On ViewMuseum Of Fine Arts
Philip Guston Now
May 1–September 11, 2022
Given the preamble to this delayed exhibition, it is best just to start at the very center, with a single work, and make our way out by stages to the issues swirling around specific images that, when they were originally shown, prompted a different kind of controversy and a different kind of canceling. The painting I’m talking about is a relatively small one, compared to some of the giants in this retrospective, but it is carefully placed. The Studio (1969) shows the artist, wearing the hood of a Ku Klux Klan member, painting a picture of a man in a KKK hood. This painting is displayed in a makeshift structure that is meant to replicate Guston’s studio setting. In the four venues for this exhibition (none in New York), the presentations will be different, but one can only imagine that this set piece will be retained. The staging underscores the painting’s importance as an artistic, iconographic and existential disclosure. This is a reflective self-portrait that in many ways renders the reams of commentary surrounding the show unnecessary.
In the context of the many Klan-themed paintings and somewhat less obvious Holocaust-themed paintings in the show, this one most explicitly implicates the artist. If there were space in all the lapel pulling apologetics of the wall text, it might be possible to sit in the fake studio and appreciate the pathos and courage of Guston’s self-scrutiny. To be blunt, he puts on the hood and asks the question that is lurking behind all his derisive, funny, and pathetic representations of hate: Am I one of them—not just as a person, but also as an artist? Am I none of them? Guston now? These are questions for right now, right here. Only an idiot would imagine that Guston celebrates the racism behind the hood. Always attached to cartoons, he satirizes in the most telling way, trivializing the haters, as dangerous as they are, and he does not resort to the agitprop of using black bodies, as he did in his mural paintings from the 1930s. The hooded ones ride around in clown cars smoking cigars and pointing at people and often being pointed at—by whom? By what witness or judge? Guston or God? Over and over again, Guston points also at himself.
In the catalogue, I was initially put off by the presence of so many contemporary artists interpreting the work—Amy Sillman, William Kentridge, Glenn Ligon, among others. It seemed to go hand in hand with a broader institutional self-flagellation at the MFA, and most likely to be continued at the other venues. There are videos and wall text presenting initial staff skepticism at the notion of a show at all: Who cares about Guston anyway, just because some white, exclusive institution says we should care? Prove it! In such a climate, the contemporary artists looked to be giving cover for the basic archival practice of any museum. Yes, Guston is relevant! Not embalmed or memorialized. Not to mention their anti-racist bona fides. But Kentridge and especially Ligon are right on the money in their reactions, making some telling art historical connections and giving the artist props for being not just woke but a complex moral being. Isn’t that what artists are supposed to be about, showing us the complexity of their encounter with the world, rather than offering platitudes or outrage? What does outrage even mean in an art museum?
The exhibition was originally delayed by a stated desire among the various institutions to give more context to the work. A major group of paintings was displayed at Hauser & Wirth last year without a whisper of protest or apology or much in the way of wall text. But that was the art world, and public museums have broader responsibilities. The answer at the MFA has been to cordon off the entire area with sociopolitical crime scene tape. The opening wall text, titled “Emotional Preparedness for Philip Guston Now,” written by a consultant to the museum, encourages “those who have experienced oppression and allies to name your feelings” and set boundaries if you need to (presumably: don’t look). It is more than possible that this therapeutic hand holding could be found deeply patronizing and almost as offensive as the putative museum sin of exclusion. But there is an obvious point. After the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests and the white supremacy of Republican politics (the satirical Nixon drawings, “Poor Richard,” from the 1970s seem more apposite than ever in this setting) it is right to let everyone know there is Klan—and ani-semitic—imagery coming up and to insist that the appearance of imagery is not a condoning of acts portrayed or suggested. You could do the same for Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. Instead of implying that the museum is somehow at fault or inconsiderate, a wall text could have acknowledged and even celebrated the fact that pictures have power still, to wound, to inspire, to mobilize and to complicate our lives. And this is the place to meet them one on one. The broader critique of museums lurking behind this cannot be addressed in bromides about self-care.
How much things have changed! In the 2003 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, one of the major concerns was Guston’s shift out of abstraction, which the artist made around 1965. Like others of his generation, Guston had begun as a representational painter, with debts to surrealism and Mexican muralism, and moved into abstraction by the late 1940s. As he explained this development, he was trying to explore what painting and especially color was all about, divorced from any particular subject matter. Divorced also from the pressure to signify. A sign of the times, this abstract work was highly praised and priced, in spite of the absence of Rothkoian metaphysical angst. The abstractions move away from any formal preoccupations toward atmospheric work that looks more like heavily daubed painter’s palettes.
And then he gave it all up, risked professional suicide to adopt a personal idiom of ridiculousness and unexalted comedy, in Amy Sillman’s words. All in order to reclaim the power of images to criticize and interrogate the world and himself. The grotesque painting San Clemente (1975) shows a deposed ex-president Nixon as a bandaged, weeping, swollen-footed outcast. Guston’s pencils are in his pocket. Talk about risk! In the MFA’s construction of a morally committed artist, abstraction is folded in as a temporary respite and as an underlying preoccupation with technique, not much more than that. So much for modernism and the formalist discourse it promoted.
But the curators are right. Descriptions of formal development cannot explain Guston’s intentional shifts and don’t get us anywhere near San Clemente. Guston had an argument with the world and his place in it that he could not give up. Sometimes it was a comedy, sometimes a tragedy. Perhaps my favorite painting is The Line (1978), a late work. He imagines a veiny hand protruding from a cloud. Two fingers hold a pencil, which is marking a line across the blood-red ground. Guston the Jew, from a family of persecuted immigrants, imagines himself as Jaweh, giver of form and the logos, castigator and inscrutable, impenetrable force. But also as a comic foil: What, that’s it, a line? You call that some kind of art?
The best kind.