Phillip Guston, The Porch, 1945. Oil on canvas. Festival of Arts Purchase Fund 1948-10-1
Collection Highlight

When he was ten years old, his father hanged himself. Guston discovered the body and cut it down. The first images he began making as a teen were of hooded figures evoking the Ku Klux Klan, which was burning crosses and breaking labor strikes in Los Angeles during his youth. In the 1930s, the artist moved to New York, where he painted Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals sponsored by the federal government as part of the New Deal. At that time, he changed his name from Goldstein to Guston.

In addition to the work of the Mexican muralists (particularly José Orozco and David Siqueiros), Guston responded to Italian Renaissance painting (especially that of Piero della Francesca) and the work of European modernists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Pablo Picasso, and Max Beckmann. In 1945 Guston began teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, where he had the opportunity to study Beckmann's paintings firsthand. After World War II, he spent time in an artists' colony in Woodstock, New York, and traveled to Europe on a Prix de Rome fellowship. He returned to New York City in the 1950s and became a key member of the abstract expressionist group, which included his long-time friend Jackson Pollock.

All of Guston's early influences are woven into the composition and style of The Porch, which depicts a group of children dressed as street performers playing musical instruments. The figures occupy a compressed cubist space divided by two white lines forming a cross. Italianate architecture appears in the background at the upper left. Figures at the left play cymbals and a horn, while to the right a masked harlequin lifts the sole of his shoe to the viewer. In the foreground are two children, one with a paper hat and another playing a drum. The palette and the nature of the architectural forms recall both Piero della Francesca and de Chirico. The stylistic treatment of the theme of performers, musicians, and harlequins evokes the work of Picasso and Beckmann, both of whom often used performers as surrogates of the artist.

Text by Brenda Mitchell, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008