‘Patronising’ postponement of Philip Guston retrospective causes outcry

The four-venue touring exhibition was allegedly ‘cancelled’ as a result of fears about audience responses to anti-racist Ku Klux Klan imagery

A joint statement, issued on 21 September, by the directors of Tate Modern, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, declared that the major touring exhibition, titled Philip Guston Now and five years in the making, which had been due to open at Tate Modern in 2021, is now postponed until 2024:

‘After a great deal of reflection and extensive consultation, our four institutions have jointly made the decision to delay our successive presentations of Philip Guston Now. 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.’

The touring exhibition had originally been due to begin its first leg in Washington this past June, but that iteration was postponed to October 2021 following museum closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest postponement appears to be a result of concerns about showing and contextualising Guston’s paintings of white-hooded figures consciously evoking the Ku Klux Klan and intended to draw attention to and protest against racism in America during the 1930s and 1960s, with the four institutions further announcing that ‘We plan to present a reconsidered Guston exhibition in 2024 and will work together to do so.’

The announcement prompted Guston’s daughter Musa Mayer to issue a statement, quoted in The New York Times, saying that she was ‘deeply saddened’ by the decision to postpone the exhibition, going on to declare that he ‘dared to unveil white culpability, our shared role in allowing the racist terror that he had witnessed since boyhood,’ and that ‘these paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.’

Mark Godfrey, Senior Curator, International Art at Tate Modern, who had been working on the show, took to social media to express his dismay, reiterating Mayer’s comments about Guston’s anti-racist position and writing, as part of a lengthy statement, that: ‘Cancelling or delaying the exhibition is probably motivated by the wish to be sensitive to the imagined reactions of particular viewers, and the fear of protest. However, it is actually extremely patronising to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works.’ Before going on to suggest that the reasons for the postponement (which he equates to a cancellation) have little to do with Guston’s work and more to do with the institutions’ lack of faith in their curators and lack of belief in the intellect of the general public.

Godfrey’s statement echoed the thoughts of eminent art-historian Robert Storr (author of a recent biography of Guston), who said: ‘If the National Gallery of Art, which has conspicuously failed to feature many artists-of-colour, 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.’

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