art

4 Museums Decided This Work Shouldn’t Be Shown. They’re Both Right and Wrong.

Fear postponed a Philip Guston retrospective. A reckoning must follow.

Photo: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from The Hearst Corporation and The Norman and Rosita Winston Foundation, Inc. 82.20. © Estate of Philip Guston

Last week, four major museums — Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art; the Tate Modern; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts — jointly announced that their traveling “Philip Guston Now” retrospective was being postponed for four years. (The length of a presidential term.) The letter states that Guston’s work could not be shown “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice … can be more clearly interpreted.”

This is a cloudy bureaucratic obfuscation if ever there was one. What the letter doesn’t say is that the reason for this postponement is widely believed to be that these institutions are terrified that they will be protested and attacked as racist, lose funding, and that directors and board members may be forced to resign or be fired. Guston is, among much else, the painter of an extraordinary series of paintings, begun in the 1960s, of scary, crazy, cartoonish, cavorting, cigar-smoking Ku Klux Klansmen in white hoods driving around American cities in convertibles with their tops down. In one astonishing scene, we see an artist in a Klan hood painting at his easel. But these works do not seem to be the cause of the uproar. Former MoMA curator and author of an upcoming book on Guston, Robert Storr, revealed to The Art Newspaper that there had been “pushback from [National Gallery] staff about the anti-lynching image from the 1930s.” He may be referring to several large 1930s images made when Guston was still in his teens and there were thought to be around 3 million members of the Klan. One shows nine huge hooded figures in robes below a tree with the limp body of a Black man hanging at the end of a rope. One huge Klansman stares down at two blocks, shaped like Mississippi and Louisiana, at his feet. A destroyed image showed a Klansman whipping a Black man who has his feet and hands bound and is strapped to a post. It’s horrifying, brutal, blunt Black pain depicted at its most explicit, not that different than we see in many videos today.

Almost instantaneously, the art world went into its “don’t tread on me,” “don’t censor us” act. A collective cri de coeur arose, “How dare you postpone this show. Everyone knows these paintings are against racism.” The Washington Post’s Sebastian Smee compared the postponement to actions taken in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The art world has never been one for getting a grip. Of course, I reacted this way at first too. Upon consideration, the postponement is much more complicated than just appeasing philistines and snowflakes who are unable to cope with or properly process what the artist Glenn Ligon, in an essay for the exhibition catalogue, called these “woke” KKK paintings.

Former MoMA adjunct curator Darby English told the New York Times that the cancellation was “cowardly and patronizing, an insult to art and the public alike.” In a way, he is right: The curators canceling the show do seem to be scared. They should be.

Each of these museums probably has things on their walls and in their halls right now that are as disturbing and contestable as the Guston paintings. If the show went on as planned, and the works produced the protests its curators apparently expect, presumably the institutions would feel obligated to state, “We will remove those works and no longer exhibit such art that perpetuates racist, sexism, xenophobia, and ideologies that promote hate and pain.” This sets a bad precedent.

Part of me flinches at this prospect and sympathizes with Musa Mayer, daughter of the artist, who says, “These [Klan] paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.” Isn’t it the job of museums to be able to present this art in ways that give audiences full views and understandings of such art? Is art to be defined exclusively by ideology, demographics, subject matter, current events, and populism? We can’t reduce art to woke or not woke.
But another part of me says, “What’s wrong with thinking twice about showing work that depicts racism, sexism, and homophobia?” If exhibiting such things would generate outrage — well, maybe their outrageousness could be an occasion for reflection and interrogation.

Unfortunately, the museums duck all this. The statement never mentions the Klan paintings. They are the “white” elephants in the room. This tells us that these museums are afraid that to do so would reveal something deep and troubling about their own institutions, practices, histories, staffs, and those in power.

Of course these images are “disturbing!” These modern gargoyles freak me out. Yet the paintings are also physically beautiful and deeply strange. A measure of how great these works are is that they might easily trigger multiple interpretations and responses no one can predict. Guston said he wanted to paint “a bunch of dumb creatures, just really dumb creatures [like] the world we live in” and ambiguously wondered, “What would it be like to be evil?” But it is easy to imagine all sorts of responses to these works now. We could see white Proud Boys and Trumpists posing in front of the Gustons, giving white-power signs as nearby crowds with firsthand memories of the Klan look on. Ours is a moment of lived and witnessed blatant racism and everyday Black pain.

Of course, so was Guston’s. He was among the most important, powerful, and influential American painters of the last 100 years. Born in 1913, he was the son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, originally named Goldstein. As a young artist, he worked with the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. He was a lifelong activist-artist whose own anti-racist work — an early mural panel he made of a Klansman whipping a Black man strapped to a post — was destroyed by police who sympathized with the Klan. He was a first-tier Abstract Expressionist who suddenly returned to figuration in the 1960s and was critically rejected for it. He’s an art-world hero. I love him.

These are among the reasons that the art-world loyalist in me wanted to be in with the in crowd; especially as this crowd almost never asks me to be in anything — and this time they were asking me to sign a heady letter expressing “shock” over the show’s postponement. I was told the letter “may also appear in Le Monde.” But I waited.

That’s when I saw two tweets by critic Aruna D’Souza that stopped me in my tracks. The first pointed out that Darby English (of the “cowardly” quote) has an influential role at the Hauser & Wirth Institute, where he serves on the advisory board. The second that this international megagallery “represents the Guston estate, and the Guston catalogue raisonné is being done under the auspices of the research center.” (Someone countered that the catalog is being done under the auspices of the Guston Foundation. Either way, Hauser & Wirth represents the estate.) D’Souza added that “4 white curators [and] 12 out of 14 non-Black contributors (one of whom is Dana Schutz), may not be the best people to frame his work at this moment. Yes we may need a Guston show, but not ANY Guston show.” She could have added that all four of the museum directors are white. I completely agreed with her when she told ARTnews that the idea that Guston’s Klan paintings “is work that’s important to see now and all museums have to do is educate audiences [about] why looking at KKK figures is good for them is terribly paternalistic and condescending. At this point, more than ever, it’s important not to tell Black audiences what they should be looking at, but asking them what they want to see.” Amen.

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, sealed the deal for me. He wrote that it would be “tone deaf” for the show to go on as scheduled. His statement reads, “By not taking a step back to address these issues, the four museums would have appeared tone deaf to what is happening in the public discourse about art.” He added that it would be absurd not to “reconsider” the who and how behind all of this. I decided to pause, shut up, and listen.

Today, I think Storr gets closest to the crux when he’s quoted as saying that the National Gallery has “conspicuously failed to feature many artists of color” and that this is why the museum “cannot explain to those who protect the work on view that the artist who made it was on the side of racial equality.” He finishes, “No wonder they caved to misunderstanding in Trump times.” That, and how protests would reveal that all the organizers of the show and each of the directors are white, makes Storr right.

Many museums have addressed and are addressing internal issues of inequality and structural racism. It is more than ironic that chief among them is the Whitney Museum, yet it has been the most attacked while museums favored by the academy are given a pass. Regardless, many museums have become a little like the current Republican Party, a political party that is now rotten and dying because it never addressed its emphasis on money, power, and privilege; it tolerated racism, lived with and only paid lip service, at most, to issues of race and gender equality without rooting out and repairing its deeper structural racism and sexism. Similarly, too many museums talked about but didn’t make enough hires of minorities in top positions, all while maintaining that their institutions were for everyone and that they were run democratically. This is why these museums chose to virtue signal and postpone the exhibition, seeming to say, “Look how sensitive we are to Black pain and social issues.” Such a postponement was easier than risking being called out or forced to actually change their power structures and hierarchies to make them more diverse. All in positions of authority today — or just those of us with good art-world jobs — face this day of reckoning.

And given this awful, supercharged moment of ascendant hate and racism, I can certainly wait four years to see a group of these paintings. These museums had better have healed themselves by then.