It’s been a bad time for just about everybody (Wall Street executives and drug company kingpins aside) but particularly for the arts. Airlines get bailed out, but no one thinks of helping Broadway, which has just canceled its season again. In more civilized societies, the performing arts are state-subsidized and great cultural institutions are not left to the whim of donors.
It’s been hard on the visual arts, too. Major shows on which museums rely on for much of their income have been canceled, and some (notably the Brooklyn and Baltimore museums) have been led to sell important works to meet maintenance costs — a practice hitherto stringently forbidden.
However, one show, already postponed, was scheduled for its opening this fall at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, with three other stops scheduled in London and the U.S. This was “Philip Guston Now,” the first large retrospective of the late Canadian-born American painter in 15 years. Guston’s story is a remarkable one, and this much-anticipated show was, for a variety of reasons, to be particularly significant.
It still will be, but for a very wrong reason — one that speaks to the miserable moment we now find ourselves in. It’s been canceled, at least for the present, and not (as with other shows) because of the pandemic. The reason, in this case, is censorship born of ignorance and gutlessness.
Guston grew up in Los Angeles in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan was at its height. His first major painting, “Conspirators,“ depicted a giant Klan figure from behind, holding a concealed club. The intention was clear, and Guston’s politics, which were very much of the left, were further demonstrated in the murals he made for the Works Progress Administration in the later 1930s. With others of his generation, Guston abandoned figurative painting to embrace abstract expressionism in the 1950s. I knew him as one of that school when, opening a literary journal one day, I saw a suite of paintings by him unlike anything I’d ever seen by him or anyone else.
Abstract expressionism had, by this time, yielded to pop art, which reinstated figural representation. Guston, who appeared to have banished images wholly from his work, now returned to them, but with a ferocity nowhere seen before in his art and seldom anywhere else since Goya. I felt at once that he had captured the Sixties’ racially-charged violence, which he characterized by once again depicting Klansmen still on the American stage. These new Klan figures, however, while still menacing, were also goofy, as if they represented a repressed absurdity coming back to life.
I searched out Guston exhibitions after that, became friendly with his dealer David McKee and began to write about him. Most major critics dismissed him as someone who had betrayed his art, but opinion finally began to catch up with him, and I came to see the continuity between his abstract and figural work as a synthesis rather than a break.
Other artists found inspiration in him, and he was recast as a major figure — in fact, one of the leading artists of the second half of the 20th century, and one of permanent importance. The centennial of his birth seven years ago was noted, but not with the kind of retrospective I thought might be expected.
So when the present National Gallery show was announced, I awaited it eagerly. Its title, “Philip Guston Now,” promised not only a reckoning of his accomplishments but of his continuing relevance to today’s art.
This is the show that is now on hold — not deep-sixed, but postponed for a ridiculous four years, till 2024. Was the problem security? Financing? Trouble getting or insuring the requisite loans from other institutions and private collectors? No. None of the above. And it isn’t any trouble with the work of Guston’s early or middle years. It’s the Klansmen.
Say what? The comment by one of the National Gallery’s eminent trustees, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, sums up the position it has taken with admirable if inane candor:
“What those who criticize this decision do not understand is that in the past few months the context in the U.S. has fundamentally and profoundly changed on issues of incendiary and toxic racist imagery in art, regardless of the virtue or intention of the artist who created it,” Walker said.
Mr. Walker is presumably referring to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the other attacks by police and vigilantes against African Americans and other minority groups that have climaxed the Trump presidency. If one were viewing the canceled exhibit through these eyes with a scintilla of intelligence, however, it would be a conclusive argument for regarding “Philip Guston Now” as more critically important to the national conversation about race and diversity than at any time in the past 50 years — far more so, I daresay, than its organizers and sponsors could have imagined when they conceived it.
No one with eyes in his head could look at look at any of Guston’s Klan figures without seeing the anger, disgust and ridicule in their creator: an anger born of understanding in them the rampant violence of a damaged and divided nation. They were relevant to the climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and are no less so half a century later to a society still riven by racial fear and animosity.
Mr. Walker himself is patently part of the problem. He inferentially calls Guston a racist for producing images that are “incendiary,” “toxic” and “racist” as such. Does he seriously mean that looking at them is likely to inspire viewers to burn crosses or resort to lynching? If so, then the logic of his position is that “Philip Guston Now” not be sanitized, as proposed, by adding captions to place it in “context,” but that it be canceled altogether. Cowardice, hypocrisy and sheer moral (not to say aesthetic) blindness could hardly go further.
Happily, the postponement of the show has been met with outraged protest by leading artists, curators and critics. But the damage has been done. A great American artist’s integrity has been called into question, and a great American museum has besmirched itself. Perhaps worst, we have all lost, at least for the present, the opportunity to see ourselves in a mirror of conscience at a moment when we badly need it. Call that more of Donald Trump’s legacy. But don’t lay it all on him. We all have a share in the disgrace.