“Philip Guston Now” is an Unintentionally Perfect Satire of Contemporary Liberal Cultural Politics

Philip Guston, City Limits, 1969, oil on canvas (© 2022 The Estate of Philip Guston; Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York)

“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.”

I feel like I don’t even know where to begin. Where do I start an essay on the much-discussed, much-argued, post-postponed, trigger-warning-in-exhibition-form Philip Guston Now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a show curated with such palpable fear of its own audience that I felt as if I left knowing less about the esteemed painter than I did when I entered? The introductory Emotional Preparedness statement, quoted in part above, seems as good an entry as any.

Printed on a large cardstock takeaway, this Emotional Preparedness statement sits at the front entrance of the Philip Guston Now exhibition presumably to warn viewers that, as the statement reads in bold red lettering: “The content of this exhibition is challenging. The Museum offers these words in a spirit of care and invitation.” What follows is a Mad Libs-like paragraph filled with a mish-mash of buzzwords and self-help lingo as penned by Ginger Klee, MS, LMFT, LPCC, a trauma specialist who consulted with the Philip Guston Now curatorial team. Now, you may be asking yourself: why does a museum need a trauma specialist? Good question. Klee was apparently brought on out of concern that viewers’ fragile mental state might shatter when introduced to America’s historical and contemporary underbelly of racism, antisemitism, and general hatred-driven brutality as interpreted through Guston’s late 1960s and 1970s series of Klan paintings. These Klan paintings transform the violence and intimidation that fuels the Ku Klux Klan into pathetic, dopey, and cartoonish triangular hooded figures whose frayed edges and poor stitching depicts the KKK as the hapless yet evil fools they really are. Yet, instead of, you know, putting that on a wall text, we have Klee offering: “…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.” Noted.

If this Emotional Preparedness paragraph wasn’t enough, the Museum offers a QR code at the bottom of the card where viewers can find…an even longer Emotional Preparedness statement! Thank Christ! Here, Klee digs deeper into a plethora of good-sounding but ultimately empty rhetoric. Klee tells us we should “embrace guilt and the journey, which we often forget to do because we can be so desperate to get to that destination” and reminds us “…if you aren’t uncomfortable on this journey, you likely aren’t learning from it, at least not as much as you could be.” Where are we going on this journey? My personal favorite passage, which has now become my go-to excuse for turning down invites, insists, “Rest is productive. Rest is resistance.” Does that mean I could have taken a nap in the museum? Reading this long after leaving Boston, I feel like I missed an opportunity.

Consider me emotionally prepared (photo by moi)

And look, I’m not coming at this statement as some sort of anti-woke mafia warrior. Outside of this “career” as the pied piper of filth and the criminally insane, I work as a writing and editing coach for a progressive therapy practice, including as its founder’s writing partner (Did you think Filthy Dreams paid the bills?). Familiar with psychotherapy speak and many of the cliches in the field, I can attest with expert confidence that this Emotional Preparedness statement is largely bullshit—a meaningless combination of catchphrases that should be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in a university or particular corners of social media in the past few years. Granted, not all of Klee’s advice is bad. Identifying boundaries and taking care of yourself is smart advice generally. But, it is a bit oddly misplaced when regarding a decades-old painting of hooded figures crammed in a clown car. However, the strangeness of the statement’s discourse pales in comparison to its intent. Who is the Museum attempting to emotionally prepare anyway? Black audiences? Do they need to be told to “embrace guilt”? White audiences, even though the Museum also discusses a desire to diversify their viewership? Who are they trying to protect and why?

The latter question bounced around my head continuously as I awkwardly gripped the Emotional Preparedness statement, unable to let it go in both mind and body, and meandered around the relentlessly bizarre curatorial decisions made in the vaguely thematically organized exhibition. Before I get into that litany of complaints, many of which drove me to whisper “What the fuck?” audibly in the exhibition space, it’s worth providing a short history of the Philip Guston Now shitstorm for those who may be unaware. Remember 2020? Lockdowns. Mobile morgue trucks. Blood-thirsty cops. Torched Targets. “Well-meaning” white people driven insane by their suspicion that they may not be one of the good ones. During that period, four museums—the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Tate Modern—decided in the wake of George Floyd’s murder to postpone their upcoming Philip Guston retrospective, originally slated for June 2020, until 2024.

The main issue was Guston’s portrayal of KKK figures, from his early overtly political and anti-racist social realist murals to his later, more absurdist, and politically ambiguous series of Klan paintings, first exhibited at New York’s Marlborough Gallery in 1970. Though certainly not the sole focus of his art, though you’d barely know it from the current MFA Boston show, these Klan paintings represented a sticking point for curators who were stymied by the daunting task of contextualizing these paintings within a wholly relevant moment. (Unfortunately, though, white supremacist hatred is always timely in America). The museums were quick to note that this wasn’t censorship or an example of “cancel culture.” No. They had to postpone the exhibition to “reframe programming.” As The New York Times recalls, the National Gallery, its then-first stop “was careful to say that the decision to postpone in no way reflected lack of faith in the artist, but a concern about the reception of his work in a politically combustive time.” I’m sure it also had nothing to do with avoiding anyone pointing out that, at the time, the National Gallery had no Black curators on staff. Whoops!

Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969, oil on canvas (© 2022 The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser and Wirth)

The choice to delay Philip Guston Now for four years was, to put it lightly, not a popular one with artists, curators, critics, and others in the art world, many of whom revere Guston who has long been praised as an “artist’s artist.” An open letter published by The Brooklyn Rail and signed by thousands was particularly biting in its critique:

“Rarely has there been a better illustration of ‘white’ culpability than in these powerful men and women’s 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. But the people who run our great institutions do not want trouble. They fear controversy. They lack faith in the intelligence of their audience.”

It wasn’t only outsiders, though. One of the exhibition’s former curators, Mark Godfrey who then worked at the Tate Modern, got booted from his role after burning bridges on his social media page condemning the postponement as “extremely patronizing.” Faced with this backlash to the attempted avoidance of backlash, the museums shortened the postponement time to two years with the MFA Boston as the first stop on its new and improved tour.

While they may have reconfigured the show, the expanded curatorial team at the MFA Boston, consisting of original MFA guest curator Kate Nesin who was later joined by the MFA’s Director of Membership Megan Bernard, guest curator Terence Washington, and Chair of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Department Ethan W. Lasser, certainly didn’t address Godfrey’s concerns about patronizing the audience. If anything, the curators’ clear paranoia that someone (anyone!) might be upset by Guston’s paintings created a thoroughly infantilizing viewing experience that made me feel angry, confused, and a little bit chilled by the prospect that this just might be the future of institutional curation as institutions increasingly seek to use social justice rhetoric, as well as the language of trauma, to absolve themselves of a history of dirty money and exclusion. And if there was any question that the intent was to shield themselves from criticism, you just have to look at the “Message from the Curators” wall text, floating above the boxes of Emotional Preparedness statements, which preempts even before entering the exhibition space: “We also know we have not gotten everything ‘right.’”

That’s putting it mildly.

Philip Guston, Couple in Bed, 1977, oil on canvas (© 2022 The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth)

The exhibition starts on a deceptively sane curatorial note with Guston’s 1977 painting Couple in Bed, which presents two figures tucked under the covers. One, presumably the man, is rendered in Guston’s favored meaty and nauseating shade of pinkish-red, recalling flayed muscles. The other’s head peeks out from the covers beside him, appearing to be a similar blonde as his depictions of his wife Musa McKim, whose likeness filled his paintings in the late 1970s after she suffered a stroke. From the male figure’s stiff curled fetal position gripping paintbrushes to the intimacy of the domestic scene, Couple in Bed reflects several themes that traverse Guston’s oeuvre—anxiety, the life of the painter, the mundane—as well as echoes the grey, pink, and red color scheme and loose brushwork that defines much of his output.

Couple in Bed is a momentary reprieve, however. Turning the corner, the viewer comes upon two self-portraits, including an untitled self-portrait from 1968. Untitled appears as a black-grey-and-white close-up of Guston, mirroring the anxiety contained within the nearby Couple in Bed. The curators, though, saw something else in this painting. As the label reads: “Beneath his wide-eyed gaze some might notice a shadowy contour—remnants of an earlier picture the artist erased with pale pink paint. Given the panel’s date, this under-image is likely the hooded Ku Klux Klan head that occupied his work in the late 1960s.” Likely?! Well, is it a hood or not? This unconfirmed suggestion is a glaring red flag, a warning sign about how much the curators’ allowed their absolute unhinged fixation on Guston’s portrayal of the KKK to overtake the understanding of his entire artistic career.

Philip Guston, Web, 1975, oil on canvas (© The Estate of Philip Guston; Courtesy Hauser & Wirth; Collection of Museum of Modern Art)

This isn’t the only painting that the curators obsessively relate to the Klan. Later in the show, the curators include 1975’s Web into the room that mainly showcases his Klan paintings, despite its divergent content. Completed years after the Klan paintings shown in 1970, the curators explain this painting’s placement due to the male figure’s triangular eye. A triangle, you know, like a KKK hood! The wall label describes, “In this later painting, the eye’s white triangle appears strangely at home in a gallery full of Guston’s earlier Klansmen.” Strangely? No. Strange, yes. The thin eye denotes an eyeball in silhouette in Guston’s enigmatic style and it’s not even the same shape as Guston’s squat, rounded Klan hoods.

The insistence on tying even unrelated artworks to Guston’s tangling with the Klan reaches absurdist heights in an ongoing timeline placed, much like a spider web, in the corner of almost every room of the exhibition. It’s easily missed, which is unfortunate as it sticks out in my mind as one of the most head-scratching choices made in the show. The timeline, rather than adding chronological history to the loose thematic organization of the show, which I barely understood, intersperses major events in Guston’s life with moments, in bold, related to the KKK, antisemitism, civil rights, and other landmark moments in America’s troubled history with race. Take, for instance, this segment:

“May 1946: Life magazine reports a resurgence of Klan activity in Georgia.

October 1948: Guston sets sail for Rome, having received a Prix de Rome and a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

August 28, 1957: Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina speaks for more than 24 hours to filibuster the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

May 1962: The Guggenheim Museum mounts Guston’s first major retrospective.

March 7, 1965: On “Bloody Sunday,” state troopers in Selma, Alabama, attack people marching for voting rights.”

This makes me feel baffled, unsure of what we’re supposed to glean from this juxtaposition other than apparently Guston’s entire life was wrapped up in the Klan and/or the Civil Rights Movement, neither of which is correct. This peculiar combination is pushed even farther in a small exhibition area that comically pairs archival newsreel footage of late 1960s and early 1970s upheaval—think Vietnam, anti-war protests, Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, Kennedy assassinations—with a salon-style hung wall of Guston’s small still life paintings of everyday objects—a coffee mug, a cigar, a chair, bricks. While the wall text speaks of its “strong contrast” as a way to show “Guston’s interest in connecting the physicality of ordinary objects to the weight of daily headlines,” it’s hard to look at this startling disparity and not think that Guston was simply dicking around while the world burned.

Huh? (photos by moi)

But, it’s even worse than that—apparently, Guston is also associated with every racist and antisemitic incident that ever happened, even after his death! Take a look at the most perplexing of timelines:

This timeline is also notable for what it doesn’t include. For example, there’s no nod to George Floyd’s murder, the impetus that delayed this very exhibition, but it does feature the low-class Capitol insurrection on 1/6. Are they saying Guston would have been wearing Viking horns in the Senate? I don’t know what else to take from this!

Some of the moments in these timelines did go far in contextualizing Guston’s artistic fascination with the Klan, from his parent’s escape from the pogroms in Odessa to changing his name from Goldstein to Guston in an art world rife with antisemitism. His personal experience with hatred, as well as observing the Klan march in Los Angeles, led him to paint murals, clearly influenced by Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, in the 1930s and 1940s that included Klan imagery such as his mural at the Communist-affiliated John Reed Club, depicting a Klansman whipping a Black figure and also referencing nine Black teens, known as the Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama by two white women. This mural was destroyed by the Red Squad of the LAPD, which had ties to the Klan.

Now, it would seem important to exhibit a newspaper article about this mural’s decimation, wouldn’t it? But, did you know this clipping of mangled artwork contains graphic content? This minuscule snippet from the Los Angeles Daily News is squirreled away in one of a few—what I’ve been referencing as—black boxes of context placed around the exhibition space. This curious piece of museum furniture deserves its own dissertation: a vitrine, painted black, inlaid with a glass case that is covered by a rolling, slatted tabletop, which the viewer must slide back with a white handle to see its interior. The newspaper clipping of destroyed artwork was not the only piece of context banished to a black box. Another contained a Life Magazine article (in an issue that also covered Guston) about the continued rise of the Klan, boasting photographs of Klansmen being racist nerds with their dweeby rituals. Though any Klan imagery is hard to take, this Life article was pretty tame. Yet another box unveiled an article on Lest We Forget, a highly influential 1945 photomural exhibition of Holocaust photography, from which Guston’s repeated symbols of piles of legs and shoes may have originated.

The black box of context (photo by moi)

These black boxes of context made me feel uneasy. There’s something deeply unsettling about an institutional decision to cover up the more unsavory parts of American—and European—history to make it more palatable for viewers. If I wanted to be generous, I could write this off as a way to give viewers agency in confronting the Klan or the Holocaust. Yet, it so stunningly clashes with our existence in a media-soaked culture in which the news is filled with continually repeated snuff videos. That ongoing mediated repetition of violence and death should unquestionably be reconsidered in a meaningful fashion, but the solution is certainly not to shield the eyes and fragile sensitivities of museum-goers. Speaking of museum-goers, despite the MFA Boston’s intent to think about a wider range of visitors, these black boxes of content also fundamentally misunderstand how intimidated many are in museums. Museums are stuffy, silent, cold environments where you’re yelled at if you touch anything. Even with a small labeled suggestion to open the vitrine, many won’t. And didn’t when I was there. Plus, what even is the protocol here? Looking at one vitrine, a man peered over my shoulder. Should I have shut it before getting his consent?

Trigger warning!

These boxes are also just aesthetically fascinating, recalling the rectangular black censor bars often positioned over nipples and genitalia for the pearl-clutchers. I remain curious about all the steps in the production of these unique pieces of furniture. For example, why paint them black? Did they think a white-covered table might invite comparisons to a certain hood?

This brings me to the Klan paintings. In case your hands were sweating and shaking, viewers don’t have to bear witness to these paintings if they don’t want to. The museum offers traumatized viewers an escape hatch—an exit door through a video gallery that allows visitors to bypass these works entirely. For those brave enough to face these Klan paintings, though, the curators not only place them on the white walls but within a strange haphazard makeshift replica of Guston’s studio, which seems to only serve as a way to block the public from seeing too many of these paintings at once. Oh, and there are more boxes of Emotional Preparedness statements in the entryway. Sweet relief!

The curators mainly analyze the Klan paintings through their content, largely as a response to the initial critical reaction to the work in 1970, which focused on the formalist shift in Guston’s paintings away from his lauded abstractions to these cartoonish tableaux that had more in common with Mad Magazine, Ralph Steadman, and Terry Gilliam than high art snobs. The curators see this critical stance as “exposing the art world’s complacency about its own entanglement in systems of white supremacy.” Definitely. Yet, the curators don’t seem all that convinced of Guston’s content either, separating themselves from the art world’s recent decision “to elevate Guston’s Marlborough show works as exemplars of an artist reckoning with complicity.” Instead, they refuse to commit to any real position, lest they offend a viewer, writing: “Regardless of previous readings or remarks, the paintings still reveal—and also center—the casualness of racialized violence. They call out—and are also products of—systems of oppression that flow through our cities, schools, halls of government, museums, studios. We invite visitors to enter this gallery and consider how these paintings operate for each of you—what they do and do not do.”

Alright then. To me, Guston’s Klan paintings satirically lay bare a particularly American casualness and banality of evil. Guston places the KKK in everyday situations—a Klansman sitting bored with his head in his hands or painting a self-portrait, not just skulking around burning crosses in the night. Even so, many of the hooded figures also have exaggerated red right (ok, sometimes also left) hands like a foam hand Lady Macbeth. Guston is also not distancing himself from culpability as many do with white supremacy. Even though he was Jewish, and thus also a target of the Klan, he said, “They are self-portraits…I perceive myself as being behind the hood…The idea of evil fascinated me…I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil?”

Philip Guston, By the Window, 1969, oil on canvas (photo by me)

Guston also takes the piss out of the Klan, especially with his figures’ fluffy resemblance to marshmallows, turning their domestic terrorist power into flaccid and ridiculous inadequacy. Ironically, with their monomaniacal preoccupation with the Klan in Guston’s work, the curators seem to only return this power to their image. Much of this has to do with our current cultural allergy to humor and near-universal inability to understand the subversiveness of satire. The dark humor in Guston’s work, throughout the entire show, was stripped away out of curatorial insecurity that acknowledging the comedic might undermine its seriousness. That’s hard to do since Guston also completed a series of drawings representing President Richard Nixon as a dick and balls.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about this institutional hand-wringing is that Guston’s Klan paintings are, as artist Glenn Ligon articulated, “woke.” They’re countering white supremacy, which is what I thought white artists—and white people generally—were supposed to be doing, not leaving it to Black people and other people of color to clean up our mess. However, in coddling its audience and treating the work as if it has something wrong with it, Philip Guston Now implies that perhaps deep down Guston really did have some bad politics that we just haven’t discovered yet. This follows a trajectory of cultural understanding that has proliferated in the past few years. Politics is now the entirety of our response to culture. Jessa Crispin smartly pinpointed the problem in a review of the unnecessarily authoritarian staging of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin in Wrong Life Review. She observes, “Just like we can’t listen to the sublime music of Lohengrin until we’ve reminded everyone of Wagner’s bad politics, we can’t watch a film until we’ve plotted the exact position of its various makers on the political compass.”

This is precisely the issue with Guston’s Klan paintings—not the imagery itself, but its political ambiguity. The wall text and labels make specific reference to these paintings as “open-ended” and remind us that Guston “himself remained noncommittal about the meanings of these works…” as if that’s a bad thing. But in 2022, it is a bad thing in our increasingly, maddeningly divided era. Funny enough, at a time when we claim to be shuffling off all binaries, we’re also deeply attached to them. Left or right. Pinko Commie Antifa or Proud Boy Nazi. Progressive or disgustingly centrist. Yet, if you’ve noticed, these divisions, particularly between those on the left, have not only made it impossible to achieve any lasting progress (while long-held civil rights victories like voting rights and access to abortion are stripped away by the frequently unified conservatives), but it’s also antithetical to art. The most aggravatingly boring art is effortlessly diagnosable politically. Yet, if many recent survey exhibitions are any indication, this is also what institutions want; complexity, nuance, and complication are risky. Plus, they don’t help your donors art-wash their money gained from private prisons, war crimes, producing opioids, or at best, helping to create this dystopian inflation nation of gig economy renters. Better off distilling topics into easily repeatable, often dogmatic, and ultimately throwaway hashtags and buzzwords to avoid any real conversations or action.

The effect of these curatorial choices in Philip Guston Now would be shocking if they weren’t just so hysterically predictable—a pitch-perfect self-parody of our current liberal cultural climate. The exhibition is the logical conclusion of institutions cloaking themselves in social justice discourse, as seen earlier in the Met’s Alice Neel: People Come First’s whacked-out wall labels, in order to shirk accountability for their own failings. The answer to my nagging question—who is this protecting?—is clearly the institution itself. A tip of the hand is hidden within a curious wall text in the room immediately after the Klan paintings, which asks, “Why does Guston Matter?” with a group of staff members admitting: “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.” Well, why am I even looking at this show then? Eventually coming to the conclusion that he does matter, the staff advisory group, made up of staff members in Learning & Community Engagement, Protective Services, and Communications, admit these discussions about Guston were “made even more meaningful by the fact that many of us had never even sat around the same table before.” This indicates a type of institutional hierarchy that I presume breaks down on, if not racial, certainly class lines. Woke.

And all this makes me feel afraid that if critics don’t confront this institutional hypocrisy and blatant attempts to use the language of care as deflection, this is what the future of exhibition design will look like. I’m not the only critic that was taken aback by these curatorial oversteps. Yet even The Washington Post, which published the (until now) strongest critique, held back from diving into all the outrageously awful decisions. Washington Post, however, is the exception. Most reviews breeze past the curating with only a couple of sentences here and there before delving deep into Guston himself. Others, like The New York Times’s Holland Cotter, have even praised it. I suspect some of this glossing over relates to publications’ own fear of being called out by the perpetually offended.

Well, I don’t care. The curation of Philip Guston Now treats the audience like a bunch of idiots who don’t know about America’s long legacy of white supremacy. It insults our intelligence that we can’t handle looking at it in a painting or an archival newspaper while we all, to varying degrees, endure it outside–and with the timeline’s reference to a racist incident at the MFA Boston in 2019, inside–of the museum. Burying Guston’s paintings under a mountain of rhetoric, warnings, and black boxes won’t purify the past or the present. It won’t make America’s deep historical undercurrent of carnage prettier. It won’t make today’s horrors any better either, as I saw the show days after the mass shooting hate crime at Tops in Buffalo, New York.

And somehow it feels worse than having no show at all.

5 thoughts on ““Philip Guston Now” is an Unintentionally Perfect Satire of Contemporary Liberal Cultural Politics

  1. “Perfect Satire of Contemporary Liberal Cultural Politics” I’ll say! From the sound of it, the curatorial choices inside this show could make an SNL skit to rival “Dick In A Box.” Gosh, they just handed you the material, didn’t they?
    A serious and scathingly hysterical article with just the right tone of dismay for the actual overcompensation hysterics behind the spawn-curation of this politically correct demon child of a museum show. Holy Shit. The escape hatch—Jaw on floor!

  2. Thank you for this, for both the incisive criticism, and for having this article lead me to this website. Just finished reading the equally trenchant previous piece on the Jan 6 insurrection. Look forward to delving further into previous posts!

    As a young artist in the early ’80s who had no interest in following the footsteps of the Schnabel/Salle/Longo et al “Painting as alternate form of capital asset”, it was the work of Guston, Kitaj, and Bacon, who were considered at the time second tier painters, or outliers in the grand Modernist narrative, that had value as example and inspiration. Hard to believe now in 2022 that Bacon was once a cult figure rather than his current position in the Valhalla of capital assets…

    Personally, Guston’s “The Studio” was such a perfect exemplar of what I wanted to achieve: self lacerating, self incriminating, witty, a direct personal engagement with the social environment… And beautifully composed too, a fabulous painting, from a formal point of view. To see it presented in the context of this show, with the wit removed, dumbed down and overly explicated, is a disheartening experience to say the least. And then this quote: “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.” How the fuck did these people even get their jobs? The curatorial staff is somehow outside of “the art world”? Consensus building as an aesthetic or historical criterion? (Interestingly enough, spell check just tried to turn “historical” into “hysterical”). Even though I am a painter, the institutional critiques of Haacke and Buren, among others, have always been important to my praxis… At this point in time, if you want institutional critique, just reproduce that quote, preferably in Times New Roman, carved into marble and dramatically spotlit… I do apologize, I did not mean to go on here, but it was satisfying to read this article, a rational alternative to the shrieking shrill polarities that pass as discourse today…

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