After a storm, Philip Guston shines in a show true to his spirit
BOSTON — On October 16, 1970, American painter Philip Guston, the subject of a powerful and controversial retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts here, committed suicide in his career. Or so it seemed. By his late 50s, he was a star of the Abstract Expressionist movement, then still considered the Mandarin market style. But that year, he filled a New York gallery not with his shimmering, ember-like abstractions, but with paintings of goofy, cartoonish figures wearing white Ku Klux Klan hoods. Instantly he fell from the grace of the art world.
Guston had struck a chord, but not what might have seemed obvious. The Klan images themselves were not the main source of offense; his betrayal of “high” art was. At a time when the preeminence of abstraction was regularly overwhelmed by the plastic tide of Pop, Guston had joined the polluters.
As it turns out, the work that got him canceled in 1970 ended up cementing his place in the art historical pantheon, where he continues to inspire generations of artists with his critique of racism, anti-Semitism and sectarianism. And recently, the same work – specifically the Klansman paintings – has been the source of yet another different controversy, one that has cast anathema on the art establishment itself.
As of September 2020, four major museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Tate Modern in London, announced that a comprehensive jointly organized survey called “Philip Guston Now” – its set itinerary, its printed catalog – was postponed for four years. The reason: After the national turmoil generated by the police killing of George Floyd, the presentation of Guston’s work, and in particular his Klan imagery, had to be rethought.
The National Gallery, his first stop, was careful to say that the decision to postpone in no way reflected a lack of confidence in the artist, but a concern about the reception of his work in a politically heated period. But, for good historical reason, our great conservative museums have little or no political credibility. Critics, artists and curators alike surged, crying out for censorship and demanding the investigation proceed as planned. Caught between fight or flight, the National Gallery cut the deadline to two years and the itinerary was revised, making Boston the initial location, where the show – now wrapped in the equivalent of a warning tape – opens Sunday.
In fact, it’s a logical starting point. MFA Boston has become extremely sensitive to issues of inclusion and public sensitivity since 2019, when a visiting group of black students at the college claimed they had been abused by staff, and the allegations became news. national. An apology from museum management followed, along with a promise to “make everyone feel welcome here”.
Of course, the museum took care of its Guston installation to avoid upheaval. A statement from a trauma specialist warns of disturbing content to come. A detour inside and outside the galleries allows visitors to bypass potentially triggering material. Archival photographs of Nazi concentration camps and Ku Klux Klan meetings — of a kind displayed openly in many history museums — are hidden here in slide-out display cases. If such warnings were the sum total of a promised “reflection”, the postponement would be a failure.
But a truly significant change came with an increase in conservation staff. After the delay was announced, the MFA increased the number of hosts for its version of the show, from one to four. The diverse team consists of Megan Bernard, Director of Museum Membership; Ethan Lasser, director of the Arts of the Americas department; and two guests, Kate Nesin (the original curator, who has an essay in the catalog) and Terence Washington, an educator and writer.
Working with a total of 100 paintings and drawings – the Boston one will be the smallest edition in the exhibition – they have minimized the chronological order favored by the catalog, although you can always piece together a narrative from chronologies placed high on the wall of each gallery.
The artist was born Phillip Goldstein in 1913 in Montreal, Canada, where his parents had come as refugees fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms in Ukraine. He grew up in Los Angeles. There he learned the art at an early age—Jackson Pollock was a friend from high school—and aligned himself with left-wing politics, an involvement that led to contact with right-wing militant groups, including the Klan.
He began as a figurative painter in the 1930s and 1940s, influenced by Mexican muralism, Picasso, Italian Renaissance fresco painting and comics (“Krazy Kat”, “Mutt and Jeff” and much later the cons -cultural Zap Comix by R. Crumb). Constitutionally restless, he shopped through styles and, in the 1950s, moved on to gestural abstraction, then to avant-garde mode.
Then known as Philip Guston, he became a fixture in Abstract Expressionist circles in New York, living both in the city and upstate in Woodstock. In the late 1960s, with Nixon in the White House, Americans naming Vietnam, and racial violence in the streets, he returned to figurative painting, retaining his Ab-Ex brush strokes but applying them to a lexicon of images – Klan figures, detached insect-eyed heads, severed legs and stacked shoes seen in Holocaust photographs – which he reused and combined until his death in 1980 at age 66.
Repetition and combination punctuate the show. It’s a huge, choppy pace and one that never resolves into predictability. Curators establish its persistence by mixing old and late works in the galleries, so you see themes repeating themselves over 50 years, ambiguous in mood and content, like recurring dreams. The result is an indefinable art. It cannot be classified into one-way categories: tragic or comic, abstract or figurative; radical or conservative.
The show’s opening gallery, adorned with the phrase “What kind of man am I?” — a quote from Guston — takes stock with an exposition of what conservatives interpret as self-images of his entire life.
One, dated 1944 and actually titled “Self-Portrait”, is a realistic likeness, moving almost to the point of being a send-off of romantic melancholy. In “Head I” (1965), a tangle of dark paint in the form of a mask floats on a light background, under which one can detect traces of another shape – a triangular shape (a Klan hood?) –. And in “Untitled,” a small square painting made the year Guston died, a battered gray stone with one staring eye contemplates Sisyphus’ task of rolling up a slope.
Much of the rest of the show thrives on the idea of locating Guston’s questioning, searching presence in his art. All the weird stuff. If you wanted to make Guston look semi-normal – conventionally, classically modern – you’d bring his 1950s abstractions to the fore and hang them together, a wall of gestural elegance. The Boston show does the opposite. It includes only a few abstract paintings and mixes them with everything else, making them elements of great savagery.
Wild is what Guston’s art is, quite regularly. And he’s been politically restless and haunted for most of his arc, as the series suggests through the inclusion of archival material that might have inspired him – the photos of the 1940s concentration camps, the videos of the 1960s anti-war and racial justice protests. In each gallery, timelines intersect the events of the artist’s life with news from the world of yesterday and today.
He made an art rich in its worldly references, but resistant to readability; an art that is ethically charged, but also ethically unfixed. This helps explain why he remains a liberating example for many contemporary artists. (Several, including Glenn Ligon, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Dana Schutz, and Art Spiegelman, contribute to the catalog.) It may also explain why, in 2020, the four museums that staged his retrospective felt they needed more time. to understand it.
Was the postponement of the Guston retrospective a mistake? I was okay with that, and not surprised. The great old museums, the institutions most reluctant to change, are way behind the times and are being pushed forward these days. The pandemic has made their pockets; the racial justice movement and their clumsy response left them ashamed and perplexed.
But they seem to realize that in order to stay afloat in a demographically changing world, they need to woo new audiences, and that new audiences can be different from old ones. They may want to find their own stories in museums, as well as corrected stories. They can come across a painting of Guston Klan and, before seeing “art”, see an emblem of racist hatred made by a white man, which is, of course, what the painting of Guston is, redeemed only by the fact that Guston knew it.
(The ingrained expectation of almost anyone who comes to a traditional museum is, always, that any artist given a solo exhibition will be white and male, unless otherwise specified. My first objection to the Guston exhibition was that it is yet another confirmation of this reality. )
So given the nature of the institutions involved and the steep learning curve that some of them seem to have signed up for, I was fine with them spending the extra time on Guston. Judging by the results in Boston, the MFA passed the time well. Sure, the therapeutic hands-on enterprise could go on, but the exhibition itself absorbs every step of the process. It brings Guston himself to life, in a fierce and fierce way. And the art is awesome.
You see the 1969 painting titled “The Studio”, in which a Klansmen paints his own portrait (Guston called the work a self-portrait), or the monumental “Painting Smoking, Eating”, from 1973, with his Cyclopean figure ( another -portrait?) lying in bed, a plate of food on his chest, a cigarette stuck in his mouth and the pile of shoes next to him, taken from photos of concentration camps, and you think “Fantastic!” As you walk through the show, you think about it over and over again, and that’s what the art should make you do.
Philippe Guston Now
Open May 1 to September 11, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston; 617-267-9300; mfa.org.