I’ll just say it: There’s no way to talk about Philip Guston without talking about the Ku Klux Klan.
That’s been true since at least 1970, when Guston, a charter member of the Abstract Expressionists, came out at New York’s Marlborough Gallery with a suite of paintings peopled by cartoonishly squat and brutish white-hooded figures — his clean break from the dominant orthodoxy of American art, and an indictment of the rot at the core of American life. But it’s never been more true than right now.
This week, “Philip Guston Now,” a full-blown retrospective spanning his earliest works in the 1930s right up to 1980, the year he died, opens at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s the first of four museums to host the show over the next two years, and along with that comes unusually heavy baggage. First set for summer of 2020, the show was delayed because of the pandemic. Then in May, a white policeman murdered George Floyd, on video, for the world to see; as Black Lives Matter protests erupted nationwide, the museums announced they would postpone the show four years to retool and address “the urgencies of the moment.”
That day, nearly 100 artists, curators, scholars, and activists published a response decrying the decision. What had been withdrawn, they said, was exactly what the moment demanded. Hundreds more agreed: Signatories now number around 2,600.
Now, the museums appear to have waited just long enough for the moment to harden from crisis to condition, re-exposing the deep fractures in the country’s foundation. A US Senator gins up a children’s book about tolerance to malign the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court; racist bogeyman fantasies about critical race theory dominate conservative dialogue.
And into this mess tumbles “Philip Guston Now,” which never had a chance to simply be seen as the starkly beautiful, thoughtful, rough and profoundly disturbing thing that it is. Inside the five galleries that contain an even hundred of Guston’s paintings and drawings, the curators have performed the impossible: Amid so much noise, they’ve crafted a delicate and revealing, deeply personal exhibition driven by the artist’s experiences and motives. It is, of course, about Guston — but it’s also about museums, what they’ve done, and what they now must do.
“Philip Guston Now” is a contemplative space, with an elliptical structure that elides straight chronology. To borrow a phrase, it shows how history rhymes. Guston’s abstract works, lyrical and softly gorgeous, appear throughout; made during his most commercially successful phase in the 1950s and ′60s, they’ve been unstuck in time. They ground us and bring us back to the crux of things — that Guston was a painter, and my God, could he paint.
The show echoes with his personal convictions, making the Klan paintings in a far gallery feel almost inevitable. In the first space, a handful of works ally a young Guston with Surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico — Guston’s “Nude Philosopher in Space-Time,” 1935, crisp and otherworldly, is textbook — and the social-revolutionary mind-set and aesthetic of Mexican muralists of the 1930s like José Clemente Orozco. “Gladiators,” 1940, a brightly colored tangle of children locked in a street brawl that Guston reprised from his mural for New York’s Queensbridge housing project, is paired brilliantly with “Aegean,” a huge 1980 canvas of spindly, thrusting arms wielding trash cans as shields. A brief interlude with abstraction aside, he was in the fight, start to finish.
Guston was all but born into social activism. His parents were Russian Jewish refugees who had escaped the pogroms of Odessa in 1904 for Montreal, where he was born Philip Goldstein in 1913. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1922 to find a hotbed of antisemitism and Klan activity; as a child, Guston saw Grand Dragons holding sway over KKK parades. He knew hatred firsthand. It would stay with him to the end.
With those memories ground into his psyche, Guston changed his name in 1935, around the time he traveled to Morelia, Mexico, with Reuben Kadish, an artist friend. There, they teamed up to paint “The Struggle Against War and Fascism,” a towering mural that addressed Franco’s brutal rise to power in Spain and the growing Nazi threat; represented here by a seven-foot tall photograph, it literally crawls with menacing hooded figures.
Guston had a personal brush with the Klan. In a gesture of care, the curators have included vitrines with retractable covers, armed with warnings about sensitive material within. Inside one is more of Guston’s artistic DNA: A newspaper clipping describing a Los Angeles police unit with ties to the KKK defacing a painting Guston made in 1933 of a Black man being beaten by a Klansman; Guston had intended it as a gesture of solidarity and protest.
He shifted to abstraction with reservations. His first abstract work — “Red Painting,” 1950 — shoulders up here against “The Tormentors,” 1947-48, where the outlines of hoods, by now a galvanizing personal motif, seem scratched into the red and black surface. Nearby, a vitrine holds a May 1946 Life magazine story on the Klan, which Guston surely saw — he was featured in that issue as a Carnegie Medal winner. Another vitrine contains pictures of the 1945 “Lest We Forget” exhibition of Holocaust photographs in St. Louis, where Guston was teaching. Later paintings like “Rug,” 1978, with its jumble of spindly legs and mound of shoes, leave little doubt of their imprint on him.
With Guston lugging all this around, his foray into abstraction couldn’t last. In the show, it’s brief, a respite. Four uncannily beautiful canvases swiped and blotted with color into jagged forms (“Fable,” 1956-57, stole my breath) hang together, before a quick snap-to: On one wall, newsreels unspool scenes of President Nixon, the Vietnam War, the violence of the civil rights movement. Opposite, a grid of little cartoony paintings of things Guston found in his studio — a light bulb, a shoe, a brick — read like a toolbox for what comes next: those paintings. And the curators provide an off-ramp. Turn right, and you’re in a video interview with Guston and out the door. Turn left, and you’re in the Marlborough Gallery in 1970, where Guston’s excommunication from the cozy confines of the New York art world began. The work’s reverberations have only grown more intense over time.
As the show provides an exit, I will, too. If you need to, stop now. Let’s be frank: The ability to confront images of evil so profound is a privilege, typically, of those not in its crosshairs. The Globe photographer assigned to this story contacted me afterward, badly shaken, a stark reminder that, for most not within the art world’s small circle, the work can hit hard.
The show builds carefully to this moment. We’ve always known the what. Now we know, clearly, the why. The curators wisely couch the space in Guston’s rampant anxieties. “Web,” 1975, the first painting you see in the space, is Guston’s sleepless, wide-eyed head snarled in doubt. Then, there they are: “City Limits,” 1969, with three squat little Klansmen cruising town in a car; “By the Window,” a hooded figure on a smoke break; “Blackboard,” 1969, three more, looking lost on a dark patch pinned to a field of fleshy pink. They’re comically grotesque, brutishly feckless things; I think of them alongside Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, which she used to describe Nazi Adolf Eichmann on trial in Israel in 1963. Guston’s point, I think, was that they’re everywhere — in traffic on the I-95 or on the bus, in line at the RMV or the supermarket. Flashpoints of racial violence are just symptoms of the endemic, festering disease that he laid bare.
Guston was cagey, leaving a buffer of confusion about his intentions. He knew viewers would bring their own baggage; reactions would be theirs alone. Still, he left clues. Dead center, the curators have installed a wood-frame space meant to evoke Guston’s studio. Inside lies for me the heart of it: “The Studio,” 1969, with a stubby Klansman painting a self-portrait with his enormous red hand.
Isn’t it obvious? Guston’s indictment of American racism was not delivered from a position of righteousness. He painted himself red-handed — for art’s impotence to bring change, for not doing enough, for the futility of staying in a fight he couldn’t win. “I perceive myself as being behind a hood,” he said in 1978. More than 50 years later, still, here we are. Guston’s self-implication indicts so many of us sitting quietly by. Mired again in a radically broken time, he seems to ask: What have you done, and what are you prepared to do?
PHILIP GUSTON NOW
May 1 to Sept. 11, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. 465 Huntington Ave., 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org