Born Philip Goldstein on 27 June 1913 in Montreal, Canada, Guston moved with his family to Los Angeles, California, in 1919. In 1927 he enrolled at the Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles, where he became friendly with fellow student Jackson Pollock. In 1930 Guston was awarded a year's scholarship to Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, but left after three months. He held his first solo exhibition in 1931 at Stanley Rose's bookshop and gallery in Los Angeles.
Guston travelled to Mexico in 1934 seeking mural work with David Alforo Siqueiros and executed a mural in Maximilian's former summer palace in Morelia. In the winter of 1935–36 he moved to New York and joined the mural section of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. It was at this time that he began using the name Philip Guston. He received his first major mural commission in 1939 for the façade of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) building at the New York World's Fair.
He resigned from the WPA in 1940, moved to Woodstock, and began to concentrate on easel painting. In 1945 he held his first solo exhibition in New York at Midtown Galleries. In 1948 he was awarded the Prix de Rome from the American Academy in Rome and spent a year travelling in Italy. He held his first solo exhibition of abstract paintings at the Peridot Gallery, New York, in 1951 and in 1958 was included in the exhibition The New American Painting, organised by the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which circulated throughout Europe. In 1962 a major retrospective of his work was organised by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, which toured internationally.
Guston continued to work in an abstract idiom until the mid-1960s, then after an intense period of drawing he began painting figurative works again in 1968–69 and showed them for the first time in a solo exhibition at Marlborough Gallery, New York, in 1970. From 1973 until 1978 he held the position of Professor of Art at Boston University. In May 1980 an important retrospective of his work was organised by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which toured to venues in the United States. The artist died in Woodstock, New York, on 7 June 1980, three weeks after attending the opening of his retrospective in San Francisco.1