Philip Guston: Delayed Exhibitions and the Cowardice of the Safe

Laurie and Debbie say:

Philip Guston was a renowned American artist. Four major museums had scheduled a large retrospective of his work, to open in June at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It would then move to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, then to Tate Modern in London, and finally, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition was apparently delayed for a few months by the pandemic. (Quotations are from two New York Times articles, one by Julia Jacobs on 9/24 and one by Jason Farago on 9/30. We don’t link to paywalled articles.)

In September, however, the four museums issued a joint statement saying they were delaying the exhibition until 2024 (!), calling that “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.”

At particular issue are Guston’s cartoonish drawings of Ku Klux Klan members in hoods, drawings which make up about 1/8 of the planned retrospective.


Like almost all artists, Guston had many modes and many styles. He was not as straightforward as his KKK caricatures; his work can’t be contained by descriptions of his politics. He was also a passionate anti-racist, a White man who — in his daughter’s words —“dared to hold up a mirror to white America.” Guston’s commitment to racial and social justice is well-known, and was no secret to the curators who planned the exhibition.

… the curators — Harry Cooper at the National Gallery, Alison de Lima Greene at the M.F.A. in Houston, Mark Godfrey at Tate Modern, and Kate Nesin at the M.F.A. in Boston — had already brought together a wide range of contributors for the show’s authoritative catalog, which is already in the shops.

The curators, as well as artists such as Trenton Doyle Hancock and Glenn Ligon, who are Black, and the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who is Jewish, all offered perspectives on Guston’s personal experiences of confronting the Klan in his youth, and on the formal and political innovations of his cartoonish Klansmen. In mid-June, following the killing of George Floyd and intense debates over racial inequities in art, curators worked together to revise and broaden the exhibition’s wall panels and educational materials. Of particular concern was the debut of his Klan paintings in 1970. They reached out to artists, critics and others who had seen the show then, in order to reconstruct how Black viewers reacted to that initial display.



In May, however, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. Ahmaud Arbery’s killing in February and Breonna Taylor’s execution the previous March hit the headlines. In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic response, Black people’s anger appropriately exploded.

White people’s fear of Black anger is a cornerstone of American racism. It is generally framed as a reaction of poor and working people, often as a misdirection to turn our eyes away from the people who actually have the power to shore up and strengthen systemic racism–the people who face little or no direct threat from uprisings in the streets or even upheavals at the ballot box.

… Godfrey, a curator at Tate Modern in London who co-organized the exhibition, posted a searing statement on Instagram saying that the decision was “extremely patronizing” to audiences because it assumes that they are not able to understand and appreciate the nuance of Guston’s works.

Godfrey apparently fought against the postponement and was overruled. He presumably knows perfectly well that, while the curators are certainly patronizing, they are using that language to hide their fear. Fear of what? Of angry Black people storming the museums, pushing their ways into the private offices, and committing violent acts? Of angry Black people storming the museums and defacing the art (because of course Black people are the ones who “wouldn’t understand,” who might think the KKK depictions were somehow glorifications)? Or just fear of being criticized, being called names, being uncomfortable?

If that’s what they were afraid of, they hardly protected themselves. Following the cancellation, nearly 100 art world luminaries signed an open letter which says, in part:

These institutions thus publicly acknowledge their longstanding failure to have educated, integrated, and prepared themselves to meet the challenge of the renewed pressure for racial justice that has developed over the past five years. And they abdicate responsibility for doing so immediately—yet again. Better, they reason, to “postpon[e] the exhibition until a time” when the significance of Guston’s work will be clearer to its public.



We couldn’t agree more. It’s time for these curators to get out of their private offices, contend with the crucial issues of our time, use their voices and their platforms to make change … and simply to face their own role in the problems they want to avoid.

There’s more to Philip Guston than caricatures of the Klan — and all of who he was deserves daylight, attention, and the courage of curators’ convictions.
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