Philip Guston’s delayed show opens, with a note from a trauma specialist
BOSTON — In the summer of 2020, browsing through a checklist of images and installation plan for the upcoming Philip Guston exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Kaywin Feldman, who was in his second year as as director of the museum, felt uneasy. How would the cartoonish, hooded Ku Klux Klan figures painted by Guston – who explored racism in his enigmatic and politically charged work – look on visitors amid the pain and pressure for racial justice that had just exploded after the murder of George Floyd?
There were no black curators on the museum staff at the time. Feldman consulted with employees across the museum, including educators and security guards, to hear their thoughts. She expressed her doubts to her counterparts at the other three museums collaborating on the Guston exhibit, who expressed their own doubts. When she told her board that the four directors had concluded that the show should be postponed, she mentioned a comment from a black colleague that particularly impressed her: “Watching more Klan footage , it’s like cutting another wound in my arm and pouring salt in. I’m willing to do it, but it has to be for a bigger reason.
The museums collaborating on the Guston exhibition – the National Gallery, the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston – announced in September that they would postpone the exhibition until 2024 to rethink it, laying down a firestorm as hundreds of prominent artists signed an open letter saying institutions ‘fear controversy’ and ‘lack confidence in the intelligence of their audiences’.
Now the show is due to open here on Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, its postponement shortened in response to the outcry. Paintings of the hooded figures are included, as well as more historical context; an ‘Emotional Preparation’ brochure from a trauma specialist urging visitors to ‘identify your limits and take care of yourself’; and a detour allowing visitors to bypass the Klan-themed works. The opening reignited fierce debate over whether the delay was a troubling indication that museums are reluctant to do challenging and provocative work in a time of heightened sensibilities, or a healthy sign that they are belatedly facing need. for change after a long failure to diversify. their staff, programming and audience.
“I really couldn’t see why, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, any institution would choose not to exhibit paintings that were a direct response to racism in such a powerful way,” said Danny Simmons, artist and collector who signed the protest letter, said in a recent interview. “I don’t see the downside of showing the work.”
Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, which contributed $1 million to the exhibit, and a National Gallery trustee who backed the postponement, said the incident revealed “how much museums that present exhibits on these sensitive topics are handled inadequately and how we need to change that.”
“In the future, when museums mount exhibits like this, people of color will need to be consulted,” he said. “You’re not asking for their permission, you’re not asking for their expert opinion, you’re just empathizing with the people who will be affected.”
Museum directors involved in the exhibit, “Philip Guston Now,” argue that the critics missed the point of their delay: to make the Guston exhibit more responsive to the moment.
“We were never going to cancel or censor, and we didn’t,” said Houston museum director Gary Tinterow. “But what was equally inevitable was a change in the conversation about his work.”
Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, said, “It’s not about the acceptability of Guston, it’s about the hospitality of the museum.
Critics still debate whether a nearly two-year delay was necessary and how significant the current changes are.
“I want to stress that plans were already in place at the Tate to give sufficient context to Guston’s early depictions of the KKK and his later hood paintings,” said Mark Godfrey, who was the exhibit’s curator at the Tate Modern in London before condemning the postponement in an Instagram post, was suspended and agreed to a voluntary takeover.
Godfrey said Tate curators had consulted the museum Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Network and provided an antechamber in front of the hood paintings to provide context on American history and Guston’s life and career, in which persecution and the Klan itself figured prominently.
Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, who had strongly criticized the decision to postpone the exhibit, said she understood the dispute reflected not so much her father’s work as the challenges facing museums.
“It was more a problem of the institutions themselves,” she said in an interview, “the perceived vulnerability of museums in light of all the protests, petitions, and other forms of dissatisfaction with American museums.”
In 2017, protesters stood for hours at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to block visitors from seeing “Open Casket,” a painting of black civil rights martyr Emmett Till by white artist Dana Schutz. That year, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis removed Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” sculpture – which evoked gallows in American history, including those used to execute members of the Dakota community in 1862 – after the Dakota protests. Last year’s Sophie Taeuber-Arp retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art omitted works inspired by Hopi katsina dolls “out of respect for the Hopi and Pueblo people.”
Museums have also come under scrutiny for the lack of diversity in their staff, boards and walls, and for the way they serve their communities. In 2019, a teacher said college students on field trips to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had been victims of racist taunts — an incident the museum now mentions in the timeline of its Guston exhibit. In 2020, staff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian Institution criticized what they described as ingrained racism within their institutions.
Guston was known for his difficult labors. He began his career in the 1930s as a muralist inspired by the social realism of Diego Rivera. In the 1950s he became one of the leading Abstract Expressionists before later returning to figurative art – the bricks, shoes, limbs and cartoonish self-portraits that became his signature. Widely criticized at the time, this career-ending phase over the past few decades has come to represent Guston’s greatness.
At least two dozen works from this period feature the hoods, which clearly refer to the Klan. Guston, a child of Jewish immigrants who had fled pogroms, had been exposed to Klan violence as a youth in Los Angeles. In the “Philip Guston Now” catalog, published before the postponement, artist Glenn Ligon interpreted the balaclavas as Guston’s effort to fight not only against racism, but also against his own complicity.
But over the summer of 2020 — when the pandemic had already delayed the original opening date — Feldman questioned the wisdom of opening without the necessary context or input from people of color. When she started at the National Gallery in 2019, she said, her curatorial staff, management team and board were almost entirely white, other than a curator who soon retired.
“When the exhibit staff is all white, you don’t really understand how people perceive the work,” she said. “I am a privileged white woman. Just because I have a degree in art history doesn’t mean my feelings matter any more or less than those of our wonderful security guards.
Before the postponement, the National Gallery had convened a “sensitivity group” made up of members beyond Guston’s immediate team, said the exhibition’s curator, Harry Cooper. To redesign the exhibition after the postponement, the museum set up an advisory group with the help of outside consultants to think about the layout of the exhibition and the contextual elements.
“They’re actually doing the work to see how the employees are feeling,” said Ottis Johnson Jr., a former National Gallery security guard who is now an officer in their union.
The Boston Museum also expanded its team of curators for the exhibit and redesigned how it would present the exhibit. The show’s signature moments — viewers must open a sliding panel to see newspaper photographs illustrating Nazi atrocities and an article about a defaced Guston mural of a Klansman beating a black man — are efforts ” to give visitors agency,” said Ethan Lasser, chairman of the museum’s Art of the Americas department, who has joined the curatorial team. He acknowledged that such devices were “unconventional”.
Rosa Rodriguez-Williams, who was recently hired at the Museum of Fine Arts as Boston’s first senior director of belonging and inclusion, said “we’ve really centered the visitor – especially the marginalized racial, which can be activated by what they see”.
Some insist that the process the institutions have engaged in has been important and necessary – that it should be the new normal.
“There is a change that you are starting to see that is directly related to the Guston exhibition,” said writer and critic Antwaun Sargent, director of the Gagosian Gallery. “For a long time, the same voices had their say in museums. Now we need to do business differently.
And some prominent museum executives insist the Guston controversy has not instilled new censorship. “I don’t think Guston per se has pushed museums to make a course correction,” said Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art. “It certainly didn’t get them to say, ‘We’re going to pull out of controversial artists or issues. “”
But others fear the postponement will have a chilling effect on institutions, making them suspicious of what museums are supposed to do: present art that provokes, stimulates and sometimes even confronts.
“What you have to learn is that you can’t look away,” said gallerist Lucy Mitchell-Innes, who said she recently had an experience with an institution that turned the tide of a performance featuring one of its artists due to potential audience sensitivity. “I hope it’s a cautionary tale.”
Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, said the episode was extraordinary.
“The jerks of the Guston exhibit will remain one of the great aberrations of the modern museum age,” he said. “People have asked, or at least privately thought, ‘If this can happen to Guston, then who else? Who’s next?'”