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Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969, oil on canvas, 71 × 73 3/10".
Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969, oil on canvas, 71 × 73 3/10".

Major Philip Guston Exhibition Pushed to 2024 Over KKK Imagery Concerns

A highly anticipated Philip Guston retrospective conceived by curators at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and London’s Tate Modern has been pushed back four years amid concerns by the museums’ directors over the Ku Klux Klan imagery that recurs throughout the American painter’s oeuvre, particularly his later works. The decision has sparked outrage among some scholars, curators, and critics, who say that the museums have not only betrayed a lack of faith in their viewerships but have also missed an opportunity to engage with the very issues being invoked as reasons to postpone the exhibition.

On Monday, the National Gallery appended an update to the show’s press release with a statement signed by each of the four directors of the museums presenting “Philip Guston Now”: Kaywin Feldman (National Gallery), Frances Morris (Tate Modern), Matthew Teitelbaum (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and Gary Tinterow (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). The post announced that the exhibition will be suspended “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.” It continues: “We recognize that the world we live in is very different from the one in which we first began to collaborate on this project five years ago. The racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world, in addition to challenges of a global health crisis, have led us to pause.”

The choice to further delay the show—whose opening had already been bumped to 2021 from this summer, due to the pandemic—caused ire and confusion on social media, where critics were quick to note that Guston used Klan imagery to denounce, not promote, anti-Black violence. Among the works originally planned for the show is the 1930 Drawing for Conspirators, which involves a group of hooded figures removing a lynched body from a tree.

“There is a risk that they may be misinterpreted and the resulting response overshadow the totality of his work and legacy,” a National Gallery spokesperson, speaking of Guston’s Klansmen figures, told Artnews, adding that the museum wanted to avoid “painful” experiences the imagery could cause for viewers. “We feel it is necessary to reframe our programming and, in this case, step back, and bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public,” the four directors said in their statement. “That process will take time.”

Tate Modern’s Mark Godfrey, one of the show’s curators, condemned the move in an Instagram post. “Cancelling or delaying the exhibition is probably motivated by the wish to be sensitive to the imagined reactions of particular viewers, and the fear of protest,” he wrote. “However, it is actually extremely patronising to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works.” Godfrey’s comments were echoed by art scholar and Guston biographer Robert Storr, who told The Art Newspaper that the pushback was from museum staff over Drawing for Conspirators.

A Jewish artist involved with left-wing politics, Guston frequently made work that addressed racism, anti-Semitism, and fascism. “Philip Guston Now” was set to include twenty-five drawings and paintings featuring KKK characters, a motif that helped define Guston’s return to figuration, a period that saw the artist delve into themes of evil and American identity. 

Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter and a scholar who wrote a memoir of her father, told Artnews that she was “saddened” by the decision to shelve the show. “Half a century ago, my father made a body of work that shocked the art world,” she said. “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.” 

When a fifty-five-year-old Guston first showed his paintings of cartoonish Klansmen at Marlborough Contemporary gallery in 1970, they scandalized the New York art world. Viewers were mainly offended not because he drew from racist imagery or that some works were referred to as self-portraits, but because of the artist’s perceived backslide into figuration when abstraction still prevailed in the city. The critic Robert Hughes proved a notable exception: “A little late in the century to mount an entire exhibition on the Ku Klux Klan,” he wrote in his Time review. Today, fifty years after his death, Guston’s late period is widely considered an art-historical breakthrough, his influence felt among contemporary artists worldwide, from Tacita Dean to Trenton Doyle Hancock (both of whom contributed to the show’s catalogue, which has already been distributed.)

At a time when art institutions face increased pressure—from the public and from their staffs—to reckon with the systemic inequality inside and outside their walls, Guston’s work would have brought much to the discussion, Mayer said. “This should be a time of reckoning, of dialogue,” she told Artnews. “These paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.”