Art & Culture

In long-awaited Philip Guston show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, great art comes with a warning

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BOSTON — “Philip Guston Now” has finally opened — but not at the National Gallery of Art, where it was supposed to launch in the fall of 2020. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing racial justice protests, the four-venue exhibition was controversially postponed because of Guston’s use of racially charged imagery.

The major retrospective exhibition is now on view in Boston after the four museums backtracked on their plan to postpone it until 2024. The show’s new itinerary means it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Oct. 23 to Jan. 15), before enjoying a six-month stint at the National Gallery (Feb. 26 to Aug. 27, 2023), and finally traveling to Tate Modern in London (Oct. 3, 2023 to Feb. 4, 2024).

The Boston presentation does many things right. But it gets just as much wrong. It should have put up a warning that some viewers might find images in the show offensive or disturbing, provided helpful context, and more or less left it at that.

Instead, to an almost comical degree, this revised version of the exhibition exemplifies a conflict between an old idea of art as an index to everything that is profound, slippery, enigmatic and unknowable and a new conception of art museums as places peddling “wellness,” promoting the appearance of wokeness and finding institutional purpose in the culture of therapy.

“Philip Guston Now” frames Guston’s profound and complicated oeuvre with patronizing wall labels. At the entrance to the exhibition and on the museum’s website, we are offered an “Emotional Preparedness” statement by health and trauma specialist Ginger Klee, MS, LMFT, LPCC. Patrons are also offered an opportunity to exit the exhibition ahead of the gallery showing some of Guston’s cartoonlike images of crude, deliberately pathetic figures with Ku Klux Klan hoods.

Many will say these were necessary steps. Some were (I’m all for the off-ramp), but this is overkill. And as with the original postponement in 2020, the whole thing smells of bad faith — of art institutions not so much making amends as covering their badly exposed rear ends. If, as an institution, you recognize (as almost every major U.S. museum has over the past two years) that you have failed to engage adequately with the Black community, to honor sufficiently the achievements of Black artists, and to hire and support Black staff members in important positions; if you acknowledge the legacy of slavery, segregation, lynching and the many ongoing injustices in our divided society, then it’s past time to act productively on all these fronts.

In the meantime, it makes zero sense to make Philip Guston the scapegoat for your failings.

Guston, who was Jewish and clearly not a racist (he had a record of anti-Klan activism), was a powerful artist and a vital influence on subsequent generations of artists, including many internationally famous Black artists. Because we seem to be in the business of stating the obvious, I’ll note that you’re free to not like his work. But we really don’t need a wall text headed “MFA Staff Ask: Why does Guston matter?” which begins “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.”

The good news? This committee’s “thinking evolved.”

The bad news? MFA staff, you are wasting everyone’s time with this drivel.

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Thankfully, there are also insightful wall labels and smart and suggestive pairings of art. But the design of the exhibition is crowded and clumsy. An attempt in one gallery to create a makeshift room resembling Guston’s Woodstock, N.Y., studio is half-baked and ineffective. There is far too much text. And there are too many intrusive video clips and screens showing interviews and contemporary news footage. The curators clearly think their “framing” of the work is more important than the art itself.

So what about the art? What about Philip Guston, now that we are finally allowed (with caveats) to see him?

Born in Montreal in 1913, Guston died in Woodstock in 1980. He was voluble and enthusiastic but prone to depression (probably bipolar disorder). He drank a lot, smoked a lot. His father, an immigrant from Odessa, Ukraine, had hanged himself (Guston, still a boy, discovered the body). His brother’s legs were crushed in a car accident and later amputated. He was a Jew in the 20th century … One could obviously say much more.

His artistic career divides into three main phases: 1. Figurative work motivated by leftist political convictions and influenced by Mexican muralists. 2. Abstraction, in a style dubbed “abstract impressionism” (critics thought Guston’s quavering, hypersensitive touch resembled late Monet). 3. A return to figuration at the end of the 1960s, initially denounced, later applauded.

The early political work, crowded with cacophonous forms, is uneven but can be sensationally good. (“If This Be Not I,” from 1945, is a riveting painting.) The abstract paintings, beginning in 1950, have dated badly, but the small selection here makes a good case for them.

It’s the final phase, the decade-long return to figuration, on which Guston’s reputation rests today. These paintings and drawings were inspired by the violence and political chaos of the late 1960s and by the (not unrelated) noise in the artist’s own head. They are a wonderfully unlikely fusion of underground comics, abstract expressionist mark-making, the solid, rounded forms of the Italian artists Guston had long revered (Piero della Francesca and Giorgio de Chirico among them) and the poetry he loved. (Guston befriended many living poets, including Boston’s William Corbett, who wrote a powerful memoir reflecting on the late work. There are also superb memoirs by the writer Ross Feld and Guston’s daughter Musa Mayer.)

The exhibition proceeds roughly according to chronology. But it mixes in some works from different periods to show how each of Guston’s phases was subtly connected. The later figures with Klan-like hoods, for instance, emerged out of early work that directly confronted racism and the politics of terror.

The connections have to do with style as well as content. The swishy, oily brushstrokes in Guston’s late works build on the soft, feathery touch of his abstract phase, but they cast off any suggestion of painterly virtuosity. Guston wanted to arrive at what Feld called the “satisfiedly ‘dumb’ picture.” (Hence the allegation by Hilton Kramer that Guston, when he reverted to figuration, was “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum” — one of the most memorable phrases in art criticism.)

In all three periods, we see Guston’s interest in piled-up forms, objects and body parts. Guston let lines become shapes and shapes subjects, without ever insisting that this shape denoted this single thing — rather hinting that it might also be another thing, perhaps any old thing. His intuitive approach was thrilling.

In a letter to Feld, he once referred to “a generous law that exists in art” — a law that allows forms “to spin away, take off, as if they have their own lives to lead.” The Klan hoods were one example of this. Guston wanted to protect this law “from minds that close in and itch (God knows why) to define it.”

So it’s wrong to press too hard on the notion that the hood paintings were overt anti-racist statements. They were much more ambiguous and interesting than that, and in their dumb clunkiness, their evil, their idiocy, they implicate all of us.

Guston was drawn to the idea of debacle and aftermath. Like Cy Twombly and Anselm Kiefer, and like so many of the 20th century’s great writers and filmmakers (from Samuel Beckett and Federico Fellini to T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats), he was alive to the poetry — and comedy — of fragments, rubble and ruins.

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His private alphabet of shapes and motifs have the appearance of allegories. They seem to point to meanings out in the world. But as Guston’s language became more and more private and interior, his motifs resembled symbols that have collapsed in on themselves. They evoke established meanings that have been toppled, like an imperial statue, its arm broken off, its finger pointing at nothing.

Guston’s pictures combine large-scale painterly authority with the symbolic efficiency of underground comics. His eye, wrote Feld, “was trained unsparingly on objects that seemed to have stunned reality into a temporary stasis.” They can trigger the same delight as a cartoon character whacked on the head by a policeman’s baton. In their “stuckness,” they can also be full of pathos and almost unbearably poignant.

Anyone who knows anything about Guston realizes that he would have loathed the MFA’s presentation of his work. But in death he has apparently forfeited his rights.

And so, it seems, have museum-goers. We may have grown accustomed to exhibitions that simultaneously encourage us to see the world through artists’ eyes and trust us to think our own thoughts. That’s now old-school. Instead, we must “lean into the discomfort of anti-racist work” (this is from Klee’s “Emotional Preparedness” statement) as we strive for “good change,” which is always “uncomfortable,” never forgetting to take care of ourselves and prioritize self-love and rest. (“Rest is productive. Rest is resistance,” Klee concludes.)

I suppose all this is coming from a good place. But it’s in a bad place. It doesn’t belong in an art museum, which should offer sensible warnings but show faith in the idea that art offers insights inaccessible even to qualified therapists.

Only on my second walk through the show, when I made a conscious decision not to read anything, did I remember how much I love Guston and his hectic, overbearing, goofy, maudlin, self-mocking, mute and reliably perverse view of the world. In a time of cant, where almost every cultural product is advertising something and defending preemptively against something else, Guston’s generous art is liberating.

Philip Guston Now is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Sept. 11. mfa.org.