Philip Guston

The Tormentors

Guston The Tormentors Sf Mo Ma 1500 - © The Estate of Philip Guston. Photo: Ben Blackwell
  • Philip Guston
  • The Tormentors
  • 1947–48
  • Öl auf Leinwand
  • 103.9 x 153.7 cm
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Gift of the Artist - © The Estate of Philip Guston. Photo: Ben Blackwell

The Tormentors (1947–48) was the first of several transitional paintings that marked Philip Guston’s gradual shift from figurative to nonobjective painting. Previously an acclaimed muralist, Guston had returned to easel painting in the early 1940s, during which time he developed a style that combined elements of realism, myth, and abstraction. Building his compositions with flat planes, the artist would initially sketch his subject matter rather literally, and then erase most of the representational elements. However, it was not until in 1947, when he befriended abstract painter Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899–1953) that the distinction between figure and ground in Guston’s work also began to diminish, as in the case of The Tormentors. The painting hovers between figuration and abstraction, as the artist draws a network of irregular and geometric shapes in white outlines, filling in others with flat ocher and red paint. The title and shapes are clearly suggestive of the worldly conflicts that were so palpable in Guston’s earlier work, some of which depicted racial injustice. The triangular shapes traced in white, for instance, evoke the hoods of Klansmen. While working on The Tormentors, Guston was preoccupied with his own struggle to reconcile representation with abstraction. He eventually abandoned painting for a year between 1948 and 1949, before venturing determinedly into abstract expressionism. But even after he appeared to have sided with abstraction, he would still proclaim that there is no such thing as nonobjective art: “Everything has an object, has a figure. The question is what kind?”

Tim Roerig

Biography of Philip Guston

  • Born 1913 in Montreal, Canada
  • Died 1980 in Woodstock, NY, USA
Philip Guston was an artist of the first-generation New York School whose later paintings led the transition to Neoexpressionism. He moved with his family from Montreal to Los Angeles at age six. Beginning in 1927 he attended the Manual Arts High School, where he met his fellow student Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). In 1930 Guston attended the Otis Art Institute on a scholarship but left after three months. He was already politically aware by age eighteen, and when his mural depicting racial injustice for the Marxist-leaning John Reed Club in Los Angeles (1931) was defaced by police, the incident only escalated his ideological bent. In the mid-1930s Guston painted murals for the U.S. Works Progress Administration, as well as in Mexico (The Struggle Against War and Terror, 1935). He began to work in abstraction in the late 1940s and became part of the first generation New York School after settling in New York in 1950. In the late 1960s Guston returned to a less abstract, more figurative style, in which he addressed many of the political themes from his earlier work.