First celebrated for his abstract art, Philip Guston resisted convention, switching to figurative painting which included a repeating motif of hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan. Now, these images have sparked the postponement of a major retrospective in his honor – and a heated argument in the art world.
Four institutions – the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Tate in London – have said their Philip Guston Now exhibition will not open until 2024 as it is due to be framed by “additional perspectives and voices”. They want to wait until the “message of social and racial justice” at the center of his work “can be interpreted more clearly”.
The decision to postpone the tour, which was supposed to begin this summer, prompted a strong backlash from the art community, including Mark Godfrey, Tate’s senior curator for international art, and the daughter of the artist, Musa Mayer.
These appear to be depictions of white-hooded figures, an image the social justice attuned artist, who was Jewish and involved in leftist politics, repeated from the early 1930s to his death in 1980.
“There is a risk that they will be misinterpreted and the resulting response overshadows all of her work and legacy,” said a spokesperson for the National Gallery of Art. Artnews, adding that the museum wanted to avoid the “painful” experiences that the images could cause viewers.
But Mayer said she was deeply saddened by the move. She said: “Half a century ago my father made a work that shocked the art world. Not only had he violated the canon of what a renowned abstract artist should paint in an age of particularly doctrinal art criticism, he dared to show white America a mirror, exposing the banality of evil and systemic racism. that we are still struggling to face today.
“In these paintings, hooded cartoon figures evoke the Ku Klux Klan. They plan, they plot, they drive around in cars smoking cigars. We never see their acts of hate. We never know what’s on their mind. But it is clear that they are us. Our denial, our cover-up.
Guston frequently created works on racism, anti-Semitism, and fascism. The exhibition was to include 25 drawings and paintings depicting Klan figures, a theme he returned to after a period of abstraction, in which he dealt with themes of American identity.
Godfrey, who curated Tate Modern’s smash hit Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, said on Instagram that the decision “is actually extremely condescending to viewers, who are supposedly not being able to appreciate. the nuance and the policy of the works of Guston ”.
Guston art scholar and biographer Robert Storr recounted The art journal that the refusal came from museum staff at the National Gallery of Art because of the use of a 1930s anti-lynching image that was, in fact, the predicate of Guston’s Klan imagery.
Guston himself said of his pictures of the Klan: “These are self-portraits… I see myself as being behind the hood… The idea of evil fascinated me… I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan.
The dispute arises as artistic institutions grapple with multiple and converging crises: loss of income due to the closure of Covid-19; the loss of private benefactors, including the Sackler Trust; collectors who are now creating private museums instead of bequeaths to national arts organizations; and the ramifications of the social justice movement.
In 2017, a protest erupted against the expressionist painting of white artist Dana Schutz Open casket (2016), a gruesome portrayal of Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi in 1955. The work was exhibited as part of Whitney’s biennial exhibition. Schutz and the museum have been accused of taking advantage of a defining moment in African American history.
Two years later, seven artists requested that their work be removed from the 2019 Biennale, citing Whitney’s lack of response to calls for a board member to resign related to the trade in supplies for the forces. of the order.
But the latest dispute goes to the heart of institutional accountability and what critics call a glut of fear, caution, complacency and timidity.
Collector and critic Kenny Schachter told the Observer that instead of explaining art, public institutions are afraid. “It doesn’t matter where it comes from, the fear of the left from the right, the fear of the right from the left, it’s all a cesspool of bad behavior on all sides,” Schachter said. “They comply with any safe and prescriptive point of view, but the real danger lies in the act of censorship.”
Guston’s work, says Schachter, “is exactly the kind of art to see and talk about. Guston’s work was prescient and profound, and reversed the canonized way of thinking in art at the time. He had the foresight to see things as they happened and his vision is as poignant now as it was then.
“Art is not meant to be a pretty picture. It is the reflection – economic, political, racial – of our time. The art world negotiates its own hypocrisy and that’s why this show needs support – because art isn’t always meant to be easy.
National Gallery of Art administrator Darren Walker said: “An exhibition staged several years ago, however clever it may be, needs to be reconsidered in light of what has changed to contextualize in real time … stepping back to resolve these issues, the four museums would have seemed deaf to what is going on in the public discourse on art.