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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

What museums can learn from Philip Guston and his frank take on ‘white culpability’

Philip Guston's "Riding Around," from 1969.
Philip Guston's "Riding Around," from 1969.Genevieve Hanson/The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth Private Collection

ANDOVER — It’s right there on the wall of the little rotunda at the Addison Gallery of American Art: Philip Guston’s “Corridor,” a 1969 painting of a diminutive white-hooded Klansman tilting his head to read a clock on the wall. It’s the only place around here you’re likely to see such a thing for a while, despite best-laid plans to the contrary. More than that, it’s a window into the museum world’s slow lope of change alongside a culture in sudden fast-forward.

The Addison, in an adjacent panel of text, outlines what happened: Abruptly in September, the fall 2020 launch of “Philip Guston Now,” likely the most comprehensive exhibition of the renowned Canadian-American painter ever organized, was postponed by its four host institutions: the Tate Modern in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was an explicit admission: that the museums, in a year like no other, weren’t equipped to meet the moment; that the bristling outrage over racial inequity and justice not served, which dominated much of 2020, was an arena they weren’t willing to enter. So they demurred, bumping Guston to 2024, when his message of “racial and social justice,” a joint statement read, “could be more clearly interpreted.”

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In the ensuing outrage — four years! — the museums rejigged yet again, now pegging the show to 2022 (it’ll start here, at the MFA). It hardly mattered. After the postponement was announced, a letter first published in the Brooklyn Rail excoriated the institutions for their withdrawal from a crucial conversation about racial politics in a moment when the great sine curve of history is once more reaching apex. The letter was co-signed by dozens of artists, curators, writers, and activists across the racial spectrum. The “Now” of “Philip Guston Now,” they argued, was just as important as the artist himself.

”Corridor,” part of the Addison’s collection since 1996, gave the gallery an entry point into the drama (the painting had been off view since 2017). “What do YOU think” asks the wall text, which seems neutral but isn’t. Putting the painting right there in the entry where it can’t possibly be missed feels an awful lot like picking a side.

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I wouldn’t go so far as to say it aligns the gallery with Darby English, a former curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who called the postponement “cowardly and patronizing” in an interview with the New York Times. But the gesture asks a question while it issues a challenge: Just what is it the institutions are so afraid for us to see?

Postponement isn’t hard to understand. Scrutiny is terrifying, more so when you don’t measure up. But institutions like museums owe the public a debt of service on social reckoning; think of it as a permanent state of penance, given their origins in colonialism as keepers of a social hierarchy determined to maintain the ruling culture’s perch on top. (If you’ve ever wondered why the historical collections of American museums are so thick with European art, and often at the near exclusion of any other, well, there it is.)

It’s barely been a couple of decades since museums have more publicly acknowledged their traditionally narrowcast appeal — largely to white, wealthy audiences — as not-a-great thing. Change has come in many forms: as mea culpa (see the MFA’s recent self-flagellation for overlooking women artists, “Women Take the Floor”) and in things like public programming, education, and hiring. Change is hard, but also slow and very recent; the MFA hired its first-ever executive in charge of diversity initiatives, Rosa Rodriguez-Williams, only in September. A pandemic year that vaporized any pretense of equity in every sector of society also brought museums to a precarious place of shrunken budgets and stalled initiatives, making the necessary work even slower.

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All that helps undergird the leeriness of four major museums who, despite best intentions and real, recent change, looked long and hard and determined themselves underequipped for the task. Self-awareness, by whatever means, is not a bad thing. It’s how you push forward. A refreshingly frank interview with National Gallery director Kaywin Feldman on Artnet yielded the fact that her museum’s curatorial staff was “98 percent white.” In another interview on the Hyperallergic podcast, Feldman said the Guston show simply “cannot be done by all white curators,” which, to that point, it was.

Whether the delay is four years or two, this is no tweak. It’s a teardown, a do-over. None of this is about Guston — whose works have been on museum walls for years — or about you understanding what you’re seeing. Museums are in the business of context, and it won’t take two years to rebuild. The delay is about them not being able to endure the scrutiny the show will bring to their doorsteps, and getting their houses in order so they can.

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They’d do well to take a cue from Guston himself. He embodies so much of what I love about art and how, at its best, it’s a vessel for ideas far greater than itself. Born in Montreal in 1913 to Jewish parents fleeing persecution in Ukraine, he moved to Los Angeles when he was 6, where he experienced the everyday bigotry that was part of Jewish-American life. (He was born Philip Goldstein; he adopted “Guston” in his 20s, in hopes of neutralizing it.) In LA, a white-supremacist hotbed, the Klan marched openly in the streets, shaking the young Guston to his core. Some of his earliest works were crisp and realist; one, from the 1930s, pictures Klansmen lynching a Black man, foreshadowing the artist’s most powerful late-career turn. (Some have said that it’s this, not later works like the one at the Addison, which gave the museums pause.)

Guston, who went to high school with Jackson Pollock, found his niche as a young man in a uniquely American moment as a member of New York’s Abstract Expressionist movement. It was a young nation’s first major art-world flex, a bona fide revolution to claim as its own. Alongside the frosty, monumental solemnity of Mark Rothko and Pollock’s muscular splatters, Guston’s work was soft, sensitive, almost lyrical.

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Did those works betray an unease with abstraction’s retreat from reality, into a realm of material and color, of inscrutable beauty over facts and things? I like to think. In 1967, with the country convulsed by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and increasingly venal and self-serving leadership, Guston took a sharp turn toward cartoonishly ghastly, visceral figuration — dissembled body parts on tabletops, objects askew on flat planes of meaty reds and pinks. They’re masterful, unsettling, eerie — broken pictures for a broken world. He was overtly political where his AbEx confreres were agnostic. In New York a few years ago, I saw a show of Guston’s drawings that included many of Richard Nixon, freakish and grotesque. (One wonders what Guston might do now, with this guy.)

The Klansmen were key elements of Guston’s unflinching embrace of American political reality. They were grim and inscrutable, riding in cars, standing in line, smoking on the sidewalk — the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt once wrote about the Nuremberg trial of Nazi commandant Adolf Eichmann. Guston hadn’t clustered them into lynch mobs as he had with his much earlier works, or into the marching regiments he saw as a child. They were right here, driving around, loitering, standing in line — among us, doing everyday things. They could be anyone — even a famous artist, subject of a major museum retrospective.

Philip Guston's "The Three," from 1970.
Philip Guston's "The Three," from 1970. Estate of Philip Guston. Photo: Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

You can see, in this age of Trumpism, the resonance. A political agenda built largely as a permission structure for abhorrent views — very fine people on both sides — demands resistance and response from everyone with any power at all. Whether “Philip Guston Now” could be part of that response I don’t think there’s any question. In Guston, we have an artist who could have played out the string as a charter member of America’s foremost international art movement, contentedly canonized forever. Instead, he achieved it all on his own, for very different reasons.

I used to think of Guston as heroic for sacrifice, risking his entire career to reject the ruling orthodoxy of a determinedly detached art world, where Minimalism’s prosaic, playful material experiments — Carl Andre’s stacks of fire bricks, Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes — counted as “radical” in the very same moment that civil rights protestors were being attacked by police dogs and water-cannoned in the streets.

But Guston wasn’t just denouncing the art world’s detachment, or even the overt, entitled cruelty of the Klan. As his daughter, Musa Mayer, said of her father’s Klan pictures in a statement around the time of the postponement, they “unveil white culpability, our shared role in allowing … racist terror.” Guston, notably, implicated himself — his privilege, his passport to the upper echelons of the art world not in small part because, as a white man — a role he could assume with a simple name change — he could.

Guston’s break with that orthodoxy was a declaration: That he was done with hiding. Artist Steve Locke, writing in Artforum in December, had a clarity on the subject I’d yet to encounter. He recounts his introduction to Guston while in art school in the 1990s, as the only Black student in the room when a slide of the artist’s “The Studio,” from 1969, landed on the wall. As the professor droned on, Locke felt the floor drop beneath him. Onscreen, a stout, hooded figure in Guston’s signature flat-plane, funny-paper motif stood in front of a half-finished self-portrait, a brush pinched in his enormous red paw in the mawkish pose of artiste. Locke was floored; the professor briefly acknowledged Guston’s significance and moved on.

Philip Guston's "The Studio," from 1969.
Philip Guston's "The Studio," from 1969.Genevieve Hanson/The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth Private Collection

Locke, disturbed, hurried to the library to learn everything he could about this artist who dared such transgression. Shock turned to admiration; the “red hand” was not an aesthetic choice. “[F]or the first time in my life, I am seeing a white artist — one of the giants of American art — grapple with his own complicity in white supremacy,” Locke wrote. “Instead of putting the Klan hood on someone else, in 1969, he puts it on himself.”

Later in the piece, Locke makes the point that inclusion was not solved by bringing diverse voices to the table. “If race ever comes to the fore, then, white people insist, Black people need to be brought in as the authority and must educate white people about race,” he wrote. “To my mind, this absolves white people of any responsibility to examine their own racial identity and allows for the persistence of the myth of white racial innocence.”

In other words: It’s not enough to be not racist, something Guston intuitively understood. He made space for his own complicity, intentional or not, engaged it, put it on view. He made clear that bigotry was not only demonstrative and played out loud, but everywhere and in everything. Go to the Addison and see for yourself; you might imagine the sad little figure waiting at the RMV, or for a COVID test. And when “Philip Guston Now” finally turns up, no one should question whether the artist did the work, as the saying goes. But we’ll have a measure on whether the host museums have. Guston being the catalyst for real change feels right somehow. If it takes waiting, then so be it. But the clock is officially ticking.


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.