Philip Guston: Blackboard, 1969, oil on canvas, 201.9 x 284.5 in. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.
It’s not always advantageous for an exhibition’s reputation to precede it. If critical consensus or controversy about a show’s contents can build anticipation, it can also stand between viewers and the works before them, teaching them to see only what they expect. But it’s all the more disconcerting when the exhibit itself preemptively shapes attendees’ affective responses. Before entering the Philip Guston Now retrospective, which closed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in September and is on view until January at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, audiences are invited to take a printed handout: an “Emotional Preparedness Guide” featuring comments from a trauma consultant who advised the show’s curatorial team.
“It is human to shy away from or ignore what makes us uncomfortable,” the flyer begins, “but this practice unintentionally causes harm.” It then encourages museumgoers to “lean into the discomfort of confronting racism on an experiential level,” a process aided by the pursuit of “self-care, rest, education, and community.” The boilerplate social justice language seems designed to facilitate an encounter with violent content while acknowledging its potential to cause distress. But if the warning appears defensive, there’s a reason: It points directly to a previous institutional error. Two years ago, the museums organizing the show made the controversial decision to postpone it on the grounds that the racial imagery in Guston’s work required “additional perspectives and voices” to give it context. Philip Guston Now is their floundering attempt to do so.
Philip Guston Now—a touring exhibition co-organized by MFA Boston, MFA Houston, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Tate Modern in London—was initially scheduled to open in June 2020, until the pandemic pushed it to 2021. But after protests for racial justice exploded globally, the four museums announced in September 2020 that the show would be postponed further, until 2024. The delay was motivated by the inclusion of Guston’s many illustrations of white-hooded Ku Klux Klan figures. In a joint statement, the museum directors said they would be “postponing the exhibition until a time at which . . . the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.” A host of major figures in the art world, including many prominent Black artists, protested the decision in an open letter in The Brooklyn Rail. They wrote that the postponement represents the museums’ public acknowledgement of “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.”
Still, the museums insisted on the inappropriateness of their own planned exhibition, emphasizing a need for delicacy and increased sensitivity. In an interview with ArtReview, Darren Walker—president of the Ford Foundation, which sponsored the show—summed up the museum leadership’s logic: Although Guston’s engagement with “toxic” Klan imagery was anti-racist, these images would nevertheless inflict pain on viewers sensitive to white supremacist harm. Walker called the postponement “courageous” because it would enable the show’s curatorial team “to map out an exhibition that is seen in the proper context, hopefully, in an environment where racism and the kind of white supremacy that we’re seeing in this moment will have subsided.”
But what is “the proper context” for work about white supremacy, in a country where its threat has never subsided? The curators attempted to establish such a context by producing a revised Guston retrospective, which opened two years ahead of schedule, in response to the uproar over the postponement. According to a press release by MFA Boston, the “reimagined” exhibit “incorporates a broader range of perspectives and focuses on interpreting Guston’s work through the lens of his lifelong commitment to raising difficult, even fundamentally unanswerable questions.” But over and over again, wherever the show could have directly confronted the machinations of whiteness and its frequent culmination in violence, the curators demurred, effectively turning away from the most thoughtful parts of Guston’s body of work. And oddly, one of the most insensitive decisions curators made in the show’s first iteration—the inclusion of an essay by Dana Schutz, the white artist who unapologetically painted Emmett Till’s mutilated face in Open Casket (2016), in its catalog—is preserved because the catalog could not be edited after it went into circulation.
All of this is a shame, because if we engage with Guston’s life’s work in a less superficial way, we encounter a startling consideration of whiteness far more uncompromising than we have seen from most post-2020 institutional attempts at creating “anti-racist” programming. It’s obvious that the curators’ sensitivity was an attempt to preempt further scrutiny of the exhibit. But it is impossible to be both honest about race and universally inoffensive. The museums’ reticence prevented them from leading a reflection on the most pressing question posed by Guston’s work: What exactly was the artist, whose biography was shaped by proximity to both antisemitic and anti-Black violence, doing with the image of the white hood?
Philip Guston—anglicized from Philip Goldstein—was born in 1913 to a pair of Ukrainian Jews who fled to Montreal to escape antisemitic pogroms in Odessa. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1922, and Guston’s early life was complicated by personal trauma: His father, who struggled to find a job, hanged himself days after Philip turned ten, and when Guston was 19, his beloved older brother Nate walked behind a car that rolled over him, crushing his legs and ultimately killing him. Guston, who was expelled from high school for distributing satirical pamphlets he made with his friend Jackson Pollock and dropped out of art school after one year, became involved in radical politics and painted murals for a local John Reed Club, named for the communist journalist and activist. Around this time, in response to the Ku Klux Klan’s robust presence in the city—at one point they helped break a strike Guston was participating in as a factory worker—he painted a series of Klan images. As he recalled in a 1978 lecture, when he exhibited the paintings at a Hollywood bookstore, “some members of the Klan walked in, took the paintings off the wall and slashed them.” In 1932, Guston, along with artists Reuben Kadish and Murray Hantman, created murals commemorating the injustice inflicted on the Scottsboro Boys, the nine African American teenagers who were wrongfully accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. These works and a number of others were desecrated by a group of vandals that included the chief of the Red Squad, a unit of the Los Angeles Police Department that targeted leftists and union organizing campaigns.
In 1934, Guston and Kadish joined painter Jules Langsner on a trip to Morelia, Mexico, to work on a 1,000-square-foot mural in the former summer palace of Emperor Maximilian. Inspired by social realist David Siqueiros, a famed Mexican muralist, they produced the strikingly antifascist work The Struggle Against Terrorism, which entwines symbologies of repression (a hooded Inquisition-era priest) with those of liberation (hands holding a hammer and sickle preventing a swastika-wielding Klansman from ascending further up his ladder). The next year, he was commissioned to create murals for the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal federal agency that combated Depression-era unemployment through public works projects. While these public murals were less strikingly political than his previous ones, Guston’s artistic work remained radical in its content. His easel-sized Bombardment (1937), created the same year as Pablo Picasso’s massive oil painting Guernica, was his own response to the April 1937 German and Italian bombing of Guernica at the request of General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. The dramatic piece, a tondo inflected by Guston’s Mexican influences, graphically illustrates the devastations of war through a cluster of wraithlike forms—a gas-masked figure, a suffering child with turgid limbs, an emaciated man—that emerge from a central explosion caused by the bombs dropped from fighter planes overhead.
Philip Guston Now traces the artist’s stylistic trajectory from his early murals to the abstract expressionist work of the 1950s and 1960s to the object figurations made in the last decades of his life. Despite the fanfare of controversy, the retrospective is relatively unremarkable: a conventional survey of a major artist’s work. For all the talk of presenting Guston’s paintings in their proper context, the historical markers are relatively scant. Most noticeably, at the top corner of the gallery walls, a timeline juxtaposes important events in his life with critical moments in the civil rights movement and post-World War II reckonings with the Nazi genocide, as though tying antisemitism and anti-blackness together in Guston’s life and art. But the mere placement of Black and Jewish events side by side suggests an incuriosity about the intimacies of these two structures of violence—and, thus, the entangled recursivity of hoods, nooses, and dismembered legs in Guston’s work—reflective of the exhibition’s cautious tone.
This cautiousness is reflected curatorially in the omission of some of Guston’s most controversial works, including images he created in his youth and a number of the hooded figurations he returned to in the years before his death in 1980, which dealt with the horror of anti-Black lynchings. The sidelining of these images represents a truncation of his oeuvre and a neglect of his evolution as an artist. Guston took on this subject matter as early as 1930, at age 17, when he created Drawing for Conspirators, a stark pencil and ink illustration showing Klan members hanging a Black man in the background with another member in the foreground tying a rope. Evoking the biblical scene on the skull-shaped hill Golgotha, the dead man sways beside a cross bearing the crucified Christ. In the catalog, African American artist Trenton Doyle Hancock notes that “Guston does not turn away from the irony of opposing the revered execution of Christ to the reviled execution of Black humanity.” Notably, this image—his most provocative and disquieting depiction of this violence—does not appear in the retrospective. Its absence is a reminder that Guston, as a teenager in 1930, was willing to explicitly confront a barbarity that many museums would and could not in the present, even as that barbarity endures in other ways.
In keeping with his stylistic shift from detailed realism to cartoonish figuration, Guston’s late works on similar themes were far simpler, but no less attuned to the mundanity of racial terror. Blackboard (1969)—which does appear in the show—is cloudy, as though the palette of colors had been layered on the canvas and blended together. It shows three bodiless white hoods in what appears to be a classroom. The heads float like the dorsal fins of great white sharks poking above dark, murky waters: another kind of apex predator. Omitted from the show, Bad Times (1970) clearly implicates a gun-toting Klansman for the murders of two equally anonymized people on the ground, their blackness intuited by their brown ankles and the identity of the gunman. (Like Guston’s hoods, ankles appear often in his work as a motif connected to both personal and historical trauma. Piles of legs, per the catalog narration of Harry Cooper, senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, “condense three horrors” of “the pogroms, the concentration camps, and Nate’s death.”) While the painting’s absence speaks clearly to the curatorial desire to spare audiences from explicit depictions of Klan violence, it also disrupts the larger story the Klan figurations tell of how violence is situated within the quotidian practices of white life-making—they enjoy their stogies and a joy ride, they self-reflect, they prowl, and they kill.
The discomfort with these images is not new, though the ostensible reason behind it has shifted. It was Guston’s abstract expressionist work that gained him the most accolades from the critical establishment, and when he turned away from this style and back toward overtly political paintings, critics responded with disdain: Robert Hughes derided Guston’s “Ku Klux Komix,” while Hilton Kramer—a conservative generally disdainful of the avant-garde New York School—described Guston’s new work as “appealing to a taste for something funky, clumsy, and demotic.” While many members of the institutional old guard were wary of this turn in Guston’s work, it was inspiring to a generation of younger artists like Art Spiegelman, who wrote in the catalog for Philip Guston Now that “Guston leaped across the High-Low chasm” and galvanized comic artists who “use[d] their craft for self-expression and not necessarily for punch lines.” In considering how Guston’s Klan paintings anticipated Spiegelman’s creation of Maus, a postmodernist graphic novel about the Holocaust, we can begin to understand Guston’s relationship to and visual interrogation of his own Jewishness.
Jewish suffering was reflected in Guston’s work throughout his career, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that religious elements began to appear. Created in 1978, two years before his death, Scroll is a simple and dark painting: The entire canvas is black, with the outline of the Torah scrolls and its inscriptions in a highlighting white. (Shortly after the painting’s completion, Guston suffered a heart attack and subsequently requested that the Kaddish be recited when he died.) Equally minimal, In the Beginning (1968) is a charcoal depiction of an open text. The piece resembles an open Bible, below which appears the English translation of “bereshit,” the first word of Genesis, scrawled in cursive: “In the beginning.” References to the biblical story of the flood appear in The Deluge (1969), in which we see a series of nearly submerged objects floating atop dark, murky waters. In a 1975 triptych, meanwhile—Red Sea, The Swell, and Blue Light—Guston overlays layers of paint to illustrate drowned and drowning figures, feet splayed above the water. The artist was known to describe the entire series as Red Sea, alluding to the foundational Exodus story in which Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, and the Egyptian soldiers are drowned in the sea after Moses reunites the parted waters.
In Golem (1971), Guston brings together his explorations of religion and racist violence. The painting depicts a white-hooded figure—one resembling the Klan images made in the same period—leaning its head against a small red square, its textures suggesting a brick. In an essay from the catalog for Philip Guston Now called “Jewish Image-Maker,” Mark Godfrey—a former curator at the Tate Modern who was suspended by the museum after expressing public criticism of the postponement of the exhibition of which he was a co-curator—reads Golem as using Jewish iconography to ridicule white supremacists. The golem, a figure from Jewish folklore, is a humanoid being made of inanimate matter, most often mud or clay, fashioned and given life through ritual. Because in many versions of the myth, the golem specifically exists to protect Jews from violence, Godfrey argues that Guston “turned golems into Klansmen to undermine terror by deflating and mocking it.”
But this interpretation relies on a misreading of Guston’s Klan figurations, which played with the idea that Guston himself might be the wearer of the Klansman’s hood. On the gallery’s wall above Blackboard is a line from Guston’s 1978 lecture that reads, “I perceive myself as being behind a hood.” Even if the show treats this statement as self-evidently important, it fails to take its implications seriously. An avid reader of Søren Kierkegaard among other philosophers, Guston deployed the motif of the hood autobiographically as an existentialist reflection of the relationship between the self and the violence represented by the painted figure. This striking self-implication is made visible most clearly in The Studio (1969), which does appear in the show. This symbolic culmination of the informal series of Klan imagery is a meta-self-portrait: a portrayal of a Klansman surrounded by his palette and brushes, smoking as he paints a self-portrait. The hood is a veil marking the ways that civil, quotidian white life obscures the brutality that structures it. The Klan hoods disguised judges, teachers, farmers, and other upstanding members of civil society as they terrorized Black communities under the cover of darkness, but they also represent a racial consensus: Even though your average white citizen—whether in the 1930s, 1960s, or today—wouldn’t readily or publicly agree with the Klan’s politics, their whiteness nevertheless implicates them in the system of racial domination that their violence enforces.
Guston, in other words, was a white Jew articulating a liminal position as someone victimized by Klan intimidation and antisemitic persecution, and a beneficiary of whiteness himself. Returning to his Golem, we might consider that—as Nathan Goldman, an editor at this magazine, writes in his own consideration of the golem—white Jewish protection, however conditional, is afforded through assimilation into a system of whiteness that expanded and absorbed European immigrant groups as it solidified around anti-blackness and particular forms of xenophobia. Thus, as a totem of protection, Guston’s golem neither parodies nor defangs the Klansmen, as Godfrey suggests: As a white Jew, Guston fashioned a golem that is paradoxically affixed to the very symbol of violence enacting harm against him.
This is precisely the kind of self-implication that the exhibition’s emotional preparedness guide diverts through its preemptive warning of discomfort. In its attempt to hold the viewer’s hand, to unsettle but not offend, the retrospective created a one-dimensional portrait of Guston as a mere recorder of violence rather than someone who recognized the multidimensionality of his victimization and complicity. The curators took a similarly detached approach in their treatment of historical photographs whose placements in the exhibition seem cursory and superficial rather than fully integrated into the show. For example, while the exhibition includes the 1946 photo essay of a Georgia Klan initiation that shared an issue of Life magazine with Guston, the images are concealed inside of a display that warns, “this case contains challenging contextual photography with graphic imagery” and encourages attendees to close it after viewing. What does it mean for a show that compels museumgoers to confront racism to invite them to opt out of looking at a historical image? There is no act of physical violence depicted to warrant a warning of “graphic imagery,” just photographs of hooded and uniformed Klan members gathered at Stone Mountain and a series of demonstrated gestures—the spread is simply the racial life reflected in Guston’s art.
A recent meta-analysis of trigger and content warnings yielded mixed results as to whether such warnings ultimately increase or decrease engagement with the work being warned about. But the researchers were certain that they increase “anticipatory affect,” which they believe is unlikely to facilitate coping or reappraisal strategies after encountering the material. Despite warning audiences about the future confrontation, the curators of Philip Guston Now were ultimately ill-equipped to assimilate the material into audience members’ everyday lives, choosing instead to absorb the affective blows of Guston’s art about white supremacy as soon as they’re thrown. I’m reminded of Toni Morrison’s foreword to Robert Bergman’s portraiture monograph A Kind of Rapture, in which she declares that there are no strangers, “only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from.” This encounter with familiar but largely unacknowledged selves “summons a ripple of alarm” and “compels us to “reject the [offending] figure and the emotions it provokes.” Despite instrumentalizing Guston’s retrospective to inject commentary into the racist present, it’s clear that art institutions remain eager to dampen any ripple of alarm that threatens to disrupt the circulation of racial capital within their white walls.