The artist Philip Guston had a career that spanned much of the 20th century and defied most of its artistic categorizations. A member of the Works Progress Administration’s mural division in the 1930s, he shifted his style from political satire and social realism during that time to abstract expressionism in the ‘50s, then to cartoonish figuration in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even his name changed: Guston was born Philip Goldstein in 1913 to a Russian Jewish immigrant family then living in Montreal.
The Goldsteins later moved to Los Angeles, where Philip met young Jackson Pollock. Both were expelled from their art high school for distributing satirical pamphlets that accused the school, among other things, of promoting sports over the arts. Jackson eventually completed his education; Philip did not. Instead, he made art, putting together his first solo show—at a Hollywood bookstore—in 1931, when he was 18. On the walls of the store, he hung a series of paintings depicting the Ku Klux Klan. In one of the paintings on display, hooded Klansmen assembled before a brick wall, while in the background, a black man was hanged from a tree. The Klan got word of the young artist’s show, and two Klansmen walked into the bookstore, took his paintings from the wall, and slashed them.
Not long after that, Goldstein traveled south to Mexico, where he studied under social realist muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. In 1935, at the age of 22, he moved to New York to work for the WPA and changed his name to Guston. He did sketches and cartoons for murals for Penn Station, the New York City Customs House, and Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital; none of them ever made it on to a wall. Finally, he got a gig that seemed on track to actually be painted: a mural in a New York housing project that was assigned by the New York state director of the WPA mural division, Burgoyne Diller. But by this point, Guston’s work had also come to the attention of Holger Cahill, the head of the Federal Art Project. In 1938, the 25-year-old artist was tapped to create a massive mural that would decorate the facade of the WPA building at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
The fair was a towering spectacle of human achievement, with elaborate international pavilions designed by participating countries, amusement rides, and halls devoted to the latest in scientific, technological, and cultural advancements. The WPA building would celebrate the organization’s role in creating jobs for the unemployed, with demonstrations of skills such as weaving and woodcarving. Guston’s mural design reflected this theme, depicting four heroic, muscled laborers: a scientist, a surveyor, a mason, and a construction worker, arrayed against a backdrop of a building-in-progress.
Even with the help of assistants, it took Guston around five months to complete the 500-square-foot piece, which he applied to the curved, cement exterior of the building with a newly developed rubber-based paint formulated for use outdoors. All around him, similar work was underway; it was customary for World Fairs’ towering facades to be decorated with massive artworks devoted to the history and future of the building’s theme. His effort paid off; a New York Times critic declared the composition “magnificent,” and fairgoers voted it the best of all the outdoor murals at the fair.
After this success, Guston went on to be a bit of artistic chameleon in the following decades, trying on cartoon-inspired figures in the late 1960s after a bout of abstract expressionism. But he never forgot his time as a muralist for the working man. In a 1965 interview, Guston said that his time with the WPA was crucial to his development as an artist. The government funded art program “kept me alive and working,” he said. “It was my education.”
There’s a photograph of the artist Philip Guston from February 1939 that shows him working on an enormous mural at night. Guided from below by a harsh, bright light, he leans out on precarious scaffolding to sketch the figure of a man standing with a plank of lumber and tools—one of four figures that would eventually include a scientist, a surveyor, a mason, and a construction worker. Guston was working through the night to complete the mural for the exterior of the Works Progress Administration building for the New York World’s Fair, which would open in Flushing Meadows Park in less than two months. This government-funded public art was meant to demonstrate that the country was being put back to work through large-scale public projects.
Guston’s mural, titled Maintaining America’s Skills, is genuinely optimistic about the United States’ hopes and strengths. Looking at images of it led me to consider what large-scale public art would look like today if it directly addressed the conflicts at the heart of American society. What public art do we have, and what public art do we deserve?
I began a series of paintings titled Proposals for a New American Public Art that would take the language of public art—the wall, the plinth, concrete, scaffolding—and combine it with contemporary social issues in a way that would encourage the viewer to puzzle out what they mean.
In these proposals, I want to convey the mood of how one might feel if they encountered these sculptures in a public space: a hoodie propped up like a scarecrow, the interior of a police car cast entirely of glass, an American flag that lets you see through to the sky beyond. Some only show the back of the structure, revealing how it might be made, to suggest that the viewer would be able to walk around it and see it from many sides.
The paintings are self-contained artworks that are very precise in their color, composition, and references to art history, but I think it would be fantastic to produce them as public installations. Some of the ideas may seem bewildering or very difficult to fabricate in the real world, but I believe most would be structurally possible. I would want them to be installed where no one would expect them—where people could find them without too much of an explanation and come to their own conclusions about the stories, problems, and ideas they represent.
Balint Zsako is a Hungary-born collagist and painter whose work has been shown around the world. He was on the long list for the 2014 Sobey Art Award for young Canadian artists, and his work has been featured in the drawing anthology Vitamin D2 (2013). He lives and works in San Francisco.
Explore Federal Project no. 2
A Queen Is Born
A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen.
When Art Is an Act of Protest
A summer of activism in Chicago reminds us that in order for history to be taught, it must first be recorded.
Hole in One
Harnessing the power of the humble hole punch, to either create narratives or deflate them.
Public Service Announcements
Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.
If You Build It, They Will Leave
During the New Deal, Southwest DC was razed to create a “model city” for federal workers. Now the area is being redeveloped again, this time into a gentrified urban playground.
Proposals for a Monument
Public art has the power to show us what we want to see—or reveal what we deserve.
A Room of One’s Own
A photograph of a home speaks volumes about the inhabitant, even when they’re not included in the shot.
Back to the Music, Back to the Game
A visit to the juke joints in the Florida Everglades where migrant laborers could go to relax.
This Land Is Your Land
During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.
The Exquisite Catalog of a Crow Fair
Wendy Red Star brings illustrations from the Denver Art Museum’s card catalog to the Crow Nation’s annual gathering.
The American Guide to the New Vermont
Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.
Stoop Life and Survival
Documenting a life of a neighborhood means covering street life in all of its joy and pain.
The Afterlives of Slaves
Snapshots of a life after slavery, and an imagining of a world without bondage.
Portraits of Hard Living in America
The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.
She Works Hard for the Money
During the Depression, women were advised to “sing for their supper” as a way to survive hard times.
Wall to Wall
Public murals are contested spaces, where retellings of history and new visions of the future fight for prominence.
Signs of Boom and Bust
Mark Steinmetz drives the streets of the city’s fast-growing urban sprawl.
After the Curtain Calls
Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.
The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool
Beloved, abandoned, then beloved once more, a Brooklyn pool transforms alongside its neighborhood.
The People of the Land
Dust Bowl migrants had to pull up roots. Native Hawaiians are strengthening theirs.
Letting Sleeping Children Lie
Leanne Shapton reconsiders motherhood after seeing a photograph of children asleep during a square dance.
The Cycle of a Woman’s Life
A 20th-century mural for a women’s prison meets 21st-century inequality.
More Federal Project No. 2
A Queen Is Born
A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen, and how it sees itself.