Tag Archives: Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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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Gordon Parks: Back From Fort Scott

Laurie says:

Gordon Parks: Back from Fort Scott is a remarkable exhibition of brilliant photographs that document the realities of life under racism and segregation in the 1950’s. Working in a very difficult place and time, Gordon Park‘s portraits are both aesthetically beautiful and give us a real sense of the people in the images. This is journalism and it is the work of a fine artist.

Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning CROP

It includes portraits of African-Americans and their families in their everyday lives; images that were invisible at the time and are still too rarely seen. Parks took the photo essay for Life Magazine and it was never published.

These quotes are from Randy Kennedy’s article ‘A Long Hungry Look’: Forgotten Gordon Parks Photos Document Segregation in the New York Times:

In 1950, Gordon Parks was the only African-American photographer working for Life magazine, a rising star who was gaining the power to call his own shots, and he proposed a cover story both highly political and deeply personal: to return to Fort Scott, Kan., the prairie town where he had grown up, to find his 11 classmates in a segregated middle school.

The magazine agreed, and in the spring Parks drove back into his hometown for the first time in 23 years, taking, as he wrote later, “a long hungry look” at the red brick school where he had been educated, a school still segregated in 1950. “None of us understood why the first years of our education were separated from those of the white; nor did we bother to ask,” Parks wrote. “The situation existed when we were born. We waded in normal at the tender age of 6 and swam out maladjusted and complexed nine years later.”

For reasons that remain unclear, Life never published those words or the powerful pictures Parks took of nine of his classmates, and their stories have remained in the time capsule of his archives for more than half a century. But an exhibition opening Jan. 17 at the Museum of Fine Arts here will at long last bring the work to light, at a time when racial unrest and de facto segregation in many American cities give it a new kind of relevance.

gordon parks old woman

“The story would have been the only Life cover in those years — other than one about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier — to show African-Americans, and I think it would have had a big impact,” said Karen E. Haas, the show’s curator. “I just really wanted to figure out what had happened to it and see what was there.”

Parks, raised in a poor tenant-farming family, became one of the most celebrated photographers of his generation, not only because of his images, which often held a harsh mirror up to American racism, but also because of his writing — his memoirs and the semi-autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree” — and his 1971 action movie, “Shaft,” which helped open new avenues for black actors and directors.

Ms. Haas has pieced together the unpublished Fort Scott article’s history through original prints held at the Gordon Parks Foundation, in Pleasantville, N.Y., and documents in the archive of Parks’s papers at Wichita State University in Kansas. And she ended up going much further than most curators might in search of her subject. In the fall, she and her husband, Greg Heins, a photographer and director of the museum’s photo studio, took to the road through the Midwest — in a kind of reverse Great Migration, from Chicago to Fort Scott — to find children and grandchildren of Parks’s classmates, using decades-old addresses from Parks’s notes. “It was an odd sort of vacation for the two of us, you might say,” Mr. Heins said.

In the end, at each address they visited, not a single home of the classmates Parks photographed was still standing, a sad testament, at least in part, to the fate of African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Columbus, Ohio, where the graduates had moved to find work and better lives. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, at least I know the house for the address I have in Fort Scott itself will still be there,’ ” Ms. Haas recalled in a recent interview at the museum. “And when I saw that it was gone, too, I literally cried.”

The lives of the classmates — six girls and five boys who graduated from the segregated Plaza School in 1927, in what was then a town of 10,000 people — present a miniature snapshot of African-American aspiration and struggle in the years before Brown v. Board of Education or the civil rights movement.

Parks found Emma Jane Wells in Kansas City, Mo., where she sold clothes door-to-door to supplement her husband’s salary at a paper-bag factory. Peter Thomason lived a few blocks away, working for the post office, one of the best jobs available to black men at the time. But others from the class led much more precarious lives. Parks tracked down Mazel Morgan on the South Side of Chicago, in a transient hotel with her husband, who Parks said robbed him at gunpoint after a photo session. Morgan’s middle-school yearbook description had been ebullient (“Tee hee, tee ho, tee hi, ha hum/Jolly, good-natured, full of fun”), but in 1950 she told Parks, “I’ve felt dead so long that I don’t figure suicide is worthwhile anymore.”
The most promising of the classmates, Donald Beatty, lived in an integrated neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, where he had a highly desirable job as a supervisor at a state agency and where Parks’s pictures show him — very much in the vernacular of Life magazine’s Eisenhower-era domestic scenes — happy and secure with his wife and toddler son and a brand-new Buick. But notes made by a Life fact-checker just a year later, when the magazine planned once again to run Parks’s article, recorded a tragedy, blithely and with no explanation: “Aside from the death of their son, nothing much has happened to them.

gordon parks porch

The Times article says it is ‘unclear’ and the museum’s essay says that it is a ‘mystery’ why they were never published. Since it’s no accident that images of the people in these photographs are rarely seen and never seen at that time – it seems to me that there is no mystery at all.

The museum essay says:  “Once completed, Parks’ Fort Scott photo essay never appeared in Life. The reason for that remains a mystery, although the US entry into the Korean War that summer had a major impact on the content of its pages for some time. The magazine’s editors did try to resuscitate the story early in April of 1951 only to have it passed over by the news of President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur.

Since Life’s only cover with an African American during this entire period was of Jackie Robinson, it would have been a miracle for Life to have published it in those segregated pre-civil rights times. And in the present time of #Black Lives Matter it is still more true than not.

So, I’m grateful to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Gordon Parks Foundation for finally giving us the opportunity to see these photos, and to let us re-remember (or see for the first time) the realities of those times and people.

And there is a book, and I’m buying it.