Courtesy of the Estate of Philip Guston

October 8, 2020

LU | Museum Culpability & Why Philip Guston Can Wait

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On Sept. 21, Philip Guston Now, a retrospective show of Guston’s work between four museums  including the National Gallery of Art and the Tate Modern, was postponed until 2024. Philip Guston was a Jewish immigrant artist who worked in the mid 20th century. Though he first gained notoriety for his abstract-expressionist paintings, he later shifted to representational work that often used hooded figures — Klansmen — to illustrate the racism and white supremacy that Guston witnessed in American society.

In the postponement announcement, the show directors acknowledged that “the world we live in is very different from the one in which we first began to collaborate on this project five years ago,” which prompted them to postpone “until a time…the powerful message of social and racial justice…of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.” The following days, the art world and beyond has erupted in a series of critiques, pushbacks, and callings to restore the show now. Even the New York Times churned out numerous articles (published on Sept. 24, 25, 30 and Oct. 2) on the ordeal.

An open letter spawned by the Brooklyn Rail and signed by big name artists, art critics and art-world adjacents framed the institutions’ decision and explanation as “[expressing] anxiety about the response that might be unleashed by certain paintings in which Guston depicts Ku Klux Klansmen” — plainly stated, that the museums simply fear controversy. The letter claims that the museums’ need to “reframe their programming” (NGA) shows “their longstanding failure to have educated, integrated, and prepared themselves to meet the challenge of the renewed pressure for racial justice.”

Philip Guston Now isn’t cancelled, just postponed. The museum directors acknowledge the weightiness of the present — not unlike how many artists delayed their album releases to make space for protestor voices. This decision dominated the otherwise tame art news cycle for two weeks and counting, but was it really that incendiary?

It’s no secret that art intitutions, especially museums, don’t exactly champion an anti-racist praxis.

It wasn’t until the late 20th century — intersecting with the Civil Rights Movement and later the Feminist Art Movement — that Museums and galleries increasingly granted Black consciousness space in the mainstream. Even then, the forces — gallery owners, museum curators, art critics — that propelled Black voices into the mainstream were predominantly non-Black ones, bringing questions of power dynamics between Black artists and the art world into view. As we might amend the saying: Old power structures die hard.

In 2018, a Mellon Foundation report showed that 84 percent of museum curators and 88 percent of museum leadership are white. These are the people who decide what voices and what artwork gets championed. And what doesn’t.

Just last year, the Guggenheim put on Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story, a wildly successful and comprehensive show, organized by guest curator Chaedria LaBouvier — the first Black woman to curate a solo show there. Unbeknownst to the public, Guggenheim leadership denied her of curatorial privileges and duties, silenced her, and left her out of a public panel discussion. In an extensive Twitter thread, she asks “What did the Guggenheim think they’d gain by….allowing this violence to happen behind the scenes and publicly erasing me from a show in which they own no works and almost no intellectual property?”

Four months ago, on the week #blackouttuesday, Glenn Ligon posted an email from Max Hollein, director of the Met, on Instagram. The email described the “upsetting and shattering” times and dutifully reported the ways the Met has used social media to “contribute to the national conversation,” and referenced works like Ligon’s that were shared. But Ligon never granted permission for the tokenization of his work. He aptly captions the post, “I know it’s #nationalreachouttoblackfolksweek but could y’all just stop… Or ask me first? Or apologize when you fuck it up?”

With all their do-good bravado, museums fall short of their own goals — and fail to champion the right goals — over and over, so I find it curious that people had such high expectations for the institutions behind this show to begin with. But even in un-jading my personal lens, I have to credit these four museums with coming forth and acknowledging their shortcomings, unprompted by the public and prompted instead by internal reflection, actually initiating a reckoning rather than taking to their social media about the need to “learn and grow.”

In an interview with Hyperallergic and later artnet, Kaywin Feldman, the National Gallery of Art director, acknowledged that the decision rested on two focal points. The first is that “Guston appropriated images of Black trauma” so “the show needs to be about more than Guston,” or, the need for additional context surrounding the exhibit. The second is that the show was done by all white curators. To both points, she presented not-quite-concretized solutions but also pointed out that changing — improving — institutional practices would take time and sacrifice, the Guston show being the most immediate example.

After endless outcry and petitions for museums to take actionable change, now it’s actually being attempted — and resisted by the same voices that demanded it. What would immediately reinstating this show offer? What would that imply for how we hold museums accountable for the change we’ve demanded?

Philip Guston isn’t going anywhere. He’s not getting censored or cancelled or taken out of the numerous public collections in which he’s included. Many open letters and Tweets and articles claim that this is the show that would rise to the moment, but there exist multitudes of worthy artists that could strengthen the current racial discourse in art. Ultimately, Guston’s temporary absence makes space. Maybe we can fill it with Black and other historically silenced voices, rather than reinstate Guston now.


Cecilia Lu is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected]Breathing Room runs alternate Thursdays this semester.