Philip Guston — the pink of blood
The young artist Philippe Goldstein decided it was preferable to hide his Jewish identity. He adopted the name Philip Guston. Guston’s ability to obfuscate his background was not an option open to Black and African American artists wishing to establish a presence in the US artworld amid the racial tensions of the 1930s and 40s.
The four-year postponement of the touring exhibition ‘Phillip Guston Now’ provoked a letter of condemnation, signed by 93 artists and art professionals. The fate of the exhibition and the letter drew significant press attention. Signatories were critical of the host museum’s fear of controversy, claiming that Guston’s imagery should be seen and debated, not hidden from view. Guston’s subjects include ambiguous hooded Klu Klux Klan figures rendered in a cartoonish idiom. The museums feel that it is not appropriate to flaunt these subjects. They fear that such imagery is provocative, reminding museum-goers of white supremacy, vivifying disgust and anger.
Among the letter’s signatories are not, thankfully, a marked scarcity of Black and African American names, although some would see this as an example of multi-racial white supremacy. The letter is eloquent of other artworld imbalances of gender and race, indicative of exclusion. Fewer than 39% are women. Barely any are Hispanic and Latino. These uneven demographics are redolent of enduring patterns in the art system. Guston’s early career supporters disregarded various other artists who did not fit in, recognizing his potential to be a representative of a singular transatlantic intellectual tradition.
In common with other successful white artists of his generation, Guston’s career narrative includes a formative period executing figurative public works supported by the Federal Arts Project (FAP). This was the most extensive program of artistic support in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. While involved, Guston connected with Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning. A vigorous campaign of critical writing championed them as leaders of a new pure American art, Abstract Expressionism. For many up and coming black artists, such as Dox Thrash, Augusta Savage, or Charles Alston, artistic opportunities settled with, rather than, spring-boarded from, association with FAP.
Suffering and protest has a long history. Instead of signatories decrying the exhibition’s delay, it would be pertinent to question why the exhibition, conceived in collaboration with the Guston Foundation, run by the artist’s daughter and dedicated to promoting his work, was conceived in the first place. And why not just cancel it? Arguably, Guston has received plenty of attention already in the US with a major touring retrospective in 2003/4, and other museum shows in 2007/8, 2009, 2012, and 2014. At least, the museum’s position is pleasingly optimistic. By 2024, they anticipate that race antagonisms and inequalities will be gone; and presumably so too historic KKK culpability will have been corrected. The postponement’s detractors simplify the issue, making it a choice of freedom of expression over censorship, giving an artist a platform to make his point, or taking that platform away.
The crux of the letter’s demand is that museums be forthright as apologists for evident systemic racism, to explain it away, not hide it away. Why not use the opportunity and space to reassess the numerous historically disadvantaged artists of the period of Guston’s conspicuous rise to eminence? Now is an opportunity to change a system of selective veneration that confirms hierarchy. Allow the audience to see and question the promotion of a particular set of artistic practices and fields of critical discourse.
Regarding Guston’s Klan figures, Mayer says, ‘They plan, they plot, they ride around in cars smoking cigars. We never see their acts of hatred. We never know what is in their minds. But it is clear that they are us.’ Guston was to be granted yet another space to display his pondering on brutality. He treats the perpetrators of brutality as bland and generalized. His champions valorize his hermetic vision, universalizing an individual perspective.
In 1970 at the Marlborough Gallery Guston unveiled the difficult new direction in his work, including the KKK images. The exhibition received some initial, partial, and relatively short-lived, bad press. It was a wobble in his career trajectory. In the controversy around the current exhibition’s delay, Guston’s resolution in the face of the exhibition’s critique is held-up as integrity. His resolve is liberation, a nonspecific social fortitude. Meanwhile, Guston’s reward for his obstinate new work was the generosity of some supporters, publicity, provided by his detractors, and market resilience. In the following years, he continued to enjoy significant museum shows in 1971, 73, and 78, and a touring retrospective in 1980. Guston’s daring took place within a discursive orthodoxy, defined in painting. It had nothing to do with real instances, real killings, terror, real lives traumatized, lost.
Although the hooded KKK figures were ubiquitous in his work from 1970, they first appeared in 1930, a time when the Klan was in demise. This followed the prosecution in 1925 of one of the organizations prominent leaders David Stephenson, for the torture, rape, and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, a white woman. The KKK’s myth rests on its perpetrators’ anonymity, an adjunct to the required reduction to insignificance of its victims, their dehumanization. The drive for justice against the KKK for atrocities, such as those committed against Bertha Lowman, Emmett Till, James Chaney, Judge Edward Aaron, Willie Edwards, Michael Donald, Medgar Evers, or many others, demanded an end to hiding in hoods. Mayer, claimed in a statement, regularly quoted in the press circulating the exhibition’s curtailment, that Guston ‘dared to unveil white culpability, our shared role in allowing the racist terror.’ I find it difficult to see how he does not do the opposite. The interpretation of her words hinges on the meaning of ‘our shared role.’ Does this pertain to the broadest white society, a society of violent exclusion, or is the role ‘shared’ exclusively within a responsible art world?
On the re-appearance of recognizable motifs in his work, Guston said, ‘I was slowly evolving toward a different kind of figuration. Sort of black heads on fields of gray. Again I began to feel the necessity for a subject.’ In addressing Guston’s faceless subjects, it is easy to simplify their visibility to polarised issues, free expression versus censorship, supremacy and oppression. Hiding-in-plain-sight was a strategy of intimidation used by the KKK. When, in 1970, Guston’s Klan figures resurfaced from the miasma of painterly abstraction, the KKK, having staged a gruesome resurgence in the 1950s and 60s, was again in decline. New legislation, particularly the revival of the Enforcement Act, guaranteed civil and voting rights. These had been a focus of the Klan’s disruptive intimidation and brutality in the previous decade. Guston’s gnome-like Klansmen were, therefore, a nostalgic accent among his cartoonish imagery. The latter also looked back, to the style of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (1913–44). Like Guston, Herriman hid his mixed-race, creating a world where relentless ‘lite’ predatory activity was a norm in anthropomorphic guise. Guston’s locating of his protagonists vaguely in the past makes their effect romantic, perhaps more so than unsettling.
Just as hidden-in-the-past is not gone, dyads need not be opposites but contradictions. Where there is opportunity, there can still be an injustice. For Black artists equal opportunity would be to be seen and discussed, not eternally fighting a war against erasure, being redrawn in the spectacle of racialized violence. Considerate anti-racism work is never about white artists awakening issues; it’s about prioritizing the needs of society’s vulnerable and neglected. The public discourse around the exhibition’s delay achieves the loftiest objective of supremacy, the division of the disempowered.