay to the exhibition resulted in a backlash from members of the artistic community, who felt that Guston’s depictions of racial and social issues were as relevant in 2020 as ever, forcing viewers to stare, however uncomfortably, at the face of injustice and evil.