Art Market

Philip Guston’s Controversial Embrace of Figuration Still Shapes His Market

Samuel McIlhagga
Nov 3, 2020 6:41PM

In Michael Blackwood’s 2003 documentary Conversations with Philip Guston, we are given a portrait of the artist as a gentle giant. Guston, with his slow, lugubrious voice and ponderous manner, is hardly a typical enfant terrible set on shocking the art world and stirring up cultural controversy.

Yet Guston’s career, both when he was alive and posthumously, has been marked by controversy, misunderstanding, drops in popularity, and flops in market demand. This has partly been due to his changes in style and complicated political subject matter relating to racism in America and the Holocaust in Europe.

Guston was born in Montreal in 1913 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had fled violent pogroms in Odessa. His early life in California was marked by dire poverty and the Ku Klux Klan’s anti-Semitic, white supremacist, and anti-labor union activity. The artist’s relationship to the Klan was both personal and antithetical. One of his early left-wing murals was destroyed by a police “Red Squad,” many members of which were linked to the KKK.

Controversial and undervalued?


Guston was, according to Blackwood’s documentary, someone who still “fe[lt] underground” in old age because he was committed to “being free.” This freedom led to the production of work in Social Realist, Abstract Expressionist, and Expressionist figurative styles from the 1930s until his death in 1980. Because of his politics and diversity of style, Guston’s market value has never reached the soaring heights of other 20th-century Abstract Expressionists.

The difficulty of pinning Guston down to one easily understandable shorthand has led to his critically acclaimed work being consistently underpriced in comparison to peers such as Jackson Pollock in both the primary and secondary markets. For instance, Guston’s record auction result is a comparably modest $25.8 million, achieved at a Christie’s sale in 2013, while Pollock’s record, set during a private deal in 2016, is $200 million.

However, Guston’s cultural capital, measured in relevance and impact, has never been higher.

“If an artist no longer with us can be so catalytic in current international discourse, and can spark such intense debate and stir such passionate responses, that speaks volumes,” said Marc Payot, a partner and president at Hauser & Wirth, the gallery that has represented Guston’s estate since 2015.

Relatively late in his career, Guston caused controversy at a 1970 show hosted by Marlborough Gallery. The exhibition marked a very public change from a flat and painterly abstraction to a rough, cartoonish figuration that alienated many viewers committed to the high ideals of Abstract Expressionism. The critic Hilton Kramer even called Guston a “mandarin…masquerading as unlettered but lyrical stumblebum” in response to the Marlborough show.

Critical distaste soon found its way into the market, and demand for Guston’s work dropped. “It took a while to find the new collectors. That was the hardest job. [To find] those who were not affected by the baggage of the 1950s and were looking at art freshly,” said David McKee, Guston’s dealer from 1968 until the artist’s death in 1980, when asked about the effect of the 1970 exhibition on sales in Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 2004 BBC documentary Philip Guston: Odd Man Out.

However, a number of subsequent retrospectives and group shows, including a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibition that opened three weeks before his death, have helped bolster Guston’s institutional reputation and market strength. This year, the baggage of Guston’s frequent and unsettling depictions of the KKK has caused a renewed bout of cultural controversy.

Many contemporary collectors, institutions, and audiences are making renewed attempts to interpret artwork in light of global Black Lives Matter protests this summer. The work of interpretation is a messy business and resulted in four art institutions postponing a major Guston retrospective, “Philip Guston Now,” initially until 2024. The move to postpone the show attracted widespread criticism from some in the art sector, while others have offered a more qualified analysis. Last week, Tate Modern, which is a partner in the retrospective, took the step of suspending the curator Mark Godfrey after he called the postponement “patronizing to viewers” on Instagram. The institutions have since backpedaled, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., announced a compromise date of 2022 for the show.

We will have to wait to see how historical context, contemporary political concerns, and institutional caution will affect Guston’s already undervalued work in the future. However, Noah Davis, a post-war and contemporary art specialist at Christie’s, thinks the current controversy will probably not have an effect on Guston’s market. “His unique kind of gallows humor [often] gets misread as insensitivity [and] he affects a cartoon aesthetic while engaging with extremely serious moral quandaries,” Davis said. “[However] I’m not convinced the current controversy will have any effect on Guston’s well-established marketplace.”

Few takers for early Guston

While Guston is best known for his Abstract Expressionist work from 1950 to 1967 and figurative output from 1967 to 1980, he also had an earlier social realist phase in the 1930s and ’40s. This phase was deeply influenced by an enduring love of Giorgio de Chirico and Italian Renaissance painters, picked up at the Otis Art Institute, which also can be seen in his later figurative work.

These paintings have struggled to gain traction in the secondary market. For instance, Guston’s highest-selling work from this period is Sentimental Moment (1944), an oil painting which sold for $54,625 at Sotheby’s in 1995. Ten years later, the painting was put back on public auction at Christie’s. The work’s estimate had been upped to between $60,000 and $80,000, but ultimately its price fell by a few hundred dollars to $54,000.

The average sale price for Guston’s early work, from auctions held between 1990 and 2020, is just $21,938. There also seems to be less contemporary demand for those early works at auction, with just two works offered in 2019 and only one thus far in 2020—all three failed to sell.

“Very little has been on the market from this period of his oeuvre, so a comparison is difficult,” said Payot.

Guston’s early work “doesn’t circulate enough to establish a track record,” explained Davis. “There’s not a lot of major pre-Ab-Ex work remaining in private collections, and a lot of the important early work was site-specific.”

An Abstract Expressionist monopoly?

Philip Guston
May Sixty-Five, 1965
Joseph K. Levene Fine Art, Ltd.

Guston’s Abstract Expressionist work monopolized critical approval while he was alive and still dominates the top rung of prices today. For instance, To Fellini (1958), a gestural and painterly work from his later abstract period, still holds the auction record for a Guston at $25.8 million, set at Christie’s in 2013.

Just below To Fellini in price is a series of Guston’s paintings from what some have called his “Abstract Impressionist” period, pointing to the similarities in palette and brushstroke to landscape paintings by the European Impressionists of the late 19th century. The value of these paintings has remained strong, in the low millions, from auctions in 2005 to 2017. For instance, The Street (1956) sold for $7.3 million at Christie’s in 2005, Beggar’s Joys (1954–55) for $10.1 million at Sotheby’s in 2008, and The Visit (1955) for $8.3 million in 2017, also at Sotheby’s. Guston’s most valuable works made between 1950 and 1966 have sold at auction for an average figure of$1 million, a good deal higher than his early output.

“The price of the abstract work has been higher than the figurative [art] because the number of works is less [and] many of them are already in museums,” said Kosme de Barañano, art history professor and author of Philip Guston & The Poets (2017). However, “the figurative work will very surely surpass the abstract in price in the coming years,” he added, when asked if iconic images such as City Limits (1969) and Riding Around (1969) might one day become more expensive than Guston’s abstract canvases. Davis concurred, affirming the possibility with a resounding “yes.”

Nevertheless, Davis acknowledged a generational split between established, older collectors of the abstract work and younger collectors of the figurative pictures. “My take is that the younger generation of collectors gravitates much more strongly towards his figurative works,” he said.

Barañano noted that this market dynamic is not universal, as there are also Guston completists. “There are collectors, less in number, who own work from both periods,” he said. “Guston has also been in the hands of very good connoisseur-gallerists [such] as David McKee [and] now Hauser & Wirth, who consider all the artist’s periods equally.”

Full circle to figuration

Guston’s later figurative work, the source of the current controversy, is slowly gaining on the once-fashionable abstract canvases of the 1950s in terms of individual auction prices. His top 100 works at auction made between his return to figuration in 1967 and death in 1980 have sold for an average of more than $1.4 million, topping Guston’s Ab-Ex price average. Standout results, such as $12.5 million for Painter at Night (1979), secured at Christie’s in 2017, have helped push Guston’s later work over the edge. But there is still a $13.3-million gap between his top-selling Ab-Ex painting and the highest valued work from his late figurative phase.

At the other end of the spectrum are Guston’s figurative works on paper. The majority of Guston’s drawings have sold for below $200,000. However, Davis noted that “there are some highly worked drawings out there, such as Window (1969), from the Anderson Collection, which we sold for more than $3 million in 2018.”

Guston’s depictions of KKK members, which made a return in his expressionist figuration after early portrayals in the 1940s, range across prices. Cigar (1969) currently holds the highest value for such works, selling at Sotheby’s in 2017 for $6.5 million. At the lower end, Melancholy (1972) sold for $326,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.

Payot takes the view that “in terms of the market, a great figurative painting by Guston is as hotly sought-after today as an abstract work from the 1950s, and is as high in value and price if not higher.”

These prices are likely to rise over the next decade as living artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Grayson Perry, and Tschabalala Self embrace and develop new forms of figuration. Guston’s influence on subsequent generations is evident not only in the number of artists who responded in outrage after the forthcoming retrospective’s postponement, but also in the number who contributed to the accompanying catalogue—including Tacita Dean, Trenton Doyle Hancock, William Kentridge, Glenn Ligon, Dana Schutz, Amy Sillman, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

“Guston is already a huge touchstone for most young artists making figurative paintings today,” said Davis, arguing that his influence has been a defining force in figurative art for years. “He was probably the most influential American painter long before the current media attention.”

Samuel McIlhagga