KKK Imagery Causes Philip Guston’s Exhibition a Four-Year Postponement
The long-awaited retrospective ‘Philip Guston Now’ was supposed to headline at Tate Modern next year, before moving to the National Gallery in Washington and the Fine Arts Museums of Boston and Houston.
Notwithstanding the commitment to the artist and his legacy, the four host museums decided to postpone 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.’ — so states the four directors’ press release of the 21st of September.
Not sure if 2024 though, as they suggest, will be the moment that generations of Miss Universe contestants have been wishing for — world peace and social justice.
Who was Philip Guston?
Guston was an American-Canadian artist, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, born in 1913. Considering early mid-twentieth-century California he found himself in, it’s not surprising to read his family had been the victim of repeated hostilities and persecution.
As a part of the New York School, in the last 1960s, he led the transition from abstract expressionism to neo-expressionism, alongside other artists like Pollock and de Kooning.
We count a number of works from these later years which feature Ku Klux Klan members in a cartoonish, satirical yet more figurative rendering.
Why is his work making the headlines?
Some of Guston’s paintings are characterised by KKK imagery set in sarcastic and twisty mise en scènes.
‘What would it be like to be evil?’ — so Guston starts a conversation about the wrongs of society. Wrongs in whose shoes — or under whose hoods — he paints his own self, as in 1969 The Studio which he defined as a meta-self-portrait.
Racial frictions, white supremacy, political violence... It seems yesterday we were debating about such concerns. True! Because it was.
If you watched the presidential debate a few days ago, those concepts will sound categorically topical to you. If you didn’t, well, then I wish I was you.
Moving on — The heads of the four museums fear Guston’s Klansmen portrayal might be a source of controversy, misguided interpretation, and too sensitive for some.
Guston makes us observe tremendously pressing and more-relevant-than-ever matters take different shapes and colours.
He presents an unusual, dark-humoured shift in perspective, offering a provocation to (himself and) the audience: are we complicit in white supremacy?
Why ‘Guston Now’ needs to be reinstated just…Now
Looking at City Limits I can’t help but think of Biff’s wicked gang in Back to the Future. A bunch of obnoxious youths driving around the village looking to wreak havoc. Similarily seem to be portrayed the three hoods: squeezing in the car, up to something sinister.
This is what makes Guston’s work so subtle. The mockery of the evil. The normalisation and banalisation of it to such extent that evil becomes yourself, in your own studio. Is this uncomfortable? Maybe. Change doesn’t grow out of comfortable conversations.
‘The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.’
So claims the artist’s daughter, and likewise agreed over two thousands of artists, critics, curators, and scholars who, via New York-based journal The Brooklyn Rail, signed an open letter to voice their disappointment.
Art is not something you expect to be well behaved. Behaving is for Sunday with the in-laws, for school detention, for your best friend’s wedding — unless you’re Julia Roberts — but not for Art.
May art always interrogate us unapologetically.