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David and Art - Philip Guston

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

A postponed exhibit gives us a chance to think about how a museum displays its art.

Back in the fall of 2020 a major exhibit of the work of painter Philip Guston was suddenly put on hold.  The four museums in Boston, Houston, London, and Washington, DC that had organized it, were concerned about how certain of the artist’s paintings would be perceived after the summer of protests over the murder of George Floyd. The reason for this was that Some of Guston’s later paintings feature cartoonish representations of figures that clearly seem to be hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan

When the museums’ directors announced that the exhibit was being postponed the reaction from much of the art world was swift and overwhelmingly negative. But now it’s back on and just opened in Boston, where it will be up until September 11 of this year.  After that (and take note of this) it comes to Houston, where it will be until the middle of next January. 

None of his paintings that caused the concern have been removed from the exhibit. It’s still complete. “We never were going to cancel or censor, and we haven’t,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Houston Museum. “But what was equally inevitable was a change in the conversation regarding his work.” The way the exhibit is now laid out allows visitors to detour around the Klan-themed paintings if they so desire. 

 In one sense this is good because it brings public attention to Guston and to the museums hosting the exhibit.  One can hope that rather than jump to uninformed conclusions, people might actually go and look at the works before having an opinion about them.  One can hope.

Matthew Teitelbaum, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, said, “This isn’t about the acceptability of Guston, this is about the hospitality of the museum.”

 I think that’s perceptive. Part of a museums job is to provide context to works of art—to help people understand the story behind the images. Whether those images are apparently banal or heatedly controversial, the story behind them, of how they came to be, is a critical one for the viewer to perceive. Indeed, an impression of banality begins to evaporate when you learn the meaning behind something.

It is the same with history. Part of what I perceive my job to be is to show my students that these episodes from history that they thought were dry and boring and without substance actually are quite full of meaning once they understand the context. This is what a museum does with art. This is what these museums are now doing to help their visitors understand the work of a serious artist which, if given only a shallow glance, could be wildly misunderstood.