Interested in the sociopolitical situation in the world around him from a young age, Philip Guston was expelled from high school for publishing a broadside criticizing the English department. Later he became deeply inspired by the social content of the great Mexican muralists after seeing José Clemente Orozco at work, and in the 1930s he executed large-scale public murals in their heroic style for the government’s Works Progress Administration.
Guston began making abstract paintings in the 1950s, which earned him major recognition. His artistic evolution, however, was far from over. By the late 1960s he had developed a new figurative style inspired in part by the comic books he had so loved as a child, but with a far darker and more pessimistic world view. Based on a new personal iconography of bricks, bottles, hooded Klansmen, and references to his personal struggles and life as a painter, these works are executed in a consciously naive style that has been described as “urban primitive.”
This later vocabulary dominates Guston’s printmaking, an activity with which he became seriously involved only in the last year of his life. Although he had made several lithographs at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop and with Irwin Hollander, printmaking had not been a regular part of his practice. Knowing that Guston preferred to work at home, publisher Gemini G.E.L. sent a master printer to his Woodstock, New York, studio in 1980, resulting in twenty-five of his approximately forty known prints, including Coat. The previous year, he had suffered a near–fatal heart attack, and both his life and work were dominated by thoughts of his mortality. In Coat, perhaps a self-portrait, the figure stands strong but seems to be sinking in a choppy sea, weighed down by old shoes that symbolize a long and difficult journey through life.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Sarah Suzuki, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 230.