PRINT January/February 2021

Ugly Feelings

Philip Guston, Sheriff, 1970, oil on canvas, 66 × 80". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

WHAT DOES THE WORK OF PHILIP GUSTON have to tell us about racism in the United States? And, for that matter, who is the us the work is speaking to? These questions are, of course, inspired by the postponement of a major retrospective of the artist’s work because of concerns that a group of paintings depicting members of the Ku Klux Klan might be misperceived in the current political climate, one marked by the conspicuousness of white-supremacist ideology and an art world highly attuned to the spectacularization of Black suffering. These questions have remained largely unexamined by scholars and critics despite Guston’s formative engagement with anti-racist and anti-fascist imagery in the 1930s and his notorious decision to return to the hooded figures late in his career, albeit as crudely cartoonish goons with a taste for cigars and booze and a curious interest in painting. Now, amid a growing movement dedicated to overturning the systematic racism that pervades American society and its institutions, as well as a global pandemic that can make a museum visit feel at once a little superfluous and like a matter of life and death, the politics of Guston’s invocation of such a potent symbol of white supremacy—or, as the artist’s daughter Musa Mayer has recently argued, “white culpability”—cannot be ignored.

I admit my own culpability in these matters. When I was writing my book on the artist in the early 2000s, I interpreted the reappearance of the Klan imagery in Guston’s paintings as a variety of postmodern pastiche. Though I sought to situate works containing this subject matter within the political and cultural terrain of the late ’60s, noting their allusions to events such as the March on the Pentagon in 1967 and the shooting by the Ohio National Guard of four students at Kent State University in 1970, as well as their surprising affinities with films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and records like Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (both 1970), I nonetheless largely maintained the standard account of his imagery as allegorical, more symbol than fact. Like most previous commentators, I saw the resurrected hoods not as references to actual episodes of Klan violence—of which there were numerous instances in the late ’60s and early ’70s—but as multivalent symbols of malevolent forces, Benjaminian specters of the catastrophic wreckage of history, and, most fundamentally, self-reflexive citations of Guston’s own oeuvre. Their critical engagement was, I argued, as much with “the sign” as it was with the times.

Police and protesters clash at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago, August, 1968. Photo: National Archives.

Guston debuted his Klansmen-filled works in a 1970 exhibition at New York’s Marlborough Gallery. In spite of their ambiguous subject matter and hermetic iconography, critics have frequently celebrated them for their political forthrightness. For instance, Guston’s friend Harold Rosenberg, in his sympathetic review of the show, described the artist’s crude figuration as providing “a simple account of the simple-mindedness of violence.”1 Created in response to the televised police brutality toward protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and, as Robert Storr argues in his 2020 monograph Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting, possibly spurred by the 1963 Klan-led bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four children, Guston’s paintings of Klansmen appear to have been fundamentally shaped by the history of racism in the United States, even as they figure the aforementioned events in an oblique, highly personal manner.

View of “Philip Guston: Recent Paintings,” 1970, Marlborough Gallery, New York. From left: Dawn, 1970; City, 1969.

Still, trying to assign specific political significance to these works is not straightforward. Even in Guston’s most explicit representations of racist violence in such early pieces as Drawing for Conspirators, 1930—a small, intensely wrought depiction of the aftermath of a Klan lynching—one sees the young artist balancing his political positions with an equally strong commitment to art-historical influences, from the Italian Renaissance to Surrealism. Moreover, as in his series of scathing cartoons of Richard Nixon from 1971, which he decided not to show during his lifetime, Guston invests his villains with a strange modicum of interiority that complicates the works’ status as protest art. It should also be noted that overt political content is anomalous in an oeuvre that spans fifty years, and that imagery of the Klan appears only briefly in the ’30s and then again for about two years around 1970. While certain pieces from the Marlborough series, Courtroom and Sheriff, both 1970, seem to summon themes of political violence and racial injustice, these works eschewed the sort of overt imagery associated with politically engaged representational painting of the period by figures such as Robert Colescott, Faith Ringgold, and Peter Saul.

It is obvious that Guston’s depictions of the Klan are not positive. Indeed, as Harry Cooper notes in his informative and compelling essay in the catalogue for the now-postponed exhibition, the artist was himself a victim of what would today be called hate crimes. In 1933, members of the LAPD’s “Red Squad” vandalized his contribution to a mural he created with two colleagues when it was shown at the John Reed Club in Los Angeles as part of an exhibition mounted in support of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers from Alabama who had been accused of raping two white women two years earlier. Yet if the Marlborough works were an indictment—of America and its deep-seated racism, of what Guston called the “cover up” of abstraction, of his own complicity in these intertwined histories—their target remains fundamentally ambiguous, as unresolved as the passages of paint that constitute their representational imagery. For Rosenberg, Guston’s resurrected iconography made the paintings’ protagonists appear as specters of marks. The critic went so far as to describe them as “triangles or pyramids (with pairs of parallel strokes for eyes) who, by this association with peaked hoods, become members of the Ku Klux Klan.”2

THESE WORKS and the negative critical reception they initially engendered have become art-world lore. Guston’s paintings pissed people off—but not because of the reappearance of Klan imagery per se.3 In the ’60s, many understood Guston to be the keeper of the flame for the tragic humanism accorded Abstract Expressionism, especially in the face of the deadpan challenges posed by Pop art and Minimalism. Both critics and many of the artist’s closest friends found it baffling that he would renounce his evocative and well-regarded abstractions for such blatant “bad” figuration. The return of representational imagery in Guston’s work seemed recherché and willfully naive in an art brut sort of way.

Guston was hurt by the response, though he no doubt anticipated the anger his works would provoke and came, in time, to embrace their rebellious reputation. In 1980, the final year of his life, he repeatedly told the story of Willem de Kooning’s taking him aside on the exhibition’s opening night and saying that the work’s true subject was “freedom.”4 De Kooning’s remark was clearly in keeping with the prevailing values of the moment, summoning his generation’s veneration of unrehearsed action, as well as a postwar politics that celebrated, as Meyer Schapiro wrote in 1957, “the liberating quality of avant-garde art” (which, by the time of Guston’s recollection, was being reassessed by a number of art historians as an instrument of Cold War policy). All the same, it was a pretty perverse thing to say considering all those Klan figures on the walls.

Guston invests his villains with a strange modicum of interiority that complicates the works’ status as protest art.

Guston himself mostly resisted any overtly political readings of the later works, just as he avoided ascribing any referential significance to the allusive forms that appeared in his earlier abstractions. Responding to a question from an audience member about the Klansmen during a lecture at Boston University in 1974, Guston stated that he was not particularly “interested in a direct political interpretation” and noted that his favorites from the series were those in which the hooded figures were portrayed as painters, such as Red Picture, Painter and Model, and, most famously, The Studio, all 1969. He repeatedly described the figures as self-portraits and, as is evinced by his subsequent body of work featuring a bedraggled, one-eyed, lima-bean-shaped head often seen in the studio, these paintings were above all personal, expressing, not abstractly, his inner turmoil about what it meant to be an artist and in particular a painter—a painter struggling with both the old question of art’s relation to life and the more pressing one of its relation to politics, but a painter first and foremost. This was the interpretation marshaled by Rosenberg: “Guston’s paintings are political by way of their thinking about art and do more for art than politics.”5 Seeing Guston’s new works as a mode of institutional critique, Rosenberg astutely suggested that their significance lay not so much in any political message as in the liberation they augured for others seeking to invest their art with meaning and social content by representational and even personal and imaginary means.

Philip Guston with The Studio, 1969, Woodstock, NY, 1969. Photo: Frank Lloyd.

For Guston and for many artists who have revered these paintings since, his return to figuration—and the clowning Klanners who brought it into being—was an act of defiance against aesthetic doxa; the sophisticated insouciance of the artist’s late works has long served as the epitome of artistic freedom. (Both Tacita Dean and Rirkrit Tiravanija, two of the ten artists who contributed short texts to the National Gallery catalogue, cite freedom as a distinguishing virtue of Guston’s work.) Particularly since his death in 1980, and the emergence of subsequent generations of artists who have reconsidered the possibilities of painting in general and representational imagery in particular, Guston has become a paragon of postmodern pluralism and its renewed commitment to art’s referential and expressive capacities.

And it is this confusion—between the lionization of Guston as a heroic antimodernist, which has been the established understanding of his achievement (and which is reiterated both in the catalogue and in Storr’s laudatory, luxuriously illustrated monograph) and the ardent attempt to present his work as anti-racist—that lies at the heart of the current debate over the exhibition’s postponement. Guston was a tortured aesthete, someone who felt torn between his commitment to artistic freedom and social justice—a position, I’d venture, that is shared by many artists and critics today. But his invocation of such a charged political symbol as a motif for this self-examination was insensitive and potentially offensive in ways that he and so many of his commentators since have not recognized, and his repeated statements that these images expressed his fascination with evil demand a greater level of scrutiny than they have yet received. In this regard, it seems important to examine the ways in which these works represent the evil of white supremacy not only in its most overt and hateful manifestations, such as the Klan, but also in its more covert and sanctioned ones, behind the veil of white privilege.

Philip Guston, Red Picture, 1969, oil on panel, 24 × 26 1/2". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

ONCE, IN A CONVERSATION WITH ROSENBERG, Guston declared, “If we don’t know what modern art is about, we might as well put it in an ethnological museum.”6 On one level, Guston’s offhand comment was meant to express his suspicion of the sort of modernist formalism that could appreciate so-called primitive art only in terms of its “beautiful forms” rather than “what the work means.” Yet, as modernism’s inner-directed and oftentimes universalizing narratives lose their coherence, the statement also suggests that the aesthetic decontextualization of the white cube of the art gallery might best be understood in terms of its own ethnic affiliation—which is to say, as a formation of whiteness. Already, numerous people have written in defense of the National Gallery exhibition, elucidating the ways in which the history of racism intersected with Guston’s art and life and how he confronted it. Addressing these matters would no doubt reveal new and important means for understanding the artist’s achievement, as well as his blindness and limitations. Framing Guston’s work in terms of its ambiguous relationship with racist symbolism and with whiteness would have produced a timely and compelling—albeit a much more narrowly focused—show, one that I, for one, would have been eager to see. (I should add that I was also quite excited to see the originally proposed exhibition and, like numerous other people, found the statement from the host museums’ four directors announcing the postponement troubling in the way it registered an unwillingness and incapacity to address the valid concerns in a more responsive manner.)

The exhibition’s fateful title, “Philip Guston Now,” summons a sense of political urgency that was likely prompted by the election of Donald Trump but has become somewhat outdated in the wake of the protests following George Floyd’s murder. In a manner similar to that of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the show has entered a much different “now” than the one in which it was conceived.7 Now, the resonances and ramifications of Guston’s Klan imagery cannot be ignored by an art world that has frequently avoided addressing its own insulation from such real-world matters. And now, as an increasingly globalized art world comes to recognize the multiplicity and nonsynchronous nature of modernity, questions of innovation and, in particular, hoary debates about abstraction and figuration seem a less compelling means of understanding an artist’s achievement.

Guston was a tortured aesthete, someone who felt torn between his commitment to artistic freedom and social justice—a position, I’d venture, that is shared by many artists and critics today.

One avenue of exploration was laid out by art historian Anne Monahan in her 2010 dissertation “The Discontents of Modernity: Race, Politics, and Figuration in the 1960s.” Guston’s return to figuration took place alongside a vibrant and politically charged tradition of representational art associated with Black artists such as Romare Bearden and Ringgold, which Guston and his critics largely dismissed (if they were even aware of it).8 That Guston’s reclamation of his own past imagery aligned his new works with that of contemporary Black artists makes his stylistic about-face seem less audacious and allows us to see him as a follower, even a cultural appropriator.

To mount a show that recontextualizes Guston’s work—that recalibrates the artist’s paintings from groundbreaking aesthetic innovations to complex and contradictory cultural artifacts—is also to bring to the fore the foundational role of art museums as institutions devoted to acculturation and the promulgation of civic values.9 As museums begin to address their own histories of exclusion, the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that inform their collections, and their dependence on multinational corporations whose practices often seem at odds with the ameliorative and intellectual ideals espoused in their mission statements, the question of whose culture and what values becomes critical. In short, what would it mean to see these works not in terms of freedom—which, as thinkers such as Orlando Patterson and Alain Badiou have argued, is a value intimately tied up with notions of possessive individualism and even the modern institution of slavery—but in terms of equality?

Philip Guston, Courtroom, 1970, oil on canvas, 5' 7“ × 10' 9”. © The Estate of Philip Guston.

Equality is not a virtue often celebrated in the contemporary art world. Critics, curators, collectors, and even more dispassionate players such as academics still largely operate within a Manichaean paradigm based on sorting the good from the bad, the critical from the complicit, the advanced from the belated. One of the merits of Guston’s art is the way in which it sought to reveal what he called the “badness” that underscores the oppressive forces propelling such progressive models of history and culture, and which implicated him along with everyone else who has subscribed to and benefited from them. Modern art, Guston’s paintings seem to say, ought to be ashamed of itself.

Shame, guilt, remorse, indecision: Guston’s paintings traffic in the ugly feelings of American liberalism in the post-civil-rights era. “What kind of man am I,” the artist stated when recounting the political events that spurred his late style, “sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”10 Though Guston’s way out of this political and existential impasse was to renounce abstraction, he was an expressionist to the end. And like most expressionists, he mediated the world through the self, banking on the belief that others would be able to comprehend his gestures of self-recrimination. But of course, his self-recrimination was predicated on his position of privilege. Now, as the boundaries and blind spots of concepts like “modern art” and “freedom” become more pervious and visible, Guston’s art again pokes at a wound that, as the artist might have said, has been covered up but never cauterized.

Robert Slifkin is a Professor of Fine Arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. He is the author of Out of Time: Philip Guston and the Refiguration of Postwar American Art (University of California Press, 2013).


1. Harold Rosenberg, “Liberation from Detachment,” New Yorker, November 7, 1970, reprinted in Rosenberg, The De-Definition of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 132.

2. Rosenberg, “Liberation from Detachment,” 132.

3. In fact, it is likely that many of the artist’s admirers would not even have been familiar with his earlier works featuring Klan imagery, since none of these had been reproduced in the various monographs dedicated to the artist at the time of the show, and he himself purportedly only discovered Drawing for the Conspirators in 1974.

4. The quotation is worth reproducing in its entirety, as it reiterates Guston’s aversion to a political reading of the works: “You know, everybody thought those paintings were about hooded figures and the bad conditions in America, and so on. And that was part of it. Every artist hopes to give his own interpretation of the world. But they were about something else, too. I like de Kooning and I respect him. I think I like de Kooning best. When he saw the [Marlborough] show, after embracing me and congratulating me, he said, ‘You know, Philip, what your real subject is? It is freedom!’ And I said, ‘That’s right Bill. You’ve got it!’ Jan Butterfield, “A Very Anxious Fix,” Images and Issues, no. 1 (1980): 30–31, reprinted in Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, ed. Clark Coolidge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 290.

5. Rosenberg, “Liberation from Detachment,” 139. Rosenberg altered the text slightly for its 1983 republicaion. When appearing in the New Yorker it read “Guston’s exhibition is political by way of art and does more for art than for politics.”

6. Harold Rosenberg, “On Cave Art, Church Art, Ethnic Art, and Art,” in The Case of the Baffled Radical (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 202.

7. The statement related by the four directors of the museums that were to host the exhibition cited “the racial justice movement that started in the US” as one of the contributing factors to their decision, but of course Black Lives Matter has been a national presence since 2013, and one imagines preparation for the show took place following events like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when the presence of the Klu Klux Klan once again made headlines.

8. Anne Monahan, “The Discontents of Modernity: Race, Politics, and Figuration in the 1960s” (Ph.D. diss., University of Delaware, 2010).

9. Of course, artworks are often both of these things, and numerous exhibitions have been able to present the two facets simultaneously and with sensitivity. One thinks of the “Vida Americana” show, on view through January 31 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which features the unambiguously political art of Mexican muralists (as well as the early work of Guston), and the 2018–19 Delacroix retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where viewers were invited to admire the technical virtuosity and imagination of the artist but were also reminded of the Orientalizing politics that informed even his greatest works.

10. From Jerry Talmer, “‘Creation’ Is for Beauty Parlors,” New York Post, April 9, 1977, reprinted in Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston (New York: Knopf, 1988), 171.