Best known for his abstract art, Philip Guston also dipped into figurative painting with a repeating motif of white-hooded Ku Klux Klan members. Now these images have caused the postponement of a major retrospective to honour him – and a heated row within the art world.
Four institutions – the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Tate in London – have said their Philip Guston Now exhibition won’t open before 2024 because it needs to be framed by “additional perspectives and voices”. They want to wait until the “message of social and racial justice” at the centre of his work “can be more clearly interpreted”.
The decision to postpone the touring show, which was supposed to begin in the summer, has caused a sharp backlash from within the artistic community, including from Tate curator Mark Godfrey and the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer.
At issue, it appears, are depictions of white-hooded figures, an image that the social justice-attuned artist, who was Jewish and involved with leftwing politics, repeated from the early 1930s to his death in 1980.
“There is a risk that they may be misinterpreted and the resulting response overshadow the totality of his work and legacy,” a National Gallery of Art spokesperson told Artnews, adding that the museum wanted to avoid “painful” experiences the imagery could cause for viewers.
But Mayer said she was deeply saddened by the decision. She said: “Half a century ago, my father made a body of work that shocked the art world. Not only had he violated the canon of what a noted abstract artist should be painting at a time of particularly doctrinaire art criticism, but he 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.
“In these paintings, cartoonish hooded figures evoke the Ku Klux Klan. They plan, they plot, they ride around in cars smoking cigars. We never see their acts of hatred. We never know what is in their minds. But it is clear that they are us. Our denial, our concealment.”
Guston frequently created work about racism, antisemitism and fascism. The show was set to include 25 drawings and paintings featuring Klan characters, a theme he returned to after a period of abstraction, in which he dealt with themes of American identity.
Godfrey, who organised the Tate Modern’s runaway hit Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, posted on Instagram that the decision “is actually extremely patronising to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works”.
The art scholar and Guston biographer Robert Storr told The Art Newspaper that the pushback was from museum staff at the National Gallery of Art over the use of a 1930s anti-lynching image that was, in effect, the predicate for Guston’s Klan imagery.
Guston himself said of his Klan images: “They are self-portraits … I perceive 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 comes as arts institutions are grappling with multiple, converging crises: the loss of revenue from the Covid-19 shutdown; the loss of private benefactors, including the Sackler Trust; collectors who now establish private museums instead of making bequests to national art bodies; and the ramifications of the social justice movement.
In 2017, a protest erupted over white artist Dana Schutz’s expressionist painting Open Casket (2016), a gruesome depiction of Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi in 1955. The work was exhibited as part of the Whitney Biennial exhibition. Schutz, and the museum, were accused of taking advantage of a defining moment in African-American history.
Two years later, seven artists asked to have their work removed from the 2019 Biennial, citing the Whitney’s lack of response to calls for the resignation of a board member with ties to trade in law enforcement supplies.
But the latest dispute goes to the heart of institutional responsibility and what critics describe as a surfeit of fear, caution, complacency and timidity.
Collector and critic Kenny Schachter told the Observer that instead of explaining art, public institutions are running scared. “No matter where this is coming from, the left’s fear of the right, the right’s fear of the left, the whole thing is a cesspool of bad behaviour on every side,” Schachter said. “They’re kow-towing to any point of view that’s safe and normative, but the real danger is in the act of censorship.”
Guston’s work, Schachter says, “is exactly the kind of art that needs to be seen and spoken about. Guston’s work was prescient and profound, and doing the reverse of the canonised way of thinking in art at the time. He had the foresight to see things as they were happening and his vision is as poignant now as they were then.
“Art is not supposed to be a pretty picture. It’s a reflection – economically, politically, racially – of our times. The art world trades its own brand of hypocrisy and that’s the reason this show needs support – because art is not always supposed to be easy.”
A trustee of the National Gallery of Art, Darren Walker, said: “An exhibition organised several years ago, no matter how intelligent, must be reconsidered in light of what has changed to contextualise in real time… by not taking a step back to address these issues, the four museums would have appeared tone-deaf to what is happening in public discourse about art.”