If Not Now, When?: The Controversial Decision to Postpone Philip Guston’s Retrospective

“Philip Guston Now”, a major retrospective of the artist’s work set to tour 4 major galleries across the US and UK, has been postponed amidst concerns surrounding social and racial insensitivity. Now what?…

Words by Alexander Stubbs

Philip Guston’s art has always been radical. He has openly addressed corruption in his “Poor Richard” series, a scathing satire against embattled US president Richard Nixon. Violence and evil, both explicit and innate, are regular features in Guston’s cartoon-esque paintings. So it comes as no surprise, then, that Guston’s work is still provoking in some a sense uncomfortability amidst exhibition organisers.

In September 2020, news emerged that Guston’s retrospective “Philip Guston Now” had been postponed amidst concerns that the works on display – which included 25 paintings and drawings of Guston’s polarising “Klan characters” – were causing concerns for exhibition organisers. According to a statement put out by the directors of the four big institutions set to deliver the exhibition, “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 decision to postpone the exhibition would be upheld “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.” 

Their decision ultimately sparked backlash most notably in the form of an open letter penned by The Brooklyn Rail, an arts, culture, and politics journal, writing: “[T]he people who run our great institutions do not want trouble. They fear controversy. They lack faith in the intelligence of their audience. And they realise that to remind museum-goers of white supremacy today is not only to speak to them about the past, or events somewhere else.”

Instead of educating exhibition visitors about Guston’s use of Klan imagery, the galleries have decided – at least, the directors have decided – to take the easy way out and shelve the exhibition. Curator Mark Godfrey’s comments have led to his suspension from the Tate Modern: “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,” wrote Godfrey, taking a strong stance against a decision he perceives as “extremely patronising to viewers.” 

Philip Guston, “The struggle against terror and fascism (The Inquisition),” 1934-35. Digitised reconstruction of the mural. Image courtesy of David McKee Gallery, New York.

Guston’s work has always highlighted elements of racism and evil present in American society. In one of his earliest and most revered works, his 1934-35 mural The struggle against terror and fascism (The Inquisition), Guston’s fascination with evil and the immediate rise of Fascism are projected through his use of violent imagery. Scenes of terror, figures bound together, and the presence of a hooded figure which would, later, become central to Guston’s artwork, are visible in the mural. The museum directors in question should find it difficult to claim ignorance of Guston’s disposition for controversy; in The Inquisition Guston openly displays a swastika in close proximity to a crucifix, whilst in later works such as Riding Around (1969) and Open Window II (1969), Guston’s infamous Ku Klux Klan figures are portrayed boldly and explicitly. 

So, it should come as no surprise to gallery directors and a public familiar with Guston that his work dealt with uncomfortable themes. It certainly feels dishonest of those in charge of the decision to postpone the exhibition by hiding behind a mirage of public-protectionism and social and racial sensitivity. In fact, it is the opposite that feels more accurate. An important thing to remember about Guston – and something that seems to have been forgotten by the directors – is the consciousness he had of his own complicity in white American racism.

As Godfrey notes, Guston “felt compelled to imagine himself behind the hood.” In The Studio (1969), Guston’s Klan figure stands in quite literally for the artist. A recurring theme in Guston’s Klan paintings is the ubiquitous red-gloved hand. Not only an aesthetic choice by Guston, the hand signals his own condemnation; that he is pointing towards a self that hides beneath the masks he paints. By placing himself behind the white hood, Guston was implicating himself in the culture of white America’s racism, rather than attempting to simultaneously pass judgement on his subject and remove himself from the firing line. This is a sentiment echoed by Guston’s daughter and head of the Guston Foundation, Musa Mayer, who explains that the Klan figures “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.” One would think that this context would settle the minds of the gallery directors; a sense of reassuring the public that these works would be shown in context and with honesty and accuracy.

Guston certainly should not be held up as an unassailable figure; he is not a martyr through which America’s muddied history of racism, bigotry, and anti-Black violence can be absolved. But his work is an example of a white artist recognising his own faults and those of his country. His satire and his effective criticisms of American identity paint a picture that still resonates today. The world we are living in is, for people of colour across America, much the same as it was five years ago. The insistence that it is “very different”, as the gallery directors would like us to believe, feels ignorant. “Philip Guston Now” is not going to save us from our social, political, and racial problems; nor is it, however, going to make them worse. 

Trenton Doyle-Hancock, tasked with writing an essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, remarks that “Guston describes something beyond the occasion, something lurking under the white hoods.” When we finally get to see the exhibition realised, it is likely that the world will still be mired in its various conflicts, unable to come to terms with its own injustices. Postponing the exhibition is merely slowing progress, not carrying out the kind of social justice the gallery directors believe themselves to acting on.

“Philip Guston Now” is now planned to open in 2024.

Featured image Philip Guston, “Scared Stiff,” 1970. Image courtesy of The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy of the estate and Hauser & Wirth.

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