Why was the opening at the National Gallery of Art of the much anticipated (and much delayed) Philip Guston Now retrospective postponed yet again?
It’s already been seen at both the Boston and Houston Museums of Fine Arts, so I did a doubletake on Jan. 19, when a “News Brief” from the NGA hit my inbox with the surprise announcement that the Washington opening date for the show was being pushed back from Feb. 26 to Mar. 2. The show had been twice delayed from its originally planned run from June 7 to Sept. 13, 2020: it was rescheduled, due to the pandemic, to July 3–October 3, 2021; then postponed again in light of “the racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world,” in the words of a joint statement issued by the directors of the four participating museums. (The elephant in the room, euphemized by the directors as “the racial justice movement,” was the volatile effect of the 2020 killing of George Floyd in police custody.)
In its latest press release on the show, the National Gallery boasts that its upcoming iteration will be “the largest presentation among the four venues, with more than 30 paintings and drawings on view only in Washington”—in all, a total of some 110 paintings and 115 drawings from some 40 public and private collections.
“Also unique to the museum’s presentation,” according to the NGA’s announcement, “is a separate installation on the East Building Ground Floor of all 73 drawings from Guston’s series of [bitingly satirical] Poor Richard drawings [my link, not theirs], inspired by the life and career of Richard Nixon, which are a promised gift of the Guston Foundation to the National Gallery of Art.”
Unlike many other commentators, I had defended what I called “a regrettable-but-necessary decision by four seasoned art museum directors [Frances Morris, Tate Modern, London; Matthew Teitelbaum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Gary Tinterow, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Kaywin Feldman, National Gallery] to postpone (not to cancel) their jointly planned Philip Guston Now retrospective,” originally scheduled to have begun its tour of the four host-museums in 2020. In response to my query about the latest postponement of the opening of this hot-button show in our nation’s much-roiled capital, the NGA’s spokesperson told me this:
We heard very strong concerns about opening an exhibition that includes pictures of the Ku Klux Klan during Black History Month. The new opening date addresses that concern and allows more time for in-gallery training and conversation for front-facing staff prior to opening.
Further complicating matters, but unmentioned by the NGA as a factor in its new postponement, was the latest serious blow to race relations in the US—the horrific Jan. 7 fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police.
To seek a better understanding of how the NGA’s version of the Guston display may differ from the approach taken at the other host museums, I queried the NGA’s press spokesperson, whose responses were undoubtedly informed by insights from Feldman and Harry Cooper, the NGA’s curator for the DC version of the show. In November 2003, when he was curator of modern art at the Harvard University Art Museums, Cooper had lectured at the Metropolitan Museum on the subject of Guston’s KKK imagery, in connection with the Met’s showing of a previous big Guston retrospective, organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Here’s what the NGA’s spokesperson told me:
In many ways the show itself is unchanged. It includes the same 230-plus works and it remains a scholarly, deeply researched, chronological retrospective of one of the great American painters of the 20th century. We have said from the beginning that the postponement was not about Philip Guston, but rather about the National Gallery of Art. This is a story of transformation that began in 2019 with the arrival of Kaywin Feldman as our fifth director and the change is ongoing.
It [the NGA’s “transformation”] is evident in many ways, the most visible of which are listed below.
Staff and infrastructure:
- · The leadership team has gone from 0% BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] to 60% BIPOC, and is also 60% female.
- · Elected Trustee leadership has gone from 0% BIPOC to 40% BIPOC.
- · The percent of BIPOC staff in higher-grade-level positions (GS 9 and above) has increased by 5% from 25% to 30%.
- · Between our new Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging department and existing Equal Employment Opportunity office we have three full time staff devoted to advancing diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in our work.
- · We have a new division devoted to visitor experience and evaluation that centers the importance of the visitor in our work.
- · In addition to appointing a renowned scholar of Latinx art as Chief Curatorial and Conservation Officer in 2021, we have added two curatorial positions to better represent the United States of America: a specialist in African American and Afro-Diasporic Art and a specialist in Latinx Art.
- · We have hosted a series of six seminars to engage our curatorial staff with leading voices in the field on topics such as expanding collections, new narratives, curating indigeneity, colonial Latin American art, and feminist perspectives in the museum.
Collections, exhibitions, and programs:
- · The annual number of purchased works of art by female and non-binary artists has increased 150% since 2018.
- · The annual number of purchased works of art by artists of color has increased 405% since 2018.
- · Two exhibitions featuring Black and African American artists have signaled our commitment to broadening historical narratives and received widespread attention. Nearly 145,000 visitors experienced Afro-Atlantic Histories (the highest attendance for all 2021 National Gallery special exhibitions, whether measured by total or average daily attendance), and more than 107,000 have visited Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South with nearly 2 months still remaining in its run.
- · That commitment to diversifying the stories we tell will continue and grow. In the 20-year period ending in 2018, only approximately 6% of our exhibitions and installations featured artists of color. Under Kaywin’s leadership, looking at the slate of exhibitions and installations we have approved and will be presenting through 2026, that percentage has jumped to 32%.
Scholarship and research:
- · The Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts has welcomed new fields of art historical inquiry and has made key appointments of fellows and lecturers in underrepresented areas such as Middle Eastern, African American, Native American, and Latinx art and architecture. It has also published groundbreaking scholarship challenging conventional narratives of American and modernist art history, including Beauty Born of Struggle: The Art of Black Washington; and Black Modernisms in the Transatlantic World, to appear in spring 2023.
- · With support from The Mellon Foundation, we have launched a pilot undergraduate internship program in partnership with Howard University to engage a new generation of scholars with museum theory and practice. Six interns started in fall 2022, and we are accepting applications for the 2023 cohort now.
- · We have invited various stakeholders (including community advisors, front-facing and back-of-house staff) into more than 20 conversation sessions about our exhibition-related work and its impact.
- · What we have heard in those conversations has led to such decisions as the new opening date for Guston, the front-loading of key biographical information on Guston to help visitors connect with and understand his work, and, in the case of the exhibition The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, to include first-person voices of artist’s models in the interpretation scheme.
The spokesperson added the following about how “Guston Now” may alter the museum’s approach to others later:
In addition to needing to expand the types of curatorial expertise we have in-house, we also recognize that regardless of how much or what kind of curatorial expertise we have, that expertise must exist alongside, and be supplemented by, voices from other disciplines, lived experience, and areas of expertise. We are learning how to do that well, judiciously, and with humility….
This transformation is not about “Philip Guston Now” or about any single exhibition or project. It is about the National Gallery of Art and the full depth and breadth of our work. The Whistler and Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibitions laid the groundwork for how we can more effectively align our programmatic work with our mission, vision, and values. “Philip Guston Now” is simply our next offering and a continuation of that work.
That said, the National Gallery’s detailed defense of its sensitivity to “various stakeholders” didn’t grapple directly with the inflammatory KKK pictures. let alone with the shocking events in Memphis. As I wrote here, the Museum of Modern Art, in its gallery label for Guston’s Edge of Town, when it was displayed in the museum’s 2006 show, Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection (given to MoMA by the late collector), said this:
Hooded Klan figures first appeared in Guston’s works after one of his Los Angeles murals was vandalized by the Ku Klux Klan in 1933 [emphasis added].
Of these figures, Guston 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?”
But I think this glib suggestion of imaginative role-playing by the artist glosses over the truth: As Harry Cooper noted in his catalogue preface, Guston’s father hanged himself three days after Philip’s 10th birthday. Most children of suicides are beset with feelings of guilt: How could they have prevented this? Guston was surely traumatized, maybe obsessed, by his father’s death, but the notion that he truly regarded the KKK’s depredations as “fascinating” strains belief.
Instead of imagining he was “living with the Klan,” Guston might have tried to imagine what it would be like to be openly Jewish. Like many who sought to evade antisemitism, in the time of Hitler’s rise, by anglicizing their last names (i.e., Markus Rothkowitz), Philip had changed his surname from “Goldstein.”
The NGA’s attempt to take “various stakeholders” into account can be found between the lines of the meaty catalogue, whose contributors include a diverse assortment of articulate artists: Trenton Doyle Hancock, William Kentridge, Glenn Ligon, Dana Schutz, Amy Sillman, Art Spiegelman, Rirkrit Tiravanija (among others). Still, some who left comments on the exhibition’s website criticized the museums for “being extremely patronizing to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works,” in the words of an Instagram post by Mark Godfrey, the Tate Modern’s co-organizer of the Guston show (as quoted by artnet‘s Sarah Cascone, who reported that Godfrey had been “suspended by his museum for speaking out against the show’s postponement”).
It seems that in these contentious days, you can’t please all of the people any of the time.
After its stay in Washington (if all goes according to plan), the show will end its tour at Godfrey’s former professional home—the Tate Modern, London, Oct. 3, 2023–Feb. 25, 2024.
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