MFA Boston embraced tough conversations on its Philip Guston show. Why doesn’t he examine his collection so critically?
A stoic young black man sits at a kitchen table, holding a cigarette just past his mouth. He stares ahead, lost in thought, as an open window shows clouds in a blue sky. Daylight only partially penetrates the room through a half-drawn green shade. The artwork is by Philip Guston Sunday interior (1941), now on display in “Philip Guston Now” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and demonstrates the New York artist’s interest in depicting the experiences of black Americans even early in his career.
Sunday interior also includes many repeating motifs – a window, a green lampshade, a smoking room and watches – to which Guston continually returned throughout his career. Throughout the exhibition, these and other motifs – brushes, easels – in paintings such as Female Nude With Easel (1935), Open window (1969), and Shadow (1973) are breadcrumb trails leading to Ku Klux Klan paintings first exhibited in 1970. This topic generated a controversial decision by the show’s organizers to delay the opening for two years.
Today, an expanded curatorial team in Boston presents a loosely chronologically and stylistically curated exhibition in seven galleries (including a treatment room and “exit ramp” which allows viewers to avoid Klansmen works altogether). In essence, the curators present Guston’s studio as a privileged place of resistance.
This is argued most convincingly with the installation of The studio (1969), which features a self-portrait of Guston as Klansman. It hangs in a free-standing “room within a room” in the Gallery of Other Ku Klux Klan Works, and is accompanied by drawings related to the painting; images of Guston’s workspace in Woodstock, New York; and a reproduction of Piero della Francesca the Flagellation of Christ (1455-1460), with whom the artist lived most of his life. ” I want to watch [it] when I have eggs and coffee in the morning or my drinks in the evening,” Guston said of the job, according to a wall tag.
The “room within a room” is a subtle and graceful nod to the more obvious “emotional readiness” trigger warning upon entering the show. By the time visitors reach this inner sanctum, they are ready to recognize the open window, the green shade, the lit cigarette, and the clock as eternal symbols of inwardness, and to understand the effort that Guston deployed to establish these metaphors.
Once inside the enclosed space, the portrait confronts us. We can’t walk away to see it from a distance (mimicking Guston’s insistence on always painting up close), and the space is too claustrophobic to spend too much time there.
The room is set up like a sort of stage, with The studio as the show’s narrative climax. And storytelling is actually the main strength of the recalibrated exhibition, which unfolds like a nuanced drama about Guston’s struggles with figuration and the futility of painting in the face of personal and public injustice.
This social biographical approach has always been at the center of the exhibition (as the catalog confirms). Guston’s voice features prominently in text and wall labels, and curators have struck a delicate balance between interpretation and image, allowing Guston to speak primarily for himself.
This cinematic structure follows Guston’s own approach to Klansmen paintings. “The idea of evil fascinated me,” Guston said in 1978 of his motivation for the series. “How would it feel to be mean?” Plan and plot? I started designing an imaginary city overrun by the Klan. I was like a movie director. I couldn’t wait, I had hundreds of photos in my head, and when I left the studio, I took notes, memos: ‘Put them all around the table, while eating, while drinking beer .’
But, as with the post-production of a film, the details have been enhanced in the exposure. In the two years in which the exhibition was postponed, the narrative focus shifted to focus more curatorial attention on the Klansmen paintings and the evolution of stylistic and social consciousness from Guston to regard to them. The exhibition now permanently shows the 50-year-old paintings and how the conditions of white supremacy continue to shape our society.
Viewers are made to understand Guston’s reasons for joining the Marxist John Reed Club in Los Angeles, where the anti-Communist LAPD Red squad destroyed his mural illustrating the fate of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape. They are guided through the softening of his figuration to near total abstraction after he moved to New York in 1936. They see his progression to total abstraction and freedom of gesture as he attempted to understand the Holocaust in works such as Review (1948-1949), Red paint (1950), and Dial (1956). Guston’s work has always been about the body and the social constructs it encounters.
The curators also use archival material skilfully and only include what is absolutely necessary to tell their story. Three spotlights cut through silent newsreel footage from 1968 to 1971, compiling material on police attacking protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, American soldiers in Vietnam, and the Kent State shootings of 1970. These media images propelled Guston’s return to extras. The story is also introduced by way of a timeline that contextualizes Guston’s personal biography with the larger social injustice that occurred during his lifetime and in the 42 years since his death in 1980.
The timeline winds through the late 20th century in the gallery featuring Klansmen paintings. Here he includes a pivotal event in the museum’s recent history: May 16, 2019, when a group of black and brown middle school students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy were subjected to racist remarks by a patron of the museum and some staff members. The Boston art world remembers this incident, and its inclusion alongside Guston’s images of the Klansmen involves us all. Are we so different from the New York art world of 1970, which was more offended by Guston’s abstract figuration than by the Klansmen he depicted?
The timeline ends with the anti-lynching bill passed by Congress on March 8, 2022. Below the text marking that date hangs The flood (1969), a painting acquired by the museum in 1990. In this painting, Guston depicts an oceanic expanse of his typically ambivalent pink, which he often used to critique the political usefulness of the paint.
The flood was not included in the original exhibit checklist, and it was not until last summer that museum curators discovered three hooded figures in the underlay. “This painting now operates not only literally but also metaphorically: balaclavas (and what they represent) are part of our social fabric as well as our history, present even when ‘invisible,'” the curators explain in the wall text. As our eyes drift from The flood Going back to the timeline, we can read some of the names of black men murdered by police or domestic terrorists since the 1990s.
White supremacy built museums. On the ground floor of “Philip Guston Now”, two bronzes from Benin out of the 32 from the MFA, the Boston collection are exhibited. No wall labels tell us that these were stolen by British forces during the looting of the Royal Palace of Benin in 1897.
Many encyclopedic museums across the colonizing world have bronzes from Benin in their collections, and many are taking steps to return them to Nigeria. The MFA did not. How can we reconcile Guston’s pictorial resistance with such cultural theft on a shameless display? A statement of emotional readiness might be in order when we enter any museum, instead of just a temporary exhibition.
“Philip Guston Now” is on view until September 11, 2022 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
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