I Like America and America Likes Me: Revisiting Joseph Beuys’ Most Famous Work

As we mark the 100th birthday of Germany’s most out there conceptual artist, one performance stands out from the rest. We take a look at the story behind I Like America and America Likes Me

Words by Alexander Stubbs. First published March 29th, 2021, at The Mackayan.
Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, Germany. Courtesy of SFMoMA.

In 1974, German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys set out on an audacious experiment: to spend three consecutive days in the same room as a wild coyote. Landing in New York City Beuys was met by his assistants, who proceeded to wrap him in felt and drive him by ambulance – sirens and all – to Rene Block Gallery in SoHo. It was inside the gallery’s white walls that Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me would be actioned, and it was there that Beuys would spend the following days attempting to coexist with the coyote. 

Beuys, shepherd’s crook in hand and cloaked in his felt blanket, communed with the coyote in a flux of submissiveness and aggression. There are moments in the film footage of the performance where the coyote even appears as a companion to Beuys; there are other moments where, unsurprisingly, the coyote rips and claws at Beuys felt covering, a reminder that we are in fact witnessing a wild animal dropped into a severely urban and un-wild environment. In a quasi-shamanistic ritual that put Beuys at the centre of one of the most provocative performance pieces of the 1970s, what was capable in art – particularly conceptual and performance art – was once again redefined. 

“Though Beuys is able to break down the barrier between display and interaction, the audience cannot; they are left to gaze at the animal, treating it as both subject and spectacle.”

As far as Beuys was concerned, there were no boundaries in art making. To him, everyone was capable of making art: “EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST,” he wrote, a position he would remain vigilant on for the rest of his career and one that would heavily inform I Like America and America Likes Me. Through his work, Beuys aimed to encourage the collaboration of the audience with his materials. In I Like America it is the audience’s spectatorship rather than any physical intervention that defines their collaboration. 

With the audience physically removed from the encounter, we are left to question the position of their gaze. The idea of the gaze has dominated art history for the past century, and is a question that Hal Foster examines in his book “Bad New Days,” where he writes: “For Lacan, animals are simply caught in the gaze of the world; they are only on display there.” In I Like America, the coyote is indeed on display. Though Beuys is able to break down the barrier between display and interaction, the audience cannot; they are left to gaze at the animal, treating it as both subject and spectacle. 

Joseph Beuys
I like America and America likes me 1974
Photo credit Caroline Tisdall © DACS 200

Foster continues: “Humans are not so reduced to this “imaginary capture,” for we have access to the symbolic.” With this understanding, Beuys is able to “moderate and manipulate” the gaze. By remaining intertwined with the coyote in a performative and physical engagement, Beuys manipulates the audience to interact with him and the coyote. This manipulation is a tool he used to encourage collaboration, but also one that was powerful in addressing socio-political struggles he saw as fundamental to the American problem.

“Of course, sitting in a room with a coyote for three days wasn’t going to fix these problems. For Beuys, though, it was a way of engaging critically with the state of the world.”

“Only art,” he wrote in a statement from 1973, a year before his encounter with the coyote, “is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline.” Art, he thought, was the only tool that would eventually change society for the better. It makes sense then that Beuys’ performance would take place in the US. American writer Jack Burnham considered that Beuys “saw the same sicknesses, or similar sicknesses, in the United States as he did in Germany and in Europe.” Beuys was acutely aware of the socio-political problems in the US. The Vietnam War was still fresh on the nation’s collective conscience, and the Watergate scandal was emerging as the latest political saga to strike the nation. 

Of course, sitting in a room with a coyote for three days wasn’t going to fix these problems. For Beuys, though, it was a way of engaging critically with the state of the world. The action brought attention to the need, as Beuys saw it, to rehabilitate the relationship between America and its native people, with the coyote acting as the symbol of a restored order. 

Now, almost 50 years on from the performance, what can Beuys’ performance teach us about contemporary American society? There is certainly an argument to be made that society hasn’t really changed all that much at all. Last year’s summer of social unrest was an indication that the US is still struggling with its history, whilst governmental decisions over land ownership and the exploitation of native peoples is indicative of a nation divided. 

By sitting alone with the coyote, Beuys believed he would be able to view America nakedly; a nation exposed to itself and innocent in the flesh. “I wanted to isolate myself,” he claimed, “insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.” In 1974 Beuys saw a divided nation, one that it was still possible to heal. Looking at America today we see much the same. Art needs its modern Beuys, much like America still desperately needs its coyote.

To read the full article, head over to The Mackayan

The Sunday Painter

As the fight against an ever-present and threatening virus continues on, it feels like forever since we could huddle in groups outdoors. As we turn to art for a sense of calm and reassurance, perhaps we can also find some hope for the future in LS Lowry’s cityscapes…

Words by Alexander Stubbs. First published March 20th, 2021, at The Mackayan.

Having spent the last year staring in the face of endless national lockdowns and a pandemic that has seen our streets emptied of its bodies and its noise, viewing Lowry’s paintings is a strange experience. They once felt like windows into a time far removed from our own. Now we gaze upon them with a sense of despondency, patiently but cautiously waiting for our past sense of normalcy to return.

Separated from Lowry’s paintings by almost 100 years, the aches and pains of a global pandemic have revived our interest in depictions of people congregating en masse. In 1943, Lowry completed “Britain at Play,” one of his more immersive cityscapes. Here we see a nameless town exuding energy. Life abounds in Lowry’s work here. People have flocked to the parks and onto the streets to socialise and play, whilst in the distance smoke belts out from factory chimneys, suggesting that work must still continue. If nothing else, we see the town at its most animated. 

Lowry painted “Britain at Play” amidst one of the most devastating moments in history. The Second World War had been raging on for four years at this point, yet there is no indication in the painting that anything other than customary daily life was occurring. Lowry was looking backwards in time here, painting on his sense of nostalgia thickly. As John Berger writes, Lowry’s focus “on the minutiae of the everyday” was the catalyst that drove him to popular fame. Through his depictions of uneven streets and foggy skies, Lowry captured the reality of industrial life in the North of England in a way that was relatable to those living there. 

To read the full article, head over to The Mackayan.

Cover image: “L S Lowry contemplating Stockport.” by Smabs Sputzer (1956-2017) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When Is It Time?: A Case For the Death of Art

Sentimental. Adjective. “Having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way.” We feel this way about art sometimes. But why? Maybe it’s time we reconsider the value of art, and stop clinging onto the past…
Words by Alexander Stubbs. First published 13th March, 2021, at The Mackayan.

Walk into any national gallery and you’re likely to find a collection of artworks that are considered to be of national – sometimes international – importance. As we marvel at the William Hogarth’s and Edgar Degas’ hanging on the walls of the Tate Britain, we’re transported to their worlds. John Constable’s landscapes and Peter de Wint’s pastoral reflections transport us to the fields of rural England; works by William Blake and John Martin paint a picture of fury, destruction, and the sublime – we are drawn to them because of their grandeur – their scale – but also because we have internalised their assumed superiority.  

The paintings that hang in galleries and the artists we admire represent more than just art history; they are, ostensibly, symbols that represent our identities.

It is something more than just the paint on the canvas that we admire and lust after. The unquestioned greatness bestowed upon artists (some more than others) is central in how we protect the foundations upon which our culture is built. The paintings that hang in galleries and the artists we admire represent more than just art history; they are, ostensibly, symbols that represent our identities. They are the images that define who we think we are. 

By placing such importance upon historical figures, we have allowed them to become untouchable.  When an artist we love succumbs to their own fault past, we immediately fear that we are losing our culture – our identity. We’re under attack, we think when an artist is “cancelled,” unaware that we are just as guilty of allowing them to reign unopposed and unchallenged. So, when we are offered an exhibition that includes names we have been told to respect, we blindly follow along, forgetting to question why it is that particular artist deserves a place on the gallery wall.

Want to continue reading? Head over to The Mackayan to read the full article.

What happens when history is kept behind closed doors?

Christie’s, the world famous auction house, has closed public access to their public archives. Exclusivity, it seems, is paramount for the elite…

Words by Alexander Stubbs. First published February 27th, 2021 at The Mackayan.

When we talk about a place like Christie’s, we imbue a certain sentimentality upon it. Sentimentality is our way of placing importance upon things that others consider useless and irrelevant.

It’s a preservation technique and, when used correctly, it protects what should be protected. The recent closure of Christie’s world-famous King Street archive, then, has sparked a flurry of concerns from academics, artists, and curators alike. King Street is not just an iconic location in the art world; it’s a beating heart for scholarship, a place where obscure discoveries are made and art history narratives forged.

Home to what is considered the most comprehensive auction archive in the world, it’s not just a case of sentimentality but historical and cultural significance. That alone is enough to warrant the wave of criticism stemming from the decision to close off public access to the archive. If we cannot access art, what use is it collecting dust?

Enjoyed reading? Head over to The Mackayan to read the full essay, here.

Capturing Multiplicity: The Conceptual Work of Charles Gaines

Charles Gaines, perhaps America’s most preeminent conceptual artist that has flown under the radar, has his first UK solo show in 2021. So why has it taken so long?…
Words by Alexander Stubbs. First published February 13th, 2021 at The Mackayan.

When we overlay an image or a thing onto something else, it’s ostensibly an attempt to cover up the original; an attempt to hide what we once considered worthy of viewing, and what we now consider to be irrelevant or obscene. In Charles Gaines’ (1944-) conceptual work the act of covering up is not a reductive action, but is given strength. Instead of masking, Gaines layers his images on top of one another as a way to highlight what lies underneath, to draw attention to the image that sits waiting to be viewed. 

For Gaines, identity and inner subjectivity are as present in his conceptual work as they are in the work of other Black artists of the time. The numbers are just his way of showing it.

Gaines was one of the earliest proponents of conceptual art. His contemporaries included art world heavyweights, like Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth, and Ed Ruscha, though Gaines would have to wait to receive the same level of recognition. Gaines, a Black artist first and conceptual artist second, seemed to be at odds with the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s. His work followed conceptual lines, which required a sense of detaching the self from the image, generating work that didn’t appear, at least on the surface, to speak to the social and political climate of his time. “How do I say that drawing 450 million numbers is really my expression of racial identity?” For Gaines, identity and inner subjectivity are as present in his conceptual work as they are in the work of other Black artists of the time. The numbers are just his way of showing it.

Enjoyed reading so far? Continue over at The Mackayan, here.

“Charles Gaines: Multiples of Nature, Trees and Faces” is on view at Hauser & Wirth from 29th January – 1st May 2021. The exhibition can be viewed digitally here.

“Sets and Scenarios” at Nottingham Contemporary

From the archive, a review of “Sets and Scenarios”; an online exhibition curated by the students of the Royal College of Art’s MA Curating Contemporary Art programme…

Rating: 2.5 out of 4.
Words by Alexander Stubbs. First published 9th July, 2020, at Leftlion.

Over the past month there has been a marked change in how Nottingham Contemporary delivers its arts programme to a clamouring audience thirsty for their share of boundary-shifting and thought-provoking art. Sets and Scenarios – curated by students studying on the Royal College of Art’s MA Curating Contemporary Art programme – is the Contemporary’s latest online instalment, building on the successes of Aftermath 2020 and Becoming Part of the Picture – A Loudspeaker Exhibition. Presented as part of a larger graduate project in partnership with UK-based art organisations, Sets and Scenarios is one of five digital exhibitions championing a new wave of artistic talent through collaborative curation and commissions.

Screenshot from Eva Gold’s “For Your Discreet Viewing Pleasure,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

A week-long set of film screenings supplement Sets and Scenarios’ live programming, capturing Nottingham Contemporary’s history of inviting the public into a shared space where art and film coexist. Sets and Scenarios grapples with this detachment from the corporeal and manages to provide an element of community interaction and outreach. Providing the audience with a stimulating, however distanced, arts programme is certainly challenging, but is achieved here in an engaging way. If the exhibition achieves nothing else, it has at least proven that the online space is a legitimate platform for the arts.

Sets and Scenarios explores our “heightened proximity to images” and what an increasing exposure to their influence means for our day-to-day experiences. Delivered through three acts and three interludes, Sets and Scenarios plays on the tropes of cinema and theatre in its content and in its layout. The exhibition’s framework unfolds gradually before the viewer: as we navigate through the exhibition, each web page reveals more of the performance, enticing us deeper and deeper into a world of surveillance, privacy, and surrealism. As we delve into this unsettling world, we must ask ourselves: exactly how much control do we have over our own experience?

Enjoyed reading? Head over to Leftlion to read the full review, here.

“Aftermath” at Nottingham Contemporary

From the archive, a review of Aftermath; the annual Nottingham Contemporary-hosted exhibition held in collaboration with Nottingham Trent students…

Rating: 2 out of 4.
Words by Alexander Stubbs. First published 9th July, 2020, at Leftlion.

Aftermath responds to a past exhibition: this year, the well-received Still Undead: Popular Culture in Britain Beyond the Bauhaus is under the microscope. Offering new perspectives on an established exhibition, particularly one that received high praise, is indeed a demanding task. 

 It’s all a bit different this time around. Trading The Space – a multi-purpose exhibition hall nestled below the main galleries – with a digital ‘space’ on the Nottingham Contemporary website, Aftermath 2020 finds itself in untrodden territory. It’s a sign that even with our physical institutions closing their doors, artists remain working. The works on view are an eclectic and refreshing mix that, as you turn the pages of the virtual exhibition catalogue, provide a sense that each artist has thought carefully about their responses to Still Undead

As Still Undead captured a moment in British artistic history, Aftermath seeks to portray the present moment with a unique sense of self-awareness. Creating art whilst confined to spaces that are not conventional studios and workshops is a challenge in itself. Ryan Boultbee’s Restrictions/Intuition is born out of experimentation that could only belong to the present moment. The use of candle wax and paper is the result of what the artist has on hand; experimentation with material is itself a recognition of playfulness confined by and to a certain space.

Enjoyed reading? Head over to Leftlion to read the full review, here.

A Figure of Liberation: Robert Legorreta’s Cyclona

Often overlooked, Robert Legorreta’s subversive performance art of the late 1960s gained him notoriety amongst L.A.’s artistic circles. Legorreta’s drag persona, Cyclona, stands as a somewhat misunderstood demonstration of gender, style, and sexuality, blurring the boundaries between masculinity and femininity and calling into question his own Chicano identity…
Words by Katja Fjeld

By the 1970s, Robert Legorreta was highly perceived as “the legendary East L.A. Street performer” amongst the contemporary cultural Chicano/a community.1 His oeuvre consists of various media, ranging from photography, painting and performance art. The latter in particular granted him a position within the canon of the East L.A Chicano art scene. 

However, Legorreta’s work has been left largely uninvestigated, often confused with other contemporary Chicano artists such as the famous Chicano art collective Asco.2 Whilst Legorreta collaborated with members of the collective, the political declarations and the embodiment and characteristics of the performances belong to Legorreta. This common misconception and disregard of his work stems from Legorreta’s own position within the Chicano community. His drag stage persona, “Cyclona”, experiments with gender, style and sexuality, thus his performances illustrate alternative Chicano identities during a civil rights movement that was deeply rooted in the conservative patriarchal and heterosexual familia and the Catholic church.3 Because of this, his activism confronts and disrupts this myth of the essentialised macho, heterosexual Chicano identity. 

Thus, the figure of Cyclona became a figure of liberation for Legorreta: 

“It was kind of God’s gift because I had to accept it. Something for a long time I couldn’t accept.[…]I had to accept it and fall in love with it because it wasn’t an alter ego.”4 

Cyclona became an active process of self-acceptance. By performing as a character of uncertain race and gender, Legoretta faced the opportunity to blur his masculine and feminine sides and act in a way that as a Chicano man, he was expected not to. In his infamous performance Caca-Roaches Have No Friends, Cyclona appeared for the first time sporting a look that would become the artist’s staple. Dressed in drag he appeared on stage with white powder emphasizing his deep-red overdrawn lips, arched eyebrows and exaggerated black eye makeup. The heavy sideburns and revealing costume enhances his physicality, colliding with and blurring his masculinity and femininity.

Cyclona, “Caca-Roaches Have No Friends,” performed documentation, 1969. Colour photograph by Gronk.

Thus, Cyclona relates to certain definitions of Camp. Susan Sontag describes camping as “a mode of seduction – one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation.”5 The exaggerated contrast between Cyclona’s female aesthetics and his male physique signifies this ‘double interpretation’ as a performance of identifying with a difference. Cyclona’s queerness is not interested in passing for any gender, but indulges in the exaggerated aesthetics that creates a spectacle that both suggests masculine and feminine self-empowerment. Legorreta explains: 

“Straight society forgets that everybody is brought up straight, so your identity comes later […] I was in harmony with my sexual identity, both male and female. I allowed myself to experience that and it took the form of cross-dressing that mixed both male and female clothing, so that it wasn’t exclusively male or exclusively female.”6 

By enhancing his masculinity through his femininity, Cyclona recycles established machismo Chicano identity and transforms it into a queer spectacle. Both identifying with, but also against the normative gender and racial roles. Whilst his external signals (cosmetics, costume) signifies femininity, his male body signifies masculinity. His disinterest in passing functions as a disidentification, a recycling of normative gender and race assumptions which makes way for a queer identity that was previously excluded. 

In the latter part of the performance – during the notorious “Cock Scene” – Cyclona takes his partner on stage, aggressively undresses him, revealing a phallic water-balloon and two eggs between his legs signifying an erect penis. Cyclona mimics homosexual intercourse by “jerking off” the balloon, twisting it and biting it until it pops (Fig.3). This erotic mimicry of homosexuality caused outrage within the Chicano family audience who, in the midst of the growing gay liberation movement, had grown sensitive to such connotations within their own community.

The infamous “Cock Scene.” Cyclona, “Caca-Roaches Have No Friends,” performed documentation, 1969. Colour photograph by Gronk.

According to Legorreta, the scene represents patriarchal destruction.7 Thus, the exploding phallus is transformed from signifying ejaculation to symbolising something closer to castration. The performance thus turns into a direct critique of Chicano machismo culture’s homosexual panic. Because the coloured American man has already been rendered as insufficiently masculine – and homosexuality signifies femininity – Cyclona demonstrates Chicano identity’s constant concealing of such gender and sexual identities. By performing as a queer Chicano giving his male partner sexual pleasure, the ideal macho Chicano identity is questioned. By figuring queer identity through the vehicle of the Chicano male body, Cyclona offers a reinterpretation of male Chicano sexuality, illuminating heteronormativity’s fragility by literally destroying it during his partner’s climax. The castration signifies sexual liberation from dominant society’s restricted racial and gender norms. José Esteban Muñoz states that: 

“Camp is a form of artificial respiration; it breathes new life into old situations. Camp is then, more than a worldview; it is a strategic response to the breakdown of representation that occurs when a queer, ethnically marked or other subject encounters his or her inability to fit within the majoritarian representational regime.”8 

Cyclona, “Caca-Roaches Have No Friends,” performed documentation, 1969. Colour photograph by Gronk.

Caca-Roaches Have No Friends utilises and repeats hegemonic racial and sexual roles and represents them through a queer Chicano embodiment. By using drag-performance, a medium typically reserved for the white glamour queen, and embodying it through a highly stereotypical imagery of Chicano gang identity; Caca-Roaches Have No Friends reclaims this unjust portrayal of Chicano/as and queer invisibility by transforming it into queer Chicano desire. The performance thus makes way for a queer Chicano representation that is liberating and desirable. As Legorreta states “We were trying to shock people into believing that they could do anything they wanted to….I always say East L.A. was like a giant rubber that was ready to explode.”9 This ‘exploding giant rubber’ is a reference to the phallic balloon, signifying this ‘breathing of new life into old situations.’ 

  1. Robb Hernandez. The fire of life: the Robert Legorreta-Cyclona collection, (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2009): 3.
  2. Rudi C. Bleys. Images of Abiente: Homosexuality and Latin American Art, 1810 – Today, (London: Continuum, 2000), 173.
  3. Robb Hernandez. The fire of life: 3.
  4. Ibid. 16.
  5. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”, Partisan Review, XXXI, no. 4, (1964): 5. Accessed 16 November, 2020, https://monoskop.org/images/5/59/Sontag_Susan_1964_Notes_on_Camp.pdf.
  6. Robert Legorreta “Cyclona and Early Performance Art: An Interview with Robert Legorreta” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 12 no 3, (2006): 485. Accessed 16 November, 2020: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/197484.
  7. Robert Legorreta “Cyclona and Early Performance Art: An Interview with Robert Legorreta” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 12 no 3, (2006): 482. Accessed 16 November, 2020: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/197484.
  8. José Esteban Munoz. Disidentifications : queers of color and the performance of politics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999): 128.
  9. Elison Carr. “Just another Painter from East L.A.,”, L.A Weekly, March, 1994, 18.

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.

Chila Kumari Singh Burman: From Radical to Sentimental, and Beyond

Chila Burman’s latest multimedia installation, remembering a brave new world, is currently on display as part of the Tate Britain Winter Commission. Here, we take a look at Burman’s career, and how radical politics has informed personal memory…

Words by Alexander Stubbs

Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s (1957-) work over the past thirty years has addressed a variety of themes, from radical politics of nuclear disarmament and social progressivism, to more intimate personal memory and religious mythology. The controversial and daring nature of her early work – still somewhat under-appreciated in art circles – has earned her a place at the forefront of British art and, specifically, the movement of female British-South Asian artists, whilst her more palatable and colourful work of the 21st Century has brought her to a wider audience.

Graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1982, Burman’s work spans across time and medium in a unique way. Employing the use of printmaking, painting, film, collage, and photography, Burman exemplifies what it means to be a “multimedia” artist. Her earliest work Riot Series, the culmination of her art school studies and a reaction to the social, political, and racial tensions of 1980s Britain, is a far cry from the more playful and colourful work of her later career, where ice-cream trucks and cones dominate Burman’s oeuvre. 

Yet, Burman remains relevant, even as her contemporaries have faded out of the spotlight. Though she no longer treads the path of overt political protest that defined so much of her early work, Burman’s talent for marrying intimate personal history with wider female and South Asian identity still feels important.

Riot Series: Burman at her most political

Fresh out of art school and acutely aware of the social tensions that were boiling over, Burman’s Riot Series captures the sentiments of a young, radically-minded generation that were using their voices to combat those in power. Conceived at the height of nuclear tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, Burman’s “Triptych No Nukes” (1982) depicts gasmask-wearing riot police etched onto the print, overlaid with red hazard symbols and progressively deteriorating as the triptych evolves to the point where the subjects are almost indecipherable from the background. Burman’s awareness of an international politics is mirrored by a more domestic protest, seen in other Riot Series works such as “If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress – Uprisings” (1981) where text is laid over newspaper clippings and Burman’s etchings.

Lynda Nead, who has written extensively on Burman’s career, writes of Burman’s artistic process in Riot Series:

“Particular themes begin to emerge from Burman’s work from the 1970s and 1980s. Firstly, there is the idea of layering: of surfaces being built up, one upon another, creating dense walls of ink, paint, line and meaning. And secondly, there is the theme of fragmentation: of the image being broken up and subsequently reconstituted in order to shift stereotypes and to create radical forms of meaning.”1

Fragmentation plays a key role in Burman’s “Militant Women” (1982) where Burman shifts focus to female identity and oppression faced by women across the world, indicating the start of what would become a central theme in her later work. “Militant Women” exists within a wider, global context of female identity: the physical framing of images of women and newspaper clippings highlights a sense of historical oppression that requires archiving, rooting them firmly in the reality of the moment. 

Riot Series is a reminder that Burman was as socially-radical as she was artistically progressive; the printmaking techniques she used pushed the boundaries of what was possible, whilst her choice of subject equally embodied a level of protest that was fresh and necessary in 80s Thatcherite Britain. Ultimately, Burman’s early work finds itself in its ability to confront the ills of society, the result of a modern social consciousness and sense of fearlessness in the face of moral and political wrong.

remembering a brave new world, 2020

2020 sees Burman’s latest work, “remembering a brave new world,” being realised as part of the Tate Britain Winter Commission. Inspired partly by the festivities of Diwali, and partly by more challenging themes such as colonial history (Burman switches out the figure of Britannia in favour of Kali, the Hindu goddess of liberation and power) and personal memory, this mixed-media installation interrogates the intersection between aesthetics and the gallery space. 

Burman’s installation on the façade of Tate Britain. Image courtesy of Tate.

An ode to her family history as well as her artistic oeuvre, the front steps of the Tate Britain is now home to a neon sculpture of her family ice cream van: a theme she has visited and revisited countless times over her career most notably in “Eat Me Now” (2013), a 5ft sculpture of an ice cream cone that pays homage to her father’s ice cream van.

 As religious mythology sits alongside personal history it becomes clear that, for Burman, these are themes that are impossible to separate. In “remembering a brave new world,” she is inviting us to explore the installation not only as a physical site, but as a metaphysical one: a place where history is drawn out, and promises of a better future are made.

Chila Kumari Burman, Eat Me Now, 2013, mixed media. Image courtesy of Chila Kumari Singh Burman.

Burman’s work here ultimately “takes inspiration from the luminous struggles and victories of the past to offer hope for a brighter future,”2 a visual reminder that things will, inevitably, get better.

Burman’s installation is on view between 14 November 2020 – 31 January 2021

  1. Lynda Nead, Chila Kumari Burman, Beyond Two Cultures, London 1995.
  2. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/chila-kumari-singh-burman