When Earl “Rusty” Powell announced his retirement in 2017 after 25 years as director of Washington’s National Gallery of Art, he was applauded by the Wall Street Journal for having preserved that national jewel, in an era when so many other museums were becoming increasingly politicized, as “a determinedly art-for-art’s-sake institution.” But the Journal’s editors feared that the gallery’s trustees might now seek a replacement who, in the guise of making it “more relevant,” would make it overtly political. And there, the paper warned, lay “the road to ruin.”
A year and a half into the tenure of Kaywin Feldman, Powell’s successor, the Journal’s fears have been realized. In turning to Feldman, the museum’s board had to know of her record as the director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. There, as she would report in the art magazine Apollo, she had once told a worried trustee that the museum deserved to be an object of protest, since its aesthetic offerings were the products of “imperialism, colonialism, war, oppression, discrimination, slavery, misogyny, rape, and more.”
All of this is background—relevant background—to the latest art-world cause célèbre: namely, the convoluted path taken by four of the world’s leading museums to mount a joint traveling retrospective devoted to the work of the prominent American artist Philip Guston (1913-1980). The first stop on the planned tour, the fruit of five years of curatorial labor, was slated for this past June at the National Gallery, to be followed by stays at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, then the Tate Modern in London, and finally Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, with the closing scheduled for October 2021.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic caused the opening to be postponed for eight months, with the run re-scheduled to begin instead in February 2021 and to conclude in May 2022. But that was not the end of it. In late September, Philip Guston Now, the show’s official name, became Philip Guston Maybe Much Later. Together, the four museum directors announced a further “delay” until 2024, by which time, as they put it, “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” (emphases added).
Politics, going under the highly charged rubric of “social and racial justice,” had raised its all-intrusive head. Refreshingly, the directors’ move provoked an open letter from more than 2,000 signatories—among them curators, artists, and scholars—protesting this latest “delay.” That, according to the open letter, could only mean that the four museum leaders, with a show suddenly deemed controversial on their hands, were intent on censoring (code name: “interpreting”) a celebrated artist’s work when what really needed to be addressed were “uncomfortable questions about [the historico-political derelictions of] the museums themselves.”
Faced with an ongoing brouhaha, the National Gallery hurriedly cut the four-year delay in half, announcing most recently that a version of the show will open in 2022. That remains to be seen.
Who was Philip Guston? What, precisely, in the view of the museums’ directors and boards, requires being “more clearly interpreted,” and what role does the loaded term “racial and social justice” play in that exercise? What does any of this say about Philip Guston, an American Jewish painter of the first rank in whose work, especially in its later periods, Jewishness itself often figures, if less as a theme or subject than as a highly meaningful ground note?
The youngest of seven children of Jewish parents who fled Odessa around 1900, Phillip Goldstein (as he then was) had a tough childhood. He was ten when his father committed suicide, a personal tragedy that, along with his hyper-sensitivity in adulthood to the very real public tragedies of the Holocaust, of continuing anti-Semitism, and of racial discrimination, would haunt his work. Largely self-taught, young Phillip took a correspondence course in cartooning, was expelled from his Los Angeles high school (after having gotten into trouble with his friend Jackson Pollock), and spent no more than a few months at the city’s Otis Art Institute before leaving to seek his own way. At Otis, he met his future wife, in the process exchanging Phillip Goldstein for the less Jewish-sounding Philip Guston, evidently to please her father, and even going to the extreme of re-painting many earlier signatures. All his life, he would struggle with alcoholism and depression.
Guston’s artistic output was bookended, early and late, by works of figurative art; in the middle came abstraction. During the 1930s Great Depression, he painted social-realist murals for the government’s Works Progress Administration. But by the 1950s and 60s, he had become known mainly for his abstract or “abstract impressionist” works. Two works, each titled Painting—one (1952) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the other (1954) at the Museum of Modern Art—are prime examples, both with thick paint and intricate forms in the center, with barer borders.
The dramatic return to figurative art came in the late 1960s and 70s and lasted till Guston’s death in 1980. Its vocabulary was drawn from cartoons, his earliest genre. Cigarettes, lightbulbs, shoes, pointing fingers, Cyclops-like profiles, books, clocks, irons—these and other objects surfaced frequently, rendered in red, pink, black, gray, and white with occasional accents of ochre, green, and blue. This is the work for which Guston is best known, and in particular the genre in which he painted his notorious renditions of the Ku Klux Klan.
In addition to painting, Guston taught at the State University of Iowa, Washington University in St. Louis, and Boston University. His work showed at major museums—including a 1962 retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum—and he was the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the Prix de Rome, and a Ford Foundation grant. Despite destroying substantial numbers of his works, he left behind many paintings and hundreds of drawings. New York’s Museum of Modern Art owns more than 100 works, and the National Gallery, which recently called Guston “one of America’s greatest modern painters,” holds about 50.
To be honest, although I knew Guston was important and much celebrated, I’d long been put off by his art. But I was also aware that Archie Rand, one of the most exciting of living Jewish artists, admired him greatly, and a curator of the exhibit had told me two years ago that the four-museum retrospective would also help bring out the artist’s Jewish identity and inspiration. Supporting this belief was the exhibition catalog, itself a mine of information and scholarly acumen, as well as a recent study, Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting, by Yale University’s Robert Storr. To be released soon is also a new biography by Musa Mayer, the artist’s daughter and the author of an earlier memoir of her father.
Even without benefit of a visit to the postponed retrospective, poring over these various writings gave me a new sense of Guston and a deep appreciation for his work.
What, then, about the trope of “social and racial justice”? The irony, one of many in this unfolding saga, is that if Guston were alive in our age of highly articulated and often biased labeling, he would qualify at the very least as a committed anti-racist. In 1932, he painted Ku Klux Klansmen torturing a black man, a work commissioned by the pro-Communist John Reed Club in Los Angeles and subsequently defaced by a local “Red Squad.” Later in his career, Guston responded to the urban violence of the 1960s with more Klan paintings; almost always, they bitterly ridiculed the hooded terrorists.
One of the most famous and enigmatic in this whole series of paintings is The Studio: a double self-portrait of the artist as one hooded Klansman painting himself as another hooded Klansman. To note this is to stipulate that, indeed, Guston’s work does require further interpretation, but not of the sort the four museums, led by Kaywin Feldman, have now demanded.
In an interview on the website of Hyperallergic, “a forum for playful, serious, and radical perspectives on art in society,” Feldman explained her ex-post-facto reasoning for the postponement: “an exhibition with such strong commentary on race cannot be done by all-white curators.” To be specific, Guston, a white man, was guilty of having “appropriated images of black trauma,” a damning fact from which it followed that “the show needs to be about more than Guston.”
Does it, really? Feldman’s assertion, pregnant with more ironies, invites a response on more than one level. In asking Congress for $161.5 million for fiscal year 2021, the National Gallery hailed itself as “an outstanding example of the highly effective use of federal funding to serve the broadest possible public audience.” Echoing this selling point at a press conference during her first week at the museum, the new director reiterated what, in her view, present-day American curators need to remember. They work not for their artistic peers, she intoned, or for the sake of academic experts, but for the public: “the visitors and the audience come first.”
But not, evidently, in this case: the director has decided on the visitors’ behalf whether they are capable, or not capable, of understanding Philip Guston for themselves, and will patronizingly proceed to instruct them.
As for the sum and substance of her instruction—that the white Jewish Philip Guston in his art illegitimately and unforgivably “appropriated” the imagery of black trauma—it is at once ironic and repellently nonsensical. Visitors to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam can watch a video in which Whoopi Goldberg asserts she was able to understand what the famous Jewish teenager endured in Nazi-occupied Holland because of her own background as a black woman in America. Did Whoopi Goldberg “appropriate” Jewish trauma? Do Gentile cartoonists who depict Donald Trump as Hitler? Has it escaped Feldman’s attention that the Klan, the hate group satirized by the Jewish artist she brands as having looted someone else’s trauma, was not only virulently anti-black but no less virulently anti-Semitic?
The point can be applied to Feldman’s own museum without much effort. Take “Zim Zum” (1990), a painting in the National Gallery by the German artist Anselm Kiefer (born 1945). Commending and celebrating the work on its website, the museum cites the title’s use of the kabbalistic concept of tsimtsum (contraction), connecting it obscurely to Kiefer’s determination in his art “to confront the nature of evil and, specifically, the evil of the Holocaust.” Did the National Gallery misspell “appropriation of Jewish trauma” here?
Indeed, if one were systematically to adopt the National Gallery’s standards for defining and naming hateful representations of racial matters in art, the term “anti-Jewish” might well strike one as a consistently prominent trait. Take, for another instance, a painting on the second floor: Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1398-99) by the Sienese artist Paolo di Giovanni Fei. Though all of the figures in the painting have light skin, you can spot the Jewish men immediately: they’re halo-less. Yet, conspicuously, the description on the gallery’s website, while fawning over the painting’s “rich details [that] enliven and humanize a sacred event, making it more accessible to a contemporary viewer,” omits to mention the odious iconography of Jews rejected by God.
A moment’s research by a curator would have confirmed the significance of this iconography. A half-century earlier, blaming Jews for the Black Death, Paolo’s city of Siena in Tuscany had expelled its own Jewish community in toto. Several years after Paolo’s Presentation of the Virgin, Siena’s populace was being regularly regaled with the vitriolic anti-Semitic sermons of the Franciscan priest Bernardino, later canonized as Saint Bernardino.
So, in dehumanizing Jews, was Paolo di Giovanni Fei merely putting his (anti-Semitic) public first, or, more malignantly, was the picture actively endorsing and reinforcing late-14th-century Sienese hostility to Jews? Should the National Gallery, if confused or uncertain on this point, proceed preemptively to remove medieval European artworks until such time as they can be “more clearly interpreted”?
Let’s put aside this game of tu quoque—it’s too obvious, and too easy—and return to the deeper question of who Philip Guston was. In her book, Musa Mayer writes of her father’s having witnessed Klan injustice firsthand in Los Angeles in his teens, imagery that etched itself into his psyche. “The idea of evil fascinated me,” she quotes him as saying. “I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot.” In the 1960s, she records, as he struggled with the racial unrest that was tearing apart American cities, he asked: “What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything, then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”
In Philip Guston: A Life in Painting, Robert Storr suggests that in The Studio, his double self-portrait as a Klansman, the artist acknowledged his own capacity for evil by identifying with his enemy. Calling this “a deeply troubling conflation of polar opposites,” Storr supports his analysis with quotations from a 1974 talk in which Guston said, “I conceived of these figures as very pathetic, tattered, full of seams. I don’t know how to explain it. . . . Something pathetic about brutality, and comic also. I mean the mixture of emotions. The guy’s gone nuts.”
Moreover, both Mayer and Storr make a point of situating Guston’s work within the context of his specifically Jewish identity; and so do the authors of two especially superb essays in the exhibition catalog. Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of modern art at the National Gallery, adduces the post-World War II photos of liberated concentration camps that, he argues, inspired Guston’s late-1940s imagery of empty shoes and stacked, disembodied limbs. Zeroing in on the gaps between the stacked legs, Cooper calls these empty spaces “formal breathers” and “safety valves in a world whose horrors cannot be contained by any structure.” A scholar gifted with the ability to see the personal in the mythic, Cooper writes that these “piles of legs, one of Guston’s most frequent motifs, condense three horrors, each personal to a different degree: the pogroms, the concentration camps, and Nate’s death,” the last being a reference to the artist’s brother who died in an accident that maimed his legs.
Then there’s the golem: another frequent presence in Guston’s work. In a talk, the artist once remarked that such a creature—the anthropomorphic giant allegedly invented out of clay and brought to life in the late 16th century by Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague in order to avenge the Jews on their enemies—was “impossible.” “Only God can make life,” Guston protested; by contrast, “a golem was like Dr. Frankenstein.”
In his own first-rate essay in the catalog, Mark Godfrey, senior international art curator at the Tate Modern, sees golems also in Guston’s hooded self-portraits. In this connection, he cites a remark made by Guston to the art critic Harold Rosenberg to the effect that, in finishing each of his paintings, he felt he had created and then left behind a “person” in the sense of a “something that is a thing, an organic thing that can lead its own life, that doesn’t need me anymore.”
For Guston, the golem was either the Jewish protector, vaporizing Klansmen from within, or a force that, once summoned, could, like Rabbi Judah Loew’s creature in Prague, run disastrously amok. And as with Rabbi Loew, so with Philip Guston; as Godfrey writes about his final Klansman painting, titled, appropriately, Golem (1971): “In his mind, it was a small jump from Prague-riverbed clay to pasty American oil paint, which he once called ‘colored dirt.’”
Godfrey’s and Cooper’s essays excel in their serious treatment of Jewish content and Jewish storytelling. If they are correct about Guston, and they are, the artist in his Klansmen depictions hasn’t “appropriated” black pain but empathetically explored shared trauma through the innovative Jewish lens of an annihilating mockery. Emphasizing hoods falling apart at the seams, exaggerating the circular eye slits as large rectangles, Guston parodies and denatures the Klan in a way that only a cartoonist would dare do. Turning hoods inside out, symbolically trying them on for size, he strips them of their virulent scariness and leaves them still evil, yes, but squashable.
Guston’s is hardly the only approach to the conundrums and mysteries of human relations, but—in, perhaps, a final irony—the way that four eminent world museums have bungled his art and his legacy does make his work seem all the timelier. In the proto-Freudian terms articulated by the Talmud, kol ha-posel pasul: “one who disqualifies [read: cancels] another for a flaw is disqualified by the same flaw.” In preemptively condemning this timely Jewish voice, the museum directors and boards reveal their own arrogant shortcomings.
To be sure, gagging one nuanced Jewish artist is hardly the same thing as dismissing Jewish art as “degenerate.” But, as the history of art has shown, even in painted landscapes the slope can become too slippery to be safely ignored. For anyone alarmed by the grotesque fate visited upon Philip Guston Now, one novelty worth bearing in mind is that, in our supposedly public-serving and “audience-first” world, the bill for the audience-last National Gallery is being footed by the United States Congress.