What would it be like to be evil? Philip Guston invites us to reason this in a provocative set of paintings of the Ku Klux Klan from the 1960s. “They are self-portraits,” said the white, Jewish artist. “I perceive myself as being behind the hood.”
Philip Guston Now, a touring exhibition that was set to open at National Gallery of Art Washington, and travel to Tate Modern, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Boston, could have been art’s final call-to-action in the year Black Lives Matter was reignited as a social justice movement after the murder of George Floyd.
Now, however, the show may as well be called Philip Guston: When? In February 2024 to be precise – a postponement of three years (the retrospective was due to open at Tate Modern this February). In a joint statement, the museums said that the delay will be 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”.
If 2024 is the year when social and racial issues can be discussed more freely, can I time travel there? Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, may be keen to come with me, telling me that that “delaying or cancelling the show only delays, out of fear, the necessary confrontations and discussions that should be taking place around these painful issues”. Guston was already ahead of his time; is that still the case decades later ? Justice can’t wait; art shouldn’t either.
One of the curators of the show, Tate Modern’s Mark Godfrey, posted on Instagram that the pictures using Klan images would have been presented in a manner sensitive to the Black Lives Matter era. That the curators did, in fact, “do the work” and asked of themselves: “How do we acknowledge that the images of the Klan are painful to many? Can we locate his allyship also in his act of self-scrutiny when he considered how he was implicated in white supremacy? Why did he draw parallels between police and Klansmen? Was Guston too casual with his imagery?”
Guston’s paintings make us think hard. “[Guston’s work] is a declaration that Black Lives Matter,” says Robert Storr, the art historian and author of newly released monograph Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting. Guston’s work is a profound example as to how art can be allyship, and a reminder that, though the Klan’s hoods are hidden, injustice is not.
Guston was first a figurative painter, then developed a unique style of abstract expressionism. His return to representation came with a scathing and satirical outlook. His large-scale fresco from the 30s with Reuben Kadish, The Struggle Against Terrorism, depicted Nazi and Ku Klux Klan violence. Prompted by the violence and civil unrest in the late 60s, Guston felt compelled to tell a story of an America “run afoul of its democratic promise”. The result was the Klan paintings.
At the time, the art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote that the child-like crudeness of Guston’s Klansmen enables him “to give a simple account of the simple-mindedness of violence”. In the 1969 painting City Limits, a three-man crew of Klansmen bumble down the road, ready to lie in wait for black people at the edge of town. In The Studio, he paints himself at the easel, in the hood, a reference to his own complicity in racist violence, and his will for society to overcome it.
There is difficulty in approaching this subject in art. But in his images, Gaston is showing the banal mundanity of white supremacy. In the midst of the Vietnam war, the black power and civil rights movements, Guston’s paintings didn’t jive with Clement Greenberg’s definition of modernism, which called for “purity” and “eluctable flatness” but they jived with the times. If it is art of the current day you’re after, that will move and shake you; this is it.
If art is separated from social reality, it risks becoming irrelevant. As Rosenberg puts it: “Guston is the first to have risked a fully developed career on the possibility of engaging his art in political reality.” After he showed the Klan paintings, one of his closest friends, composer Morton Feldman, never spoke to him again.
Fifty years later, we seem to be approaching an age of double censorship, from the left as well as the right. The museums who have postponed Guston’s show have also postponed the conversations around the artwork, including those about whether white artists have the right to take racism as their subject. “My fear is that the show won’t happen in 2024 either; that the show and the artist is permanently tainted,” Storr speculates. “It’s cowardice. It is saying that art cannot speak for itself, that the audience cannot engage with it on complex levels … The idea that this [decision] is taking the side of African Americans is not correct. It is just the profoundly patronising move of the cultural establishment to protect itself from criticism.”
As a black female writer and curator, I believe in the power of art to enable change. Change feels uncomfortable. It gurgles in your belly, it riles you up. It’s not fun, but we need this bilious attack. Change means protest, hard conversations, and silent contemplation. Postponing this discussion, and the power Guston’s work has to enable it, may avoid some discomfort in the short term, but it’s akin to putting a plaster on a wound. Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes; society will never heal unless there is a process of truth and reconciliation.
In June, I wrote my mission statement on how the art world can step up for Black Lives Matter. It’s the museum’s duty to take risks and present material that encourages and moves forward debate, and so society. In a time where many are urging cultural institutions to be more “woke” and reflect the culture of the times; it is important to remember that censorship is the opposite of “wokeness”. We shouldn’t be afraid of questions; only not asking them.
Art shouldn’t be polite. Guston’s work puts you into a headlock and forces you to stare into the face of evil, rearranging your sense of reality into a better one – and that’s what art needs to do more than ever.