The decision by four major museums to delay until 2024 a much-awaited retrospective of the modernist painter Philip Guston, which was announced earlier this week, is roiling the art world, with some calling the decision a necessary step back during a period of surging racial justice protests and others deeming it a cowardly avoidance of challenging works of art.

The decision came after museums organizing the exhibition decided that Guston’s familiar motif of cartoonish, haggard white-hooded Ku Klux Klansmen needed to be better contextualized for the current political moment.

The Guston retrospective, the first in more than 15 years, was supposed 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.

Titled “Philip Guston Now,” it contained 24 images with imagery that evokes the Klan, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery said, and two more where the imagery is less obvious. In total, there would be a selection of roughly 125 paintings and 70 drawings, though the final selection would have been different at each museum because of budgetary concerns and logistics.

This week, the directors of those museums released a joint statement saying that they were “postponing the exhibition until 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.”

When the news of the cancellation spread on Thursday evening, it prompted a deluge of criticism from inside the art world.

Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, who wrote a memoir of her father, said she was saddened by the decision and said that his work “dared to hold up a mirror to white America.”

Darby English, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago and a former adjunct curator at the Museum of Modern Art, called the decision “cowardly” and “an insult to art and the public alike.”

And Mark 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.

But the National Gallery had the support of its board of trustees, including Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, the philanthropic giant. Mr. Walker said in an email that if the museums had not taken a step back to rethink the exhibition, it would have appeared “tone deaf.” He added that the National Gallery’s director, Kaywin Feldman, had surveyed the trustees, and said that there was unanimous support for the postponement.

“What those who criticize this decision do not understand,” Mr. Walker said, “is that in the past few months the context in the U.S. has fundamentally, profoundly changed on issues of incendiary and toxic racist imagery in art, regardless of the virtue or intention of the artist who created it.”

A spokeswoman for the National Gallery, Anabeth Guthrie, said the directors consulted a range of employees at the four museums, including staff in interpretation, education, and community partnerships.

In their joint statement, the directors of the four museums said that “additional perspectives and voices” would be necessary before the show could go on, and that such a process would “take time.” Yet the curators — Harry Cooper at the National Gallery, Alison de Lima Greene at the M.F.A. in Houston, Mr. 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.

The exhibition was to include many of Guston’s paintings from 1968 through 1972, a period in which he was “developing his new vocabulary of hoods, books, bricks, and shoes.” Some of the figures in Guston’s works included caricaturish white-hooded figures smoking cigars, riding in a car, or, in one of Guston’s most well-known works, painting a self portrait at an easel.

Mr. Godfrey, the Tate curator, and author of “Abstraction and the Holocaust,” a 2007 study of art after the genocide of European Jewry, was left to ask why “the institutions are proud to put their name to a catalog where Klan paintings are reproduced on 26 different pages, but not confident to show them on their walls.”

Ms. Mayer noted in her statement on Thursday that her father’s family members were Jewish immigrants who fled Ukraine to escape persecution and that he “understood what hatred was.”

“This should be a time of reckoning, of dialogue,” she wrote. “These paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.”

Guston, who died in 1980, at 66, was a leading Abstract Expressionist until he made an artistic about-face during the Vietnam War, influenced by civil unrest and social dissent. Calling American abstract art “a lie” and “a sham,” he pivoted to making paintings in a dark, figurative style, including satirical drawings of Richard Nixon.

Mr. Hancock, who wrote an essay for the catalog analyzing one of Guston’s works that included Klansmen, said in an interview that he saw the artist’s use of the white-hooded figures as a way of “implicating America, the New York art world and himself in a system that celebrates the horrors of white supremacy.”

The work that Mr. Hancock was examining, called “Drawing for Conspirators,” is one of the more graphic and disturbing images drawn by the artist. The 1930 work, which Guston drew when he was 17 years old, depicts a lynching — or what Mr. Hancock calls in his essay the “aftermath of a successful Klan business meeting.”

Art museums have in the last three years increasingly found themselves on the defensive for showing works that depict polarizing subjects and racial violence. Some observers have protested the showing of work considered traumatizing to communities scarred by that violence; others have objected that institutions put that pain on display gratuitously. Recently, some work has been removed from major exhibitions.

In 2017, the Whitney Museum of American Art faced a backlash for its display of the painting “Open Casket,” which depicted the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955; the key point of controversy was that the artist, Dana Schutz, is white.

That same year, in Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center removed a work by the white artist Sam Durant, called “Scaffold,” a gallows-like sculpture intended to memorialize several executions, including the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota after the United States-Dakota war in 1862, after local Native American communities objected to it.

Just this summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland canceled an exhibition of the artist Shaun Leonardo’s drawings of police killings of Black and Latino boys and men after several Black activists and some of the museum’s staff members objected to it. The artist called the move censorship; the museum’s director, Jill Snyder, later apologized to Mr. Leonardo for canceling the show, saying “we breached his trust, and we failed ourselves.”

Nearly two weeks later, she resigned.

The decision to postpone the Guston show for four years — when the organizing museums still had ample time for education, outreach and dialogue — struck many artists and curators as an act of self-censorship. “Museums have become scared of displaying and recontextualizing the work they had committed to for their programs,” Mr. Godfrey, the Tate curator, argued in his statement.

Hovering over the postponement or cancellation is a larger dilemma facing museums: how to account for growing demands for equity and representation on the gallery walls when the Covid crisis has shrunk budgets substantially. The M.F.A. in Boston has eliminated more than 100 staff positions since the pandemic began, while the Tate saw protests after cutting more than 300 jobs. The Guston exhibition, which would have eaten a substantial percentage of any museum’s budget before 2020, now weighs more heavily.

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