The Philip Guston KKK Controversy - Should the Exhibition Remain Postponed?

October 3, 2020

In recent period, numerous exhibitions are being canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and some are still on hold due to the gradual opening of the museums and galleries. Now, what makes an institution prolong a scheduled slot for an exhibition if the situation is normal? The lack of finances, a misunderstanding with an artist, and technical issues are some of the options, but in rare cases, the reason is politically motivated censorship or in the worst-case scenario, auto-censorship.

It is more or less commonplace that all major museums, in Europe but also in the United States, have become commodified spaces that rarely undertake any sort of risky programming due to the mandatory satisfaction of commercial goals prescribed by the museum in collaboration with donors, the board of trustees or any third party. Such a trend has endangered the very notion of the museum as a public space where social and political matters should be problematized and new knowledge generated.

The perfect example that illustrates this claim and one of kind auto-censorship is a current situation related to the long-planned traveling retrospective of the famed American artist Philip Guston which has been postponed for three years, as the four participating museums organizing it - the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston - expressed concerns over the reception of the same at the time of racial tensions in the UK and the United States.

Namely, the main reason for such a decision are Guston's artwork that depicts hooded Ku Klux Klan figures made in the 1930s and mid-1960s. The selection of twenty-five drawings and paintings belonging to this particular thematic corpus were to be displayed in the postponed exhibition, originally scheduled to open in June 2020 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. and then travel to other venues. Due to the lockdown and the museum closures, the dates were prolonged to July 2021, and after the recent announcement currently, the show is now set for the year 2024

Philip Guston in Rome in 1960. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth © The Estate of Philip Guston

Philip Guston - From Abstraction To Socially Engaged Art

A Canadian-American painter and printmaker Phillip Goldstein, better known as Philip Guston, emerged out of the New York School, an informal group of artists, poets, musicians, and dancers active in the 1950s and 1960s in the city after which it was named. Many of the proponents were practitioners of Abstract Expressionism (such as William de Kooning and Jackson Pollock), but also the forerunners of Postmodern dance, improvisational theater, and experimental music.

Guston was raised in a Ukrainian Jewish family, aware of the racial tension in the States and the activity of the Ku Klux Klan. Together with Jackson Pollock, Guston attended painting classes under Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky who introduced the two youngsters to European modern art, Eastern philosophy, and mystic literature. His early works were figurative and representational, and very much inflamed by the leftist ideologies. Guston supported the Marxist organization John Reed Club, and together with Reuben Kadish he painted the antifascist mural The Struggle Against Terror in Mexico under the influence of David Alfaro Siqueiros.

During this period, Guston was inspired by the Renaissance masters, American Regionalists, and Mexican mural painters, as well as Giorgio de Chirico. However, by the 1950s his style changed as the artist embraced abstraction, and his canvases became characterized by gestural strokes and block of color. The late 1960s triggered Guston to get back to a figuration based on a more simplified depiction of personal symbols and objects; the reason for that being his discontent with abstraction, which he swiftly replaced with a more cartoonish and unmistakably socially-charged manner.

In 1967, Guston moved to Woodstock, New York, and due to the bad reception of his figurative works, he withdrew from the art world. This is when the Klansmen paintings, among other series, emerge. Guston ultimately tried to reintroduce abstraction, and get back on track, but he died in 1980 at the age of sixty-six.

The Art of Philip Guston


Opposing The Decision

Guston's puzzling works executed in a cartoonish manner depict Klansmen driving in a car or painting while smoking cigarettes, but never committing actual violence. The earliest ones were definitely made as a reaction to the ongoing presence of the vicious organization in Orange County, where the artist used to live then, while the later ones are a reflection of the racial tension in the 1960s America and the activity of the Civil Rights Movement.

Truth be told, Guston was a devoted leftist who wanted to articulate his own standpoint regarding the banality of evil, the term coined by the famous American-German philosopher Hannah Arendt to underline that evil acts are not necessarily committed by evil people, and are instead the result of bureaucratized obeying orders.

To make a firm connection with the present moment, it is mandatory to note that Guston made his early works in the 1930s, at the time fascism was progressing throughout the entire world, ultimately leading to a catastrophe. The current moment looks quite similar, the only difference being the Internet as a vehicle for instrumentalizing the masses.

Therefore, the decision to postpone the exhibition at present has to be motivated by the museum’s lack of courage to display these bold works and stand for the ideas that are anto-racist. The professional public condemned this move, among them being the head of the Guston Foundation and the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer, who stated:

Half a century ago, my father made a body of work that shocked the art world. Not only had he violated the canon of what a noted abstract artist should be painting at a time of particularly doctrinaire art criticism, but he dared to hold up a mirror to white America, exposing the banality of evil and the systemic racism we are still struggling to confront today. 

  Editors’ Tip: Philip Guston Now

Philip Guston Now includes a lead essay by Harry Cooper surveying Guston's life and work, and a definitive chronology reflecting many new discoveries. It also highlights the voices of artists of our day who have been inspired by the full range of his work: Tacita Dean, Peter Fischli, Trenton Doyle Hancock, William Kentridge, Glenn Ligon, David Reed, Dana Schutz, Amy Sillman, Art Spiegelman and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Thematic essays by co-curators Mark Godfrey, Alison de Lima Greene and Kate Nesin trace the influences, interests and evolution of this singular force in modern and contemporary art―including several perspectives on the 1960s and ’70s, when Guston gradually abandoned abstraction, returning to the figure and to current history but with a personal voice, by turns comic and apocalyptic, that resonates today more than ever.

The Million Dollar Question: Why is the Philip Guston Exhibition Postponed, Really?

Interestingly so, the upcoming exhibition should have been the artist’s first American retrospective in fifteen years, with one hundred and twenty-five paintings and seventy drawings. Right after the announcement of the exhibition postponement, the online presentations on both the National Gallery and the Tate were taken offline, and neither institution directly mentioned the controversial KKK imagery. The museums will, however, publish the exhibition catalog as originally planned, with essays from the four curators (Harry Cooper, Alison de Lima Greene, Mark Godfrey, and Kate Nesin). In the public statement given a couple of days the museum directors said:

After a great deal of reflection and extensive consultation, our four institutions have jointly made the decision to delay our successive presentations of "Philip Guston Now." 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. We recognize that 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 racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world, in addition to challenges of a global health crisis, have led us to pause. As museum directors, we have a responsibility to meet the very real urgencies of the moment. We feel it is necessary to reframe our programming and, in this case, step back, and bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston's work to our public. That process will take time. 

The distinguished American curator and a Dean of the Yale School of Art, Robert Storr, whose biography of the artist titled Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting was recently published, described the museums’ decision as "an abject failure of imagination and nerve," while the public outcry culminated with an open letter, published in The Brooklyn Rail and signed by nearly one hundred art professionals who condemned the outrages decision by underlining that "the institutions were attempting to avoid reminding museum-goers that white supremacy still exists today, and were warding off 'uncomfortable' questions about class and the institutions’ racial foundations."

Finally, this move imposed by the museums underlines their tendency to not deal with the ideological matters as any sort of leftist thinking is perceived as potentially problematic. That means that these spaces of public interest continue to perpetuate the capitalist matrix of their nation-states and, in the context of visual arts' nonstop production and reproduction, of presumably aesthetically fitting, and politically almost neutral artistic and exhibition practices.

UPDATE October 29, 2020: Following this great response to the show postponed, The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, confirmed the show would open in 2022, not 2024, as previously stated. According to Director Kaywin Feldman, who spoke to The New York Times, the subsequent tour will now be held in 2022 and 2023, visiting the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Furthermore, according to The Art Newspaper, Tate curator Mark Godfrey was recently suspended from the institution after he wrote against the delay on his Instagram account, saying the decision was “extremely patronizing” to viewers.

Featured image: Philip Guston - Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973. Oil on canvas, overall: 196.85 x 262.89 cm (77 1/2 x 103 1/2 in.). Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. © The Estate of Philip Guston.

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