Whichever New York Times editor came up with the headline “Delay of Philip Guston Retrospective Divides the Art World” must have been asleep at the keyboard. The gob-smacking decision of four museums—Tate Modern; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—to postpone until 2024 the tour of a tragicomically mistitled exhibition, Philip Guston Now, seems to have unified the art world like nothing in recent memory. Although writers Julia Jacobs and Jason Farago’s lead suggests a split in opinion, “with some calling the decision a necessary step back during a period of surging racial justice protests and others, deeming it a cowardly avoidance of challenging works of art”—specifically Guston’s cartoony paintings of hooded Ku Klux Klan figures—they cite only a National Gallery trustee who takes the former view. So far, everyone else, from critics to artists to Tate Modern curator Mark Godfrey, who posted a pointed screed on Instagram, is reaching for a pitchfork.
The chorus of disapproval is all the more deafening for striking all the same notes. The first, most accurate, and most germane is that these museums don’t trust the public to make up its mind about the influential Jewish Canadian-American painter. Their joint statement pledged to put off the show “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”
How the museums know 2024 will be that time is anybody’s guess. Three years ago, the Detroit Institute of Art did not think 2017 was too soon to borrow City Limits, Guston’s 1969 masterpiece —featuring three cartoon Klansmen, hoods spattered with blood, riding in a jalopy around a pink yet bleak cityscape— for its well-received exhibition Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement. Curator Valerie Mercer cited Guston’s painting as an example of work by “artists who were not African American who wanted to express solidarity.”
The second, third, and fourth notes chime as follows: Guston’s daughter confirms he was an anti-racist who “dared to hold up a mirror to white America, exposing the banality of evil and the systemic racism we are still struggling to confront today”; Black writers and artists, including art historian Darby English and catalog contributors Trenton Doyle Hancock and Glenn Ligon, have vouchsafed Guston’s Klan paintings, with Ligon calling them “woke”; and we, therefore, need Guston’s art now more than ever, especially the politically charged works that accompanied his break with abstract expressionism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After all, as Farago tweeted, the Klan paintings’ “cartoonish monstrousness couldn’t be more relevant today.”
The question is whether the perceived righteousness of artists’ political commitments ought to be the primary criterion for surveying their work or defending it from cancellation. Can’t it be enough that Guston’s various, multifaceted bodies of work and willingness to upend expectations and his career trajectory with each stylistic shift influenced countless artists both during his lifetime (1913-1980) and for decades after that? What if the critic Harold Rosenberg, defending Guston’s KKK pictures when they were first shown, primarily to derision, in 1970, was right to say that “Guston's paintings are political by way of their thinking about art and do more for art than for politics”?
“Painting needs to purge itself of all systems that place so-called interests of art above the interests of the artist's mind,” Rosenberg wrote. “Abstract Expressionism liberated painting from the social-consciousness dogma of the thirties; it is time now to liberate it from the ban on social consciousness. Guston has demonstrated that the apparent opposition between quality in painting and political statement is primarily a matter of doctrinaire aesthetics.” Similarly, Guston’s friend and colleague Willem de Kooning remarked at the 1970 opening that Guston’s true subject was freedom.
Today’s doctrinaire aestheticians, who are keen to impose their brand of social-consciousness dogma wherever they can, have built up an impressive recent track record, as summarized by Artnet columnist Tim Schneider. He warns that “the show is destined to suffer the fate the postponement was designed to prevent: being utterly defined by the roughly 25 works that allude to the KKK, based on viewpoints visitors had already forged in advance.”
But at least with controversies like the protests over the 2017 Whitney Biennial’s inclusion of a painting of Emmett Till’s battered corpse by Dana Schutz, a white woman (and another artist-contributor to the Philip Guston Now catalog), we knew who was protesting and could evaluate their arguments. With the Guston postponement, our only hint is Guston biographer Robert Storr’s claim that he was “told that the prompt was push back from staff about an anti-lynching image from the 1930s, which was in effect the predicate for all of Guston’s later Ku Klux Klan imagery”—an assertion that a team of seven spokespeople from the four museums refused to confirm or deny for Schneider.
If Storr was correctly informed, maybe artist and critic Adam Lehrer is correct that the postponement exposes a rift “between neo-liberals, who run the museums, and Neo-Liberals 2.0, which is the woke 25-to-40-year-olds that are gunning for the liberals’ jobs.” The thought pairs disturbingly with Schneider’s observation that private “collectors and corporate sponsors are just as aware of their vulnerabilities at this moment as museums, and their importance to presenting a major exhibition like this one is vital enough that threats to withhold resources could pressure the institutions to push back the debut.”
Whatever pressure the museums are feeling, it’s not public. On the contrary, they’d rather be publicly excoriated now for postponing the Guston survey than risk internal unrest and, or an imagined negative public reaction in 2021 (the original 2020 dates had already been pushed back due to COVID-19-related disruptions).
And they’re doing so knowing that the catalog—one of the most beautiful Guston monographs ever produced—has been out for months, with no backlash. We know which works the curators chose and what they had to say about them. Museums worldwide have proudly hung Guston Klansmen paintings and drawings for decades, with no more explications than usual, and someone (we don’t know who) is just now getting around to deciding the public can’t handle them?
Godfrey’s Instagram post lays out a host of measures Tate Modern staff was already taking to recontextualize the Klan paintings for the George Floyd era. These included “totally reorganizing the flow of the exhibition and reducing the checklist to create space for contextual material about Guston’s decision to compare 1968 police with Klansmen, as well as material about these questions and different responses to the works from 1970 to today.”
Time wasn’t a problem, but the museums now have four more years “to rebuild the retrospective with time to reconsider the many important issues the work raises,” as their mealy-mouthed statement puts it. Will they, as Godfrey suggested, cut back on works by Guston to recontextualize the Klan paintings? If so, they should replace them, not with copious amounts of explanatory text, but with examples of what other artists were doing at the time.
Why, for example, at precisely the moment Guston abandoned abstraction in tandem with his mounting “frustrated fury” at the Vietnam War and the violence of the 1960s, were so many Black artists either continuing its development, as with Norman Lewis, or busily turbocharging it with innovations, as with Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten, Frank Bowling, Howardena Pindell, and others? (One of Guston’s Studio School students, Stanley Whitney, later recalled wondering, “Why is he telling me to go downtown and draw some life when I’m trying to move to abstraction!”) Could freedom be their true subject, as de Kooning discerned Guston’s to be?
Curators could bring one of Rosenberg’s observations to life by including Claes Oldenburg’s Profile Airflow (1969), a scaled-down relief of the 1930s Chrysler Airflow, and “the outlived modernistic design adapted by (Pop artist Roy) Lichtenstein. Rosenberg thought Guston’s cartoon Klansmen, painted when the “Klan is not a central issue in politics today,” similarly put “politics at a distance” with their deliberately retrograde “aesthetic timing.”
Both Rosenberg and Guston detractor Hilton Kramer invoked Red Grooms and Jean Dubuffet. Curators could represent them and add a menacing Giorgio de Chirico cityscape, pairing it with a Guston painting and Village Voice critic John Perreault’s formulation: “It’s as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart.” They could include one of Hancock’s recent paintings in which his Black superhero character Torpedoboy faces Guston’s Klansmen in a bid “to fix” the omission of Black figures in Guston’s paintings of hooded figures.
I just hope they’ll heed Rosenberg’s admonition against placing “so-called interests of art above the interests of the artist’s mind,” especially a mind like Guston’s. Contextualize his art with more art, not more messaging. The public can take it.
This essay was written in September 2020, before the museums decided to shorten the exhibition postponement. Its tour will now begin in 2022.