Controversial Philip Guston Exhibition Due to Open In 2022

The exhibition came under the spotlight when its opening was postponed until 2024 over worries about the reception of Philip Guston’s images of Klan members.

Nov 6, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
Monument, Philip Guston, 1976, via the Guston Foundation (upper left); Riding Around, Philip Guston, 1969, via The Guston Foundation (lower left).Cornered, Philip Guston, 1971, via the Guston Foundation (right).

The museums organizing the Philip Guston Now show have announced the opening of the exhibition in May 2022 at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

The retrospective is a collaborative project of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Tate Modern.

The directors of the four museums had received heavy criticism for their previous decision to postpone the exhibition until 2024. The retrospective was pushed back after worries that the public would not be able to properly contextualize the neo-expressionist painter’s famous hooded Klan men drawings.

This is the latest update in the controversy that divided the art world and led to the suspension of a Tate curator.

A Retrospective Of Philip Guston’s Work

Monument, Philip Guston, 1976, via the Guston Foundation

The exhibition will open first in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (May 1, 2022 – September 11, 2022). Then it will move to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (October 23, 2022 – January 15, 2023), the National Gallery (February 26, 2023 – August 27, 2023), and Tate Modern (October 3, 2023 – February 4, 2024).

The focus of the show is the life and work of Philip Guston (1913-1980), a prominent Canadian-American painter.

Guston played a major role in developing the Abstract Expressionist and Neoexpressionist movements. His art was deeply political with satirical tones. Especially well-known are his multiple paintings of hooded Ku Klux Klan members.

The four venues behind Philip Guston Now will cooperate to explore together the 50 years of Guston’s career.

The Exhibition’s Controversial Postponement

Cornered, Philip Guston, 1971, via the Guston Foundation

Originally the retrospective was planned to open in 2020 at the National Gallery of Art. Due to the pandemic, however, it was rescheduled for July 2021.

After a summer of political upheaval including BLM protests, the four museums decided to change course. In September they issued a joint statement postponing the show until 2024.

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The statement explained:

“It is necessary 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. That process will take time.”

It was clear that the museums were actually worrying about the reception of Guston’s images of hooded klansmen.

The postponement proved to be a controversial decision. Soon, over 2,600 artists, curators, writers, and critics signed an open letter asking for the show to open as originally scheduled.

“The tremors shaking us all will never end until justice and equity are installed. Hiding away images of the KKK will not serve that end.” the letter proclaimed.

Mark Godfrey, by Oliver Cowling, via GQ magazine.

Mark Godfrey, a Tate curator working on the exhibition also criticized the show’s delay with a post on his Instagram account. There, he said that postponing the exhibition:

“is actually extremely patronizing to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works”

Besides, an opinion article for The Times argued that the Tate was “guilty of cowardly self-censorship”. In response, the directors of the Tate wrote that “The Tate does not censor”.

On October 28 the Tate suspended Godfrey for his comments opening a new circle of controversies.

Philip Guston Now in 2022

Riding Around, Philip Guston, 1969, via The Guston Foundation.

On November 5, the four museums announced the exhibition’s opening for 2022.

Matthew Teitelbaum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s director said:

“We are proud to be the opening venue for Philip Guston Now. Guston’s progressive commitment to pro-democratic and anti-racist issues caused him to search for a new and revolutionary language of art to speak illuminatingly across time.”

Teitelbaum also commented on the controversial postponement of the exhibition. He said that it was evident that not everyone was perceiving Guston’s work in the same light. Consequently, the show was postponed “to make sure that Guston’s voice not only was heard but that the intent of his message was fairly received”.

Teitelbaum also promised an exhibition with more diverse voices and works by contemporary artists in dialogue with Guston. This way the artist’s work will be better contextualized and experienced.

One of the main accusations against the four museums was that they were afraid of showing Guston’s KKK paintings. However, it seems that the organizers are seeking to disprove those charges.

According to the National Gallery, the show will present “Guston’s career in full, including the works from the artist’s 1970 Marlborough Gallery show that feature hooded figures”.

Nevertheless, the issue is far from over. The art world will welcome the earlier opening date but will also not forget the controversy so easily. As an article in the Art Newspaper said, “confusion still remains”.

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.