Visual Arts Commentary: Philip Guston and the Impossibility of Art Criticism12 min read
By Franklin Einspruch
While it’s too soon to call it timeless, the vitality in Philip Guston’s art has proved durable. But the structure around it — the “art world” in its blinkered, stultified form, institutional and academic in the worst senses of those words — has died and encased it.
Philip Guston Now has finally opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was supposed to begin in May of 2021. But in 2020, with the George Floyd killing in the immediate background, the directors of the four museums at which Philip Guston Now was scheduled to appear (namely the Tate Modern in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the MFAs in Boston and Houston) issued a joint statement that read, “We are postponing the exhibition until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted…. We feel it is necessary to reframe our programming and, in this case, step back, and bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public.”
That time was 2024. The significance of the date was not explained. It will be an election year, one that would have taken place at the end of Trump’s second term if he had retained office. Was Trump somehow responsible for the atmosphere of misunderstanding around Guston? When asked about the cancellation, Robert Storr, a world authority on Guston, suggested as much: “If the National Gallery of Art, which has conspicuously failed to feature many artists of color, cannot explain to those who protect the work on view that the artist who made it was on the side of racial equality, no wonder they caved to misunderstanding in Trump times.”
This puzzling remark implied something that the museums never acknowledged explicitly. It seems that they put off the show because security guards at the National Gallery had complained, on racial grounds, that the display of Guston’s work would cause them to feel uncomfortable. This was presumably in regard to the Klansmen who appeared at times in his images, albeit in allegorical and increasingly cartoonish form.
Those guards were perhaps the only winners in this debacle. Most of the art world was furious. Some were angered because the show was not going forward, and the legacy of an important artist had been wounded. Many other opponents of the cancellation, additionally or instead, lamented the interruption of a process of white racial abasement. To them, Guston’s work represented an act of self-indictment that ought to be emulated by whites generally.
An open letter in the Brooklyn Rail garnered 2,600 signatures, including those of numerous art-world notables, who objected to the postponement. It stated that “rarely has there been a better illustration of ‘white’ culpability than in these powerful men and women’s” – they mean the museum directors – “apparent feeling of powerlessness to explain to their public the true power of an artist’s work — its capacity to prompt its viewers, and the artist too, to troubling reflection and self-examination.”
Steve Locke, an artist formerly of Boston whose work critiques historical modernism’s lack of engagement with Black history, also wanted the exhibition to take place as scheduled. He claimed in Artforum that Guston “pointed the finger at himself and made it clear that whiteness carries a legacy of violence of which he was a beneficiary.”
Locke took care to erase the fact that Guston had been its victim. The Klan tore down an early exhibition of Guston’s in Los Angeles while the police looked on. Years later, similar reprobates used guns to shoot out the eyes and crotch of a Black figure in a mural that Guston had painted. Locke acknowledged, in passing, that Guston was a Jew. But he could not or would not deal with Guston’s experience as a target of race hatred.
Locke and similar activists have apparently not understood that Blacks and Jews are racially overlapped in the white supremacist mind. Neither have they grasped that there were acute psycho-spiritual problems lurking in figurative art for Jewish painters in the decades after the Shoah. Guston’s buffoonish Klansmen didn’t merely symbolize whiteness any more than Hyman Bloom’s dismembered figures were mere scenes of the camps. In painting the Klansmen Guston implicated himself in evil. From that standpoint even Locke is wearing the hood. So am I. So, dear reader, are you.
Facing an uproar, the director of the National Gallery, Kaywin Feldman, told a reporter that Guston had “appropriated black trauma” in order to make his paintings. She also expressed reluctance to “argue that the public needs a white artist to explain racism to them right now.” Darren Walker, director of the Ford Foundation, characterized the work as trafficking in “incendiary and toxic racial imagery.” The Ford Foundation is the chief underwriter for Philip Guston Now. Michael Lind argued recently in Tablet Magazine that the foundation is part of a “center-left donor network [that] uses its financial clout, exercised through its swarms of NGO bureaucrats, to impose common orthodoxy and common messaging on their grantees.”
In January 2021, Biden took office. In a turnabout, the directors deemed it unnecessary to push the exhibition all the way to 2024. Their new date for it was 2022. (Never before was human wisdom forecast to improve so quickly.) In the meantime, the understandably frustrated Guston Foundation worked with Hauser & Wirth in New York City to mount an exhibition of later Guston at the gallery. This took place in September and October of 2021. Murray Whyte reviewed it for the Boston Globe. He was neutral about the cancellation. But he had adopted the line that the paintings were a necessary exploration of white culpability. He wrote that Guston is “enduringly relevant partly because what, in American culture, is more enduring than racism? And when, yet again, could it be more relevant than now?” (Remarks like these, conflating relevance and value, prompted Jed Perl to plead in his recent book Authority and Freedom, “I want us to release art from the stranglehold of relevance.”)
The show is here at last, but the damage is done. The museums revoked permission from an artist who has been dead for more than four decades to paint Klansmen in the manner he did. Their subsequent statements and actions made it clear that permission could only be restored through Black curatorial involvement. They have established an economy of racial credibility in which Jewish pain is worth less than Black pain. The MFA Boston has not displayed such anti-Semitism since it snubbed the Boston School. The director of the museum, Matthew Teitelbaum, betrayed Guston’s art to appease believers in the notion of the hyper-white Jew. The humanitarian, universalist ethos which birthed the idea of the comprehensive art museum has left the building.
Making sense of the installation of Guston’s work at the MFA Boston requires knowledge of the above history. At the entrance, pink takeaway cards titled “Emotional Preparedness for Philip Guston Now’ are available. On the reverse they offer a message from a licensed social worker:
It is human to shy away from or ignore what makes us uncomfortable, but this practice unintentionally causes harm. You have an opportunity to lean into the discomfort of confronting racism on an experiential level as you view art that wrestles with America’s past and present racial tensions. You have every right to feel your feelings throughout this exhibition. I encourage those who have experienced oppression, and allies, to name your feelings, sit with them, and learn from them. But it’s also important to identify your boundaries and take care of yourself. Critical to the fight for equality, equity, and justice is self-care, rest, education, and community.
This therapeutic approach, geared to what would be a conservative’s most outlandish caricature of a social justice-fixated hypochondriac, informs the exhibition. It makes one feel that one has been offered a pacifier and a blanket. Certain historical materials, photographs of Klansmen and the German death camps from old magazines, are tucked away in covered boxes that the viewer may open if desired. (They are images that adults have been looking at for decades. That could be said for Guston’s work as well.) The artist’s later “hood” paintings are relegated to the second half of the exhibition, on the other side of an enormous placard that reads, among much else, “If you do not wish to view these works, you may exit through the Guston video gallery at right.” (The MFA Boston has made none of these images available for publication.) The sign also informs viewers:
Critics denounced the new paintings — less for their content than as a betrayal of the artist’s previously lyrical abstractions. At the time, reviewers (all white men) compared Guston to a “stumblebum,” called the works “redundant,” and deemed Klan imagery “outdated,” thereby exposing the art world’s complacency about its own entanglement in systems of white supremacy…. Guston himself remained noncommittal about the meanings of these works, claiming that he was only trying to imagine “what it would be like to be evil.”
“Only”! The above passage sums up what’s wrong with this exhibition: it crams the gigantic evocative power of Guston’s work into a veritable shoebox, so people whose imaginations do not range beyond CNN headlines can deal with it. When Guston showed the first of his later figurative works in 1970, Hilton Kramer wrote in the New York Times, “The spectacle of mandarin sensibilities masquerading as unlettered but lyrical stumblebums is now universally recognized as a form of artifice that deceives no one.” Look at the pitiful state to which the MFA reduced Kramer’s pointed response. For the record, Willem de Kooning, a white man, instantly understood what Guston was doing in his move past abstraction. “It’s about freedom,” he remarked. More on freedom later.
Klansmen of a more literal nature appear in Guston’s earlier work. I suppose these are deemed more palatable because they are unambiguously malevolent and thus comprehensible to the literal-minded. Possibly the main benefit of this exhibition for this critic was the opportunity to see the artist’s early paintings, which I’ve admired in my library but which do not hold up well in person. Guston, whose draftsmanship was all but unmatched among the modernists, was trying to form himself into an American de Chirico. Mother and Child from 1930 is typical in both its iciness and its indebtedness to the Scuola Metafisica.
De Chirico is one of the names listed on the somewhat goofy painting titled Pantheon (1973), along with Masaccio, Piero, Giotto, and Tiepolo. Those painters haunted Guston when he was producing some of the most important works of American postwar abstraction, several of which are in this exhibition. What the MFA characterizes as complacency regarding white supremacy is in fact a sharp intensity of artistic seriousness. The institutions are in danger of forgetting that such seriousness ever existed.
The curators recognize that the abstraction enabled the later figuration, if only because the colors match. Guston so magnificently employed Cadmium Red Medium that contemporary expressionists feel wary about putting it on their palettes. It is the only warm mid-tone color that operates like a dark one. Consequently, it was his go-to drawing color until more differentiation was needed, at which point he reached for black to get beneath the red. (That prevalence of Cadmium Red Medium is why various tints of it are employed in the installation. This leaves the impression that the show is sponsored by Pepto-Bismol, but there is a logic to it.) Dial (1956) and Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973) follow the same method of construction. Guston would develop a red drawing, correcting the lines with applications of pink. He then introduced other colors to fill out the chromatic range. With that accomplished, he would deploy lines and areas of black to prevent the composition from turning to mush.
They are of course very different pictures. The artist had to make a courageous leap from one to the other. But it’s easy to overemphasize the contrast. Painting, Smoking, Eating is one of Guston’s brilliant excavations of his own soul. He reveals it as corrupted by pleasurable vices, crushed up against his vocation, and crowded with hard personal and familial memories to which the piled shoes might allude. But Dial can be felt to contain the same emotional tensions, if not so spelled out. That points to underappreciated possibilities of content in abstract painting that even the core players of modernism never disdained.
The exhibition at Hauser & Wirth was the better one, more focused and less cowed. But Philip Guston Now has a quantitative advantage. The curators assembled an edifying sample of Guston’s smaller studies, scattering 15 of them on a single wall — a head, a mug, a ball, a shoe, a brick pile. The viewer can follow Guston as he discovers a way, item by item, into a manner of working that was as true to his love of abstraction as it was true to his love of Krazy Kat.
In short, the work is superlative. But what’s the point of saying so? Signage in the participatory portion of the exhibit relates the sentiments of MFA staffers of color, gathered to reissue Guston’s artistic license:
Truthfully, when we first began convening as a staff group, the consensus was that — despite the art world telling us that Guston mattered — to us, it felt the opposite. Over the course of the next several months, however, as we continued to meet with our curatorial colleagues, our thinking evolved. Examining Guston’s work served as a lens for fascinating conversations — about identity, racism, white supremacy, levels of privilege — made even more meaningful by the fact that many of us had never even sat around the same table before.
Note that their initial response was not distress so acute that they had to avert their eyes and flee, but that the art did not matter to them. The glass-is-half-full interpretation of the above remarks is that previously indifferent viewers found a way to appreciate seminal examples of American art. The half-empty take is that the paintings mattered not at all to people working in a museum — until higher-ups in the organization reduced the art to fodder for a human resources intervention. Institutional leaders associated with Philip Guston Now have made it all but impossible to view the work except through a frame of progressive racial anxieties. They have cut off its transcendent possibilities from consideration.
As long as we have had public collections, people of all kinds have approached art of all kinds with reverent curiosity. The art objects, bathed in warm attention, revealed their value. Critics relied on a sentiment that people, whatever their differences, share a common humanity. Thus they could make statements about art that might be true in a general, humanistic way, if not in an absolute one. What Robert Henri called “the art spirit” flowed throughout. “Art when really understood is the province of every human being,” he wrote.
The events leading up to Philip Guston Now, and the exhibition itself, demonstrate that this spirit has disappeared. Replacing it is an ideology which holds that categories of identity amount to impenetrable silos of understanding. Statements about art from inside the silos are considered absolutely true, but not in a general, humanistic way. Thus balkanized, the art world increasingly evinces mutual suspicion, self-policing, and declamations of political conformity. It extends less and less permission to make art, or speak of it truly. Muscles that should be dedicated to articulating judgment are atrophying.
The vitality in Guston, while it’s too soon to call it timeless, has proved durable. It will likely survive our time as well. But when historians regard the museum collections of works of our era, searching for objects of commensurate daring, they won’t find them. Vital art requires freedom. For too many of our institutions, too many critics, and too many artists, freedom has become the enemy.
While maintaining a studio practice as an artist, Franklin Einspruch is also active in art criticism, comics, and alternative publishing. His art has appeared in 19 solo exhibitions and 41 group exhibitions. He has been a resident artist at programs in Italy, Greece, Taiwan, and around the United States, and was the Fulbright-Q21/MuseumsQuartier Wien Artist-In-Residence for 2019. He has authored 223 essays and art reviews for many publications including the New Criterion and Art in America. He produces one of the longest-running blogs about visual art, Artblog.net.