When are controversial images in a series of paintings enough to make four prestigious museums postpone an exhibit for four years?
Last week I talked about an artist named Philip Guston whose remarkable career took him from realism to abstract expressionism, but then when he was almost 60 he shocked the art world by going back to representationalism. As soon as he made the change, a curious cast of characters began to populate Guston’s new style. Indeed one of the most distinctive features of his new worl was the appearance of hooded figures that look like they could be members of the Ku Klux Klan. They’re not represented as people—not exactly. They’re portrayed simply as cartoonish but vaguely menacing hoods and hands.
One New York Times critic explained that in abandoning abstraction and embracing a depiction of the Klan, Guston was facing down an evil that he first saw as a young Jewish boy in Los Angeles. Another said that his hooded figures were “emblems of human blindness, dishonesty, and malevolence”
In June, 2019, a group of four prestigious museums announced that a major new retrospective of Guston’s work—the first in 15 years—would be going to Washington DC, Boston, Houston, and finally London. But not now. Late last month the Directors of those museums said it was being postponed. “After a great deal of reflection and extensive consultation,” they said, “We are postponing the exhibition 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.”
The reaction from the art world was swift and overhwhelmingly negative. A former curator at the Museum of Modern Art called the decision “cowardly” and “an insult to art and the public alike.” New York Times reporter Jason Farago noted that 16 years ago these same paintings travelled in an major exhibit without incident to New York, San Francisco, London, and Fort Worth. “But,” he said, “today’s museum leaders have grown risk-averse to a degree that edges into censoriousness, and their fear has spread from the boardroom to the gallery walls.”
Guston’s daughter was likewise put out and said “These paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.”
Critic Lee Rosenbaum is among those who understands why the curators took the step they did, calling the decision regrettable but necessary. It certainly isn’t a “cowardly act of censorship;” she said, “it’s a matter of responsible stewardship during a time of volatile protests that have sometimes turned violent and destructive.”
The shows authoritative catalog is already available in museum stores. Or, at least it was. It’s still available on amazon.com and it looks fantastic.
If you’ve not seen the work of Philip Guston—his is not exactly a household name I know – go online and take a look at some of his works from every stage of his career you’ll see some surprising things from a thoughtful serious artist. And consider whether you think a museum should take on an exhibit that features them.