Tate Modern has disciplined Mark Godfrey – its international art curator – after he publicly criticized the museum for postponing the Philip Guston Now exhibition.
The punishment came as a result of a post that Godfrey published on Instagram a month ago. There, he described the show’s deferral to 2024 as “extremely patronizing to viewers”.
This is the latest chapter in the major controversy over the postponement of the long-awaited exhibition of the neo-expressionist painter Philip Guston.
The Decision To Postpone Philip Guston’s Exhibition
Philip Guston Now was initially planned to open at the National Gallery of Art in 2020. However, due to the Covid-19 crisis, it was re-programmed for July 2021.
The show was a collaborative effort between the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Tate Modern. Amongst the exhibits, were Guston’s famous images of hooded Ku Klux Klan members.
On September 21, however, the museums issued a joint statement announcing the further postponement of the show until 2024.
The statement invoked recent political developments such as the Black Lives Matter protests. It further explained that:
“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.”
The museums thought that “the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work” could not be clearly interpreted at the time.
Nevertheless, it was clear that the museums were actually worrying about the reception of Guston’s images of hooded Klan members.
The postponement became highly controversial as over 2,600 artists, curators, writers, and critics signed an open letter criticizing the postponement and asking for the show to take place as initially planned.
“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. Quite the opposite. And Guston’s paintings insist that justice has never yet been achieved”, the letter proclaimed.
The directors of the museums attempted to defend their decision in a series of interviews, statements and public appearances.
Tate Modern Suspends Mark Godfrey
On September 25, Mark Godfrey, curator of international art, at the Tate Modern in London, published a post on his Instagram account. There, he criticized the museums’ decision to delay the exhibition:
“Cancelling or delaying the exhibition is probably motivated by the wish to be sensitive to the imagined reactions of particular viewers, and the fear of protest. However, it is actually extremely patronizing to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works.”
In the same post, Godfrey said that the curators had no say over the exhibition’s delay. He also appeared skeptical about the decision amidst the current political climate:
“2020 is a nightmare year. In the museum world, it has come to the point when major institutions have become scared of displaying or recontextualizing the work they had committed to for their programs. What do we want museums to do in turbulent times?”
Almost a month later, on October 28, Tate Modern suspended Godfrey for his post.
According to the Art Newspaper, an anonymous source from inside the museum commented that:
“If you work at Tate, you are expected to toe the party line,”
Robert Storr, professor of painting at Yale School of Art also said:
Godfrey’s suspension by Tate Modern has received overwhelmingly negative comments on social media. Among the critics, is also the art historian Michael Lobel who supported Godfrey’s right to express his opinion.
Okay, I try to be measured on here, but this calls out for comment: Mark Godfrey is an incredibly thoughtful and diligent curator & scholar. For @Tate to suspend him when we need more, not fewer, independent voices in our institutions is truly lamentable https://t.co/yTVTgSMw8d
— Michael Lobel (@mlobelart) October 28, 2020
Who Was Philip Guston?
Philip Guston (1913-1980) was a prominent Canadian-American painter of Ukrainian-Jewish parents. He was also a printmaker, muralist and draughtsman.
Guston played a major role in the development of the Abstract Expressionist movement but became frustrated with abstraction. As a result, he went back to painting representationally and became a prominent figure of the Neoexpressionist movement.
His art was always deeply political with satirical tones. Well-known are the multiple portraits of Richard Nixon which he painted during the Vietnam war as well as his several paintings of hooded Ku Klux Klan members.