Philip Guston and St. Louis

In February 1945, Philip Guston accepted a faculty teaching position for the 1945-46 school year at Washington University in St. Louis’s School of Fine Arts (the official letter of appointment from the university is dated March 16, 1945). He had been teaching in the art department at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, beginning in September 1941, and in late 1942/early 1943 had begun corresponding with Washington University’s Dean of Fine Arts, Kenneth E. Hudson, about the possibility of relocating. Guston stated that "mainly I wanted a change and to live in a city for a while...St. Louis is a stimulating town and I feel I will be more productive there considering everything. The museum is a good one and there are lots of people interested in the arts."

Guston moved his family to St. Louis in late summer, and beginning in fall 1945 he taught Drawing and Painting classes, while in October his painting Sentimental Moment (1944) won first prize at the Carnegie Institute’s annual exhibition of American painting. Guston remained on the Washington University faculty for the 1946-47 term, teaching alongside colleagues including Werner Drewes (Design), Fred Conway (Life Composition), and Horst W. Janson (Art History and Theory), who had also taught previously in Iowa City, and who, as curator of Washington University’s art collection, spearheaded the purchase of Guston’s period masterpiece If This Be Not I (1945) early in Guston’s appointment. Prior to his arrival, an important earlier painting, Martial Memory (1941), had been acquired by the St. Louis Art Museum (at the time named the City Art Museum).

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, Guston took a leave of absence from Washington University for the 1947-48 term and extended the leave in 1948-49 while on a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome (in Guston’s two-year absence, German émigré Max Beckmann, an influence on Guston’s 1940s work, was brought to the university as an instructor). A period of intense devotion to a new phase in his art, spent in Woodstock, New York City, and Italy, evinced a pivotal transformation as Guston’s work moved from the dense figuration exemplified by the two St. Louis paintings toward an increasingly spare abstraction.

Periodic correspondence throughout Guston’s leave of absence makes clear Dean Hudson’s hope (mostly phrased as expectation) that Guston would return to a permanent teaching position at Washington University, with Guston delaying a firm response—until he replied with his answer in this December 26, 1949 letter, making clear his priorities during this crucial time of flux. 

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Images courtesy of College of Arts Records, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections.

Images courtesy of College of Arts Records, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections.