Painting: Philip Guston, the Ku Klux Klan and Censorship

It is not said in the press release, but the reason is clear. Four of the largest museums in the world have decided by mutual agreement to postpone a retrospective dedicated to Philip Guston, recognized master of American painting of the 20th century.e century, because some of his paintings represent hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan. The directors of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston announced that the exhibition would be delayed “until such time as [ils penseront] that the powerful message of social and racial justice which is central to Philip Guston’s work can be interpreted more clearly ”. In short, they fear that the dozen paintings showing KKK figures will be too disturbing and cause protests outside their doors.

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The retrospective is officially postponed to 2024. The press release explains that the museums will rethink the presentation of the exhibition on which they have already worked for years. They want to bring “additional perspectives and voices”. One could point out that it has already been done: the catalog includes essays by two renowned African-American artists, Glenn Ligon and Trenton Doyle Hancock, and the presentation texts for the exhibition have been revised following the breakthrough of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The announcement of the postponement of the retrospective put the art world in turmoil. About a hundred artists, curators and gallery owners have published an open letter in which they say they are “shocked and disappointed” and condemn this decision. “The people who run our great institutions do not want waves. They fear controversy, they have no faith in the intelligence of their audience, ”they write. Jason Farago, one of the art critics of New York Times, denounced the “censorship” of the conservatives. “A museum that is not equipped to display Guston,” he wrote, “is a dusty storehouse of junk. “

From abstract to figurative

The controversy is not lacking in irony, for Philip Guston, the son of an immigrant from Ukraine, was Jewish and very leftist in his youth. He frequented communist circles in the 1930s. After becoming known as an abstract expressionist, Guston, who died in 1980, completely changed his style in the 1960s. Marked by the battle for civil rights and violence against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, he turned to the figurative, and notably painted a series of pictures with individuals in KKK costume, both threatening and ridiculous, with their huge red hands and their cigars. “In the midst of a corrupt presidency, a Vietnam War and constant brutality against civil rights movements and black power, Guston, unable to keep going to his studio to just” put on some red to a blue, “made a radical shift from abstraction to figuration in order to explore questions of internal terrorism, white hegemony and white complicity,” Glenn Ligon explains in the catalog.

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In 2003, a major exhibition of his works was held which did not arouse any controversy. But museums have since become cautious. In 2017, protesters criticized Dana Schutz’s work at the Whitney which portrayed Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager lynched by two whites in Mississippi in 1955. The reason? The artist was a white woman who appropriated the suffering of blacks. That same year, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis withdrew, at the request of Native Americans, a work by Sam Durant which embodied a gallows in commemoration of the execution of 38 Indians from Dakota to Minnesota in the late 19th century.e century. This summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland canceled the exhibition of Shaun Leonardo’s drawings showing black and Latino children victims of the police, after protests from parents and activists.

Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, said she was “deeply saddened” by the postponement of the retrospective. “These tables correspond well to the present moment. The danger is not to look at the works of Philip Guston, but to look away. “

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