At the entrance to the Philip Guston exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, one might pick up a card bearing a statement that reads: emotional preparedness for “philip guston now.” On the verso, one finds the trigger warning—“The content of this exhibition is challenging”—and the wise observation that while “it is human to shy away or ignore what makes us uncomfortable…this practice unintentionally causes harm.” Viewers are invited to “lean into the discomfort of confronting racism on an experiential level as you view art that wrestles with America’s past and present racial tensions.” But maybe you shouldn’t lean too far: “Identify your boundaries and take care of yourself.”
Finding the narrow path between shying away from trouble and plunging headlong into it may be a more fraught project for the exhibition’s curators than for its viewers. A quick recap: Philip Guston was an American painter who was born in 1913, in Montreal, Canada, to Jewish immigrants from Odessa; alongside his friends Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock (Guston’s high school buddy in Los Angeles), he became one of the best-known of the Abstract Expressionists. But then, in the late 1960s, he spurned abstraction in favor of a blunt, cartoonish form of figuration that owed as much to the comic strip Krazy Kat as to his longtime hero Giorgio de Chirico. This retrospective of Guston’s work was originally scheduled to open at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2020. But after being postponed to the fall of that year because of the Covid-19 lockdowns, and in the wake of the nationwide uprisings following the murder of George Floyd, the National Gallery, along with the other museums that had signed up to tour the exhibition (the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Tate Modern in London), called a further delay of the show “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 reason, not directly stated in the museums’ joint announcement, had to do with a group of paintings Guston had made, mostly around 1969–70, featuring hooded Ku Klux Klansmen as their subjects.
The result was an outcry from artists, curators, and critics—of whom I was one—who were confounded by the museums’ apparent loss of faith that they could communicate the value of Guston’s art, which many consider to be among the most significant of the postwar period. Mark Godfrey, who was the Tate’s curator for the project, was among those who took his superiors to task for their decision, saying, “As art museums, we are expected to show difficult art and to support artists. By canceling or delaying, we abandon this responsibility to Guston and also to the artists whose voices animate the catalogue such as Glenn Ligon [and] Tacita Dean.” Godfrey’s reward for his principled stance was suspension from his job, soon followed by his departure from the museum. But on the other side, Darren Walker, the National Gallery trustee who is president of the Ford Foundation, pointed to “the harm and pain of the [Klan] imagery, irrespective of Guston’s antiracist and courageous engagement with that toxic imagery.” According to Walker, who was consistently the most forthright proponent of delaying the Guston exhibition, “By not taking a step back to address these issues, the four museums would have appeared tone deaf to what is happening in public discourse about art.”
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In the end, it was decided that the exhibition would open not in Washington but in Boston, where it had originally been slated to end its tour. (After closing in Boston on September 11, “Philip Guston Now” will be on tour till the winter of 2024, traveling to Houston next, then to the National Gallery in D.C., and finally to the Tate Modern in London.) For those of us who followed these events closely, it was impossible not to wonder: What effect has the attempt “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,” as the museums put it in 2020, had on the shape of the exhibition? Has the curatorial reframing served to clarify Guston’s art and its present relevance?
On one level, those questions are difficult if not impossible to answer. Are the paintings you see in Boston today the ones you would have seen there last year, had the exhibition gone ahead with its originally announced schedule? The Museum of Fine Arts press release simply states that “the reimagined exhibition” is “based on the original checklist,” which is pretty ambiguous. How much difference is covered by the distance between “based on” and, say, “retains”? The question is moot. It’s probably the textual framing that’s most different from what one might have encountered in 2020. The museum seems to have locked itself into a defensive crouch. A “message from the curators” speaks of their aspiration to make “far-reaching and lasting change—taking a true, and hard, look at the building in which this art hangs” (but not, apparently, its organizational structure, funding, and leadership) “and the ways in which we care for our visitors.” The message continues: “We also know we have not gotten everything ‘right.’ The work of this exhibition is ongoing, much like Guston’s open-ended paintings themselves. Humbly and respectfully—with these paintings as our guide—we invite you to look, and reckon, alongside us.”
All that humility reminds me of some celebrity who’s gotten caught up in a scandal that needs to be smoothed over. But the most peculiar aspect of the show’s presentation is the presence of a timeline that juxtaposes key dates in Guston’s life and career with historical events. Yet the only historical events mentioned have to do with racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia—all issues that would affect Guston and his art, but hardly the only ones. The timeline also moves well past Guston’s life and career to include events from the beating of Rodney King on March 3, 1991, through the killing of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, to the passage by Congress, on March 8 of this year, of anti-lynching legislation first proposed in 1918. (Actually, the unanimous Senate vote took place on March 7.)
By contrast, there’s almost no mention of any of the many wars the United States fought during Guston’s lifetime, which informed his art just as much. The only allusion to World War II comes in 1945, when it was over: “exhibition Lest We Forget tours massive photomurals of holocaust atrocities across the U.S.” Korea goes totally unmentioned, as does Vietnam, though the war there (and the protests against it) affected Guston deeply; the same is true of Richard Nixon, the president whom Guston would eviscerate in many drawings, four of which are displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as in a gleefully cruel 1975 painting, San Clemente (not on view in Boston). In it, the by-then-former president’s phlebitis-swollen leg grotesquely dominates. As the cartoonist Art Spiegelman remarks in the exhibition catalog, “Vitriol and empathy combine in a masterpiece of engaged caricature that transcends categories of low cartoon and high art.”
If the political context for Guston’s life and art is bizarrely narrowed by the timeline, the artistic and cultural context of his work is missing altogether: The only artistic events mentioned are a handful of his own exhibitions. His fellow artists and movements, such as the Mexican muralists he admired as a young man; the Abstract Expressionists who became his friends but then mostly turned away from him when he renounced abstraction; the Pop artists, Minimalists, and underground comics artists whose work, though he never acknowledged it, might have helped spur him to question his path as an abstractionist—these are never registered on the timeline. The poetry and fiction in which he steeped himself is absent too, whether it was modern masters like Isaac Babel, T.S. Eliot, and Franz Kafka, all of whom he read passionately, or close friends such as the poet Clark Coolidge and the novelist Philip Roth. Is none of this essential context for Guston’s art?
The upshot would seem to be that the curators only want us to view Guston’s work as a response to racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. This is despite the fact that he engaged with these themes most directly in his KKK paintings, which represent about 10 of the works on view, all from a comparatively brief period; and it misses a lot of the other themes in his work, in particular the themes of conflict, uncertainty, pain, and loneliness that are the everyday lot of people of any ethnicity. In the late painting Aegean (1978), for instance, a group of disembodied hands—some of them might be animal paws—attack one another with the shields they are brandishing; in other words, what were supposed to have been instruments of defense become last-ditch offensive weapons, apparently leading to a stand-off. Guston is skeptical that any action is ultimately availing: Life is a risk and always at risk.
In the 1975 painting Web, Guston pictured himself, as he often did, as a grizzled, mouthless, one-eyed, bean-shaped head—but where his cyclopic eye is usually shown staring out into the world (or at least the room) around him, this time he is facing down, gaping blankly at the ground, which his eye touches. Right next to him is the long, parted hair that in Guston’s late work always represents his wife, Musa; her head is already half buried in the green earth. Behind the couple, on a distant horizon, a pair of spiders spread their webs toward the foreground—covering part of Guston’s face. The couple’s togetherness, their love, offers cold comfort, as they know themselves caught in the web of death.
Guston’s career fell into three discrete periods, each one separated from the next by a period of profound self-questioning, months or even years of stymied productivity. The first period, when Guston was trying, uneasily, to reconcile his veneration of Renaissance art with his feelings about modernity, began around the time he finished high school in 1929. His art from then through the mid- to late 1940s included both politically inspired works and ones of a dreamier, more melancholy, symbolic cast. Then, around 1947, he started pushing himself toward abstraction—a radical shift for him. But he only really found his footing as an abstractionist around four years later.
That process of discovery is unfortunately not visible in the Boston exhibition, where, while we see the last vestiges of representation fading away in the smoldering red Review (1948-49), a sort of aggrandized and generalized still life, and then the final abandonment of the referent in the powerful but overstated Red Painting of 1950—a more molten remake of Review, in fact—Guston’s efforts from 1951 to ’53 are AWOL. We go straight to what might be the first masterpiece of his maturity, Beggar’s Joys (1954-55), a painting in which abstraction means not exactly non-representation but an as-yet-unknown world starting to form itself, tremulously, before one’s eyes.
Much later, in 1965, just as Guston was about to lose faith in his commitment to abstraction, he wrote: “The trouble with recognizable art is that it excludes too much. I want my work to include more. And ‘more’ also comprises one’s doubts about the object, plus the problem, the dilemma, of recognizing it.” Usually it is imagined that abstraction is achieved by the exclusion of imagery, but Guston—at least at this point in his life—had a more dialectical view: He understood that a recognizable image, by its mere presence, excludes everything else that might have been depicted there. His bet, for over a decade, was that by evading depiction, he could conjure a multiplicity, could include all the imagery that had a potential presence in the painting and that remains somehow in a nascent state—as well as, more importantly, all his suspicion of or disbelief in that imagery. To do that, the painting would always have to be somehow unsettled, to feel right by feeling wrong.
The small handful of paintings in the exhibition from the mid- to late-1950s show that somehow, Guston had been able to hold his art in this volatile statu nascendi. But then the period of 1960–62 is skipped over, and by the time we catch sight of the 1963 painting Smoker, something has begun to change. A literal and figurative darkness has settled over the painting, and a feeling of mass that suggests the ostensible “object” has taken on more weight—and that so, too, have the associated doubts. By 1965, when Guston painted Head I, the last of the abstract paintings in this show—or is it the first of a new round of representation?—the quivering brushstrokes of the preceding paintings have coalesced into a definitely declared form, not quite a head yet but not quite not a head either. The painting shows a paradoxical doubt about its own doubts, leading to what seems to be a forthright statement of the absence of any forthright statement. “Doubt itself becomes a form,” Guston remarked in a 1964 interview.
Even as he began painting figuratively again, this doubt lingered. Showing things turned out to be just as ambiguous as not showing them. In the simplified representational idiom he devised, shapes have mutable identities: The marks that indicate the stitching on a Klansman’s hood are indistinguishable from the ones that represent the stitching on the back of an armchair or even the text in a book. But whatever Guston painted, in these late works, he seemed to find in it a mirror of his own situation. Not even the Klansmen were entirely alien to him. “In the new series of ‘hoods,’ my attempt was really not to illustrate, to do pictures of the KKK, as I had done earlier,” he explained. Instead, “rather like Isaac Babel, who had joined the Cossacks, lived with them, and written stories about them, I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan”—that he could have been one of them. “I perceive myself as being behind a hood.” The question of guilt is not one that anyone can truly shrug off.
Do viewers need a message of emotional preparedness to confront an art undaunted by such intimations? On the contrary, I’d say the true message of preparedness is the one the painter conveys: that of doubt—doubt about the world, but also doubt about oneself. A fatalistic painting like Web warns that we are always probably heading—in Samuel Beckett’s words—worstward ho. Once, when asked if his paintings express pessimism, Guston replied no, his work is not pessimistic: “I think it’s doomed.” But like Beckett, Guston leavens his gloom with humor. When everyone seems to be falling headfirst (or, anyway, feet-last) through a trapdoor, as in the 1970 painting Cellar, it’s a pure slapstick version of debacle. It was about this time that the poet Bill Berkson showed Guston the work of the underground comics artist Robert Crumb. The painter professed to have been unaware of it, which might even be true, but the connection to cartooning is innate.
It’s in this low-comedy, cartoon context that Guston’s Klan imagery should be seen. Anything like realism is beside the point. In one painting, City Limits (1969), we see a hooded trio squeezed into a little car, just driving around. By the Window (1969) shows a single hooded figure, melancholically resting his head on his hand, smoking. Most telling, perhaps, is The Studio (1969), in which the Klansman is an artist painting a portrait of a Klansman. Is it a self-portrait? Who knows, because when wearing a hood, they all look alike.
“I’m not interested in the Ku Klux Klan, but I was interested in the hooded figures as representing… It’s too simple, I don’t have to explain that,” Guston once said. It’s the idea that they represent but he can’t put his finger on what they represent. What’s telling is that, precisely when it comes to the idea of representation, Guston trails off. Representation must have always been a loaded term for a painter who started out as an acolyte of the Mexican muralists and a devotee of the Italian Renaissance, then with great difficulty gave up the use of all his hard-earned representational skills to paint abstractly, and then with just as much difficulty gave up abstraction in favor of a new, deskilled form of representation. Representation in art was often only another way of abstracting the human—including the deceit and violence we all harbor to some extent, but also the void of identity that threatens us all. That’s the uncomfortable truth that Philip Guston confronts us with.