Philip Guston was born in Montreal in 1913, but grew up in Los Angeles. He began to paint in 1927, and in 1930 attended the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles for a few months. Interested in the work of Giorgio de Chirico and the masters of the Italian Renaissance, especially Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, and Paolo Ucello, he attempted to integrate aspects of this model with the more recent developments of pictorial Cubism in his work of the 1930s. During this period he also paid attention to the mural paintings of Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera.

His work developed in New York after he moved there in 1935. Employed by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, he worked on murals at the WPA Building at the World’s Fair (Maintaining America’s Skills, 1939) and the Queensbridge Housing Project (1940) in New York, and at the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C. (1942). In the 1940s Guston returned to easel painting, developing a style that drew on mythology, as in the paintings Martial Memory (1945) and If This Be Not I (1945). In the late 1940s he painted in an increasingly abstract style, doing away with figures altogether, as in the painting The Tormentors (1947–48). In the 1950s his work became entirely abstract. It changed again in the 1960s, when he developed a new figurative style, as seen in Evidence (1970).

The first major exhibition of Guston’s work was held at the State University of Iowa in Iowa City in 1944. He received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship in 1947 and in 1959 was awarded a Ford Foundation grant. He taught at New York University from 1951 to 1958 and Pratt Institute from 1953 to 1958. In 1967 he moved to Woodstock, New York, where he died in 1980.