The great retrospective exhibition is now on view in Boston after the four museums backtracked on their plan to postpone it until 2024. The show’s new itinerary means it will travel to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (October 23 to January 15), before enjoy a six-month stay at the National Gallery (February 26 to August 27, 2023) and finally the Tate Modern in London (October 3, 2023 to February 4, 2024).
Boston’s presentation does a lot of things. But it becomes equally false. It should have put in place a disclaimer that some viewers might find footage in the show offensive or disturbing, provide helpful context, and more or less leave it at that.
Instead, to an almost comical degree, this revised version of the exhibition illustrates a conflict between an old idea of art as an index to all that is deep, slippery, enigmatic and unknowable and a new conception of museums as art as places peddling “wellness,” promoting the onset of awakening and finding institutional purpose in the culture of therapy.
“Philip Guston Now” frames Guston’s deep and intricate artwork with condescending wall labels. At the entrance to the exhibition and on the museum’s website, we are offered an “emotional readiness” statement by Ginger Klee, Health and Trauma Specialist, MS, LMFT, LPCC. Patrons also have the option of leaving the exhibit before the gallery showing some of Guston’s cartoon-like images of rude and deliberately pathetic characters with Ku Klux Klan hoods.
Many will say that these steps were necessary. Some were (I’m all for the off-ramp), but that’s overkill. And as with the initial postponement in 2020, it all smacks of bad faith – arts institutions not so much making amends as covering their badly exposed rears. If, as an institution, you recognize (as nearly every major American museum has over the past two years) that you have failed to adequately engage with the black community, to sufficiently honor the achievements of black artists, and to hire and support black staff members in important positions; If you recognize the legacy of slavery, segregation, lynching, and the many ongoing injustices in our divided society, then it is high time to act productively on all of these fronts.
In the meantime, it makes no sense to scapegoat Philip Guston for your failures.
Guston, who was Jewish and clearly not a racist (he had a history of anti-Klan activism), was a powerful artist and a vital influence on subsequent generations of artists, including many internationally renowned black artists. Because we seem to be in the business of stating the obvious, I’ll note that you’re free to dislike his work. But we really don’t need a wall text titled “MFA Staff Ask: Why Guston Matters?” which begins “Honestly, when we first started coming together as a group of employees, the consensus was that – although the art world told us that Guston mattered – for us it was the opposite.”
The good news? The “thinking” of this committee has evolved.
The bad news? MFA staff, you’re wasting everyone’s time with this drivel.
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Luckily, there are also insightful wall tags and clever, suggestive art pairings. But the exhibit design is cluttered and clunky. A gallery attempt to create a makeshift piece resembling Guston’s Woodstock, NY, studio is half-baked and inefficient. There is way too much text. And there are too many intrusive music videos and screens showing interviews and contemporary news footage. Curators clearly believe that their “framing” of the work is more important than the art itself.
So what in regards to Art? What about Philip Guston, now that we’re finally allowed (with reservations) to see him?
Born in Montreal in 1913, Guston died in Woodstock in 1980. He was talkative and enthusiastic but prone to depression (probably bipolar disorder). He drank a lot, smoked a lot. His father, an immigrant from Odessa, Ukraine, had hanged himself (Guston, still a boy, discovered the body). His brother’s legs were crushed in a car accident and later amputated. He was a Jew in the 20th century… Of course, much more could be said.
His artistic journey is divided into three main phases: 1. A figurative work motivated by left-wing political convictions and influenced by Mexican muralists. 2. Abstraction, in a style dubbed “Abstract Impressionism” (critics thought Guston’s quavering, hypersensitive touch resembled the late Monet). 3. A return to figuration at the end of the 1960s, first denounced, then applauded.
The first political work, replete with cacophonous forms, is uneven but can be sensationally good. (“If It’s Not Me”, from 1945, is a fascinating painting.) The abstract paintings, from 1950, are poorly dated, but the small selection here makes a good case for them.
It was the final phase, the decade-long return to figuration, on which Guston’s reputation now rests. These paintings and drawings were inspired by the violence and political chaos of the late 1960s and the (not unrelated) noise inside the artist’s own head. They are a wondrously improbable fusion of underground comics, abstract expressionist marks, solid rounded forms from the Italian artists that Guston had long revered (Piero della Francesca and Giorgio de Chirico among them) and the poetry he loved. (Guston befriended many living poets, including William Corbett of Boston, who wrote a powerful memoir reflecting the late work. There are also superb memoirs by writer Ross Feld and the daughter of Guston, Musa Mayer.)
The exhibition runs roughly according to the chronology. But he blends in some works from different periods to show how each of Guston’s phases was subtly connected. Later figures with Klan-like hoods, for example, grew out of early work that directly confronted racism and the politics of terror.
Connections have to do with style as well as content. The rustling, oily brushstrokes of Guston’s later works build on the soft, feathery touch of his abstract phase, but reject any suggestion of painterly virtuosity. Guston wanted to achieve what Feld called “the satisfying ‘dumb’ picture”. (Hence Hilton Kramer’s allegation that Guston, when he returned to figuration, was “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum” – one of art criticism’s most memorable phrases.)
In all three periods we see Guston’s interest in huddled shapes, objects and body parts. Guston let the lines become forms and subjects of forms, never insisting that this form referred to this one thing – rather hinting that it could also be something else, perhaps any old thing. His intuitive approach was exciting.
In a letter to Feld, he once referred to “a generous law that exists in art”—a law that allows forms “to spin, to take off, as if they had their own life to lead”. The Klan’s balaclavas were an example. Guston wanted to protect this law “from minds closing in and itching (God knows why) to define it.”
It is therefore wrong to overemphasize the idea that the paintings on the hood were overt anti-racist statements. They were much more ambiguous and interesting than that, and in their stupid clumsiness, their evil, their idiocy, they involve us all.
Guston was drawn to the idea of debacle and consequences. Like Cy Twombly and Anselm Kiefer, and like so many great writers and filmmakers of the 20th century (from Samuel Beckett and Federico Fellini to TS Eliot and WB Yeats), he was sensitive to the poetry – and the comedy – of the fragments, the rubble and ruins. .
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Its alphabet, deprived of shapes and patterns, looks like allegories. They seem to point to meanings in the world. But as Guston’s language became more and more private and inward, his patterns resembled symbols that collapsed in on themselves. They evoke established meanings that have been toppled, like an imperial statue with a broken arm, a finger pointing at nothing.
Guston’s images combine large-scale pictorial authority with the symbolic efficacy of underground comics. His eye, Feld wrote, “was trained unceremoniously on objects which seemed to have dazed reality in temporary stasis. They can trigger the same pleasure as a cartoon character hit on the head by a policeman’s truncheon. In their “blocking” they can also be full of pathos and almost unbearably poignant.
Anyone who knows anything about Guston realizes he would have hated having his work featured by the MFA. But in death he apparently lost his rights.
And so, it seems, museum goers. We may have become accustomed to exhibitions that simultaneously encourage us to see the world through the eyes of artists and trust us to think our own thoughts. It’s now old school. Instead, we need to “lean into the discomfort of anti-racist work” (this is taken from Klee’s “emotional readiness” statement) as we strive for “good change,” which is always “uncomfortable”, without ever forgetting to take care of ourselves and prioritizing self-love and rest. (“Rest is productive. Rest is resistance,” Klee concludes.)
I guess this all comes from a good place. But it’s in a bad place. It does not belong in an art museum, which should offer reasonable warnings but show faith in the idea that art offers insights inaccessible even to trained therapists.
It wasn’t until my second walk through the series, when I made a conscious decision not to read anything, that I remembered how much I love Guston and his fast-paced, bossy, wacky, tearful, reliably self-deprecating, mute, and perverse worldly. . In an age of cant, where nearly every cultural product advertises something and preemptively defends against something else, Guston’s generous art is liberating.
Philippe Guston Now is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until 9/11. mfa.org.