PRINT January/February 2021

Philip Guston

Philip Guston, Sarasota, FL, 1967.

THIS PAST SEPTEMBER, the directors of four institutions—the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Tate Modern, London; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—issued an unprecedented statement postponing “Philip Guston Now,” a major traveling retrospective that had been years in the making. The putative reason: The summer’s protests in defense of Black lives had rendered the show untenable, necessitating a revised approach to Guston’s depictions of Ku Klux Klansmen and scenes of anti-Black violence. “We feel it is necessary to reframe our programming,” wrote the directors, “and bring additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public.” (A “reconsidered” exhibition of the same name is now scheduled to open in 2022.)

The outrage and debate that followed only reinforced Guston’s status as an artist whose work cuts to the heart of issues that continue to animate the art world today: white artists’ responsibility toward representations of racist violence, the ethics of abstraction, and the profound entwinement of figurative painting and the politics of American race.

On the occasion of this show-that-isn’t, Artforum invited a group of contributors to consider Guston’s oeuvre. Writer and curator DAN NADEL reads Guston’s paintings in relation to the artist’s Jewishness. Art historian ROBERT SLIFKIN considers the role of white privilege in shaping Guston’s attitudes and subject matter. Art historian SARAH K. RICH and artist CHRIS OFILI weigh in on individual paintings, while artist TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK’s special project takes as a point of departure the meeting of one of Guston’s Klansmen with Hancock’s alter ego, Torpedo Boy.