Philip Guston's KKK Images Force Us to Stare Evil in the Face – We Need Art Like ThisBreaking News
tags: museums, art history
What would it be like to be evil? Philip Guston invites us to reason this in a provocative set of paintings of the Ku Klux Klan from the 1960s. “They are self-portraits,” said the white, Jewish artist. “I perceive myself as being behind the hood.”
Philip Guston Now, a touring exhibition that was set to open at National Gallery of Art Washington, and travel to Tate Modern, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Boston, could have been art’s final call-to-action in the year Black Lives Matter was reignited as a social justice movement after the murder of George Floyd.
Now, however, the show may as well be called Philip Guston: When? In February 2024 to be precise – a postponement of three years (the retrospective was due to open at Tate Modern this February). In a joint statement, the museums said that the delay will be until “a time at which 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”.
If 2024 is the year when social and racial issues can be discussed more freely, can I time travel there? Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, may be keen to come with me, telling me that that “delaying or cancelling the show only delays, out of fear, the necessary confrontations and discussions that should be taking place around these painful issues”. Guston was already ahead of his time; is that still the case decades later ? Justice can’t wait; art shouldn’t either.
One of the curators of the show, Tate Modern’s Mark Godfrey, posted on Instagram that the pictures using Klan images would have been presented in a manner sensitive to the Black Lives Matter era. That the curators did, in fact, “do the work” and asked of themselves: “How do we acknowledge that the images of the Klan are painful to many? Can we locate his allyship also in his act of self-scrutiny when he considered how he was implicated in white supremacy? Why did he draw parallels between police and Klansmen? Was Guston too casual with his imagery?”
Guston’s paintings make us think hard. “[Guston’s work] is a declaration that Black Lives Matter,” says Robert Storr, the art historian and author of newly released monograph Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting. Guston’s work is a profound example as to how art can be allyship, and a reminder that, though the Klan’s hoods are hidden, injustice is not.
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