Where’s the Controversy in ‘Philip Guston Now’?

When “Philip Guston Now” opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington this spring, I could practically hear the collective sigh of relief on my Instagram feed. In 2021, shortly after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide protests that followed, the four museums organizing a retrospective of his work announced a four-year delay of the exhibition, citing the need to make sure they were contextualizing Guston’s paintings — which include a series of cartoonish images of Klansmen as bumbling Keystone Kops — with proper sensitivity.

Many saw this as a move driven by a fear of controversy. A number of artists, critics and curators balked at the decision in an open letter of protest, arguing that these museums were underestimating the capacity of Black viewers to face difficult content head on. Among the signatories were a number of Black artists, including Julie Mehretu, Adrian Piper, Pope. L, Martin Puryear, Lorna Simpson, Henry Taylor and Stanley Whitney. In response, the museums shortened the planned postponement, and the exhibition opened at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in May 2022, traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the fall, and is now at the National Gallery of Art; the Tate Modern in London will be its final stop.

The dreaded protests never materialized in any city, and the National Gallery show, which runs through Aug. 27, is quietly revelatory. It offers a fairly extensive selection of the artist’s explorations into pure abstraction in the 1950s, including “Voyage” (1956) — an accumulation of scrubby, layered patches of color that coalesce into a blob against a whitish ground, in a way that subtly evokes Willem de Kooning even as it anticipates Cy Twombly.

Guston’s “Voyage,” 1956, oil on canvas, at the National Gallery of Art, subtly evokes Willem de Kooning even as it anticipates Cy Twombly.Credit…The Estate of Philip Guston, via Hauser & Wirth and Albright-Knox Art Gallery

But most interesting is the deep dive into the artist’s long career of politically engaged work, driven early on by his own experience of outsider-ness as a Jewish refugee in Montreal and then in California, and later as an artist who, though well-versed in the language of Abstract Expressionism (he and Jackson Pollock were friends from high school) was never fully at ease giving up subject matter.

At the National Gallery, a new introductory video narrated by one of the show’s lead curators, Harry Cooper, provides an excellent entry point to Guston’s world. Violently suppressed labor strikes, crooked cops abetting the Ku Klux Klan, the shadow of the Holocaust, the horrors of Jim Crow and, later, mainstream resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War — all these made their way into Guston’s often deceptively buoyant paintings. “Rug” (1976) with its pile of oversized shoes attached to disembodied limbs, might remind you at first glance of R. Crumb’s comics and their “dumb guys with big shoes,” as he referred to them. But look closer and the pathos starts to emerge: What are these other than corpses — whether victims of the gas chambers or casualties of war?

Guston, “Rug,” 1976, at the National Gallery of Art. Its pile of oversized shoes attached to disembodied limbs suggests victims of the gas chambers.Credit…The Estate of Philip Guston, via Hauser & Wirth

The Klan paintings were controversial when they debuted at Marlborough Gallery in 1970 not because of their subject matter but because they had subject matter at all. Unlike his earlier work on the theme of white supremacy — “Drawing for Conspirators” (1930), for example, which depicts a lynching in all its horror, Guston attempts to deflate the K.K.K.’s power through humor, asking us to look behind its fearsome reputation and see its members as a bunch of hopelessly old-fashioned clowns dressed in patchwork sheets, riding in jalopies and smoking stogies.

What makes Guston’s Klan paintings so compelling — and, I would say, unique in the history of art by American artists of the 20th century (and even the 21st) — is his willingness to implicate himself in the system of white dominance of which the K.K.K. is only the most spectacular symbol. That he considered them self-portraits is easy to believe when looking at “The Studio” (1969), in which the hooded protagonist smokes a cigarette while painting his own effigy. “My attempt was really not to illustrate,” he said of the works. “I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil?” He understood his complacency — fiddling with abstraction while the world burned — as complicity: “What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue,” he said in 1977.

Guston, “The Studio,” from 1969. “What makes Guston’s Klan paintings so compelling,” says the writer, “is his willingness to implicate himself.”Credit…The Estate of Philip Guston; via the Denver Art Museum

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts presentation of the show was heavy on trigger warnings, slide-top vitrines, and a handout discussing the potentially traumatic experience of looking at the Klan paintings. The National Gallery was somewhat less heavy-handed: wall labels inform viewers of difficult content ahead without assuming or expecting they will be offended or traumatized, and the Klan paintings are installed in a separate room that a visitor can easily choose to bypass. On the whole: respectful, without being condescending.

The National Gallery of Art’s director, Kaywin Feldman, had been an outspoken defender of the decision to delay the show, and bore the brunt of criticism for it. The museums’ joint announcement cited the need to “bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public.” For Feldman, that meant structural changes at the museum, increasing the members of its leadership team who were Black, Indigenous and people of color from 0 to 60 percent, and on its board (at least among the appointed members) from 0 to 40 percent. Acquisitions of work by women and nonbinary artists, and by artists of color, have jumped sharply.

But none of this is to say that the National Gallery’s presentation of “Philip Guston Now” is without troubling frictions. The show in Washington includes the full suite of the artist’s “Poor Richard” drawings installed on a separate floor — a promised gift to the institution by the Guston Foundation — made not long after his 1970 Marlborough outing. (The Houston version of the show did not include the series at all, citing space considerations, and the Tate will follow that lead for the same reason; Boston included only a tiny selection.)

Inspired in part by the publication of “Our Gang,” by his friend Philip Roth, and by the release of the Pentagon Papers in the summer of 1971, the “Poor Richard” series is an acerbic, outraged, frustrated and often hilarious response to then-President Richard Nixon. Pre-Watergate, Guston’s fury was trained on what he saw as Nixon’s disingenuous embrace of minority voters, as well as on his secretly entering talks with China despite embracing a hard-line anti-Communism at home. Of the 164 drawings Guston made on the subject, he selected 73 to turn into a never-realized graphic novel.

In “Poor Richard (no. 35),” from 1971, Henry Kissinger is represented solely by his thick, horn-rimmed glasses; a Chinese cannon shoots the glasses home.Credit…The Estate of Philip Guston, via Hauser & Wirth

As he gains power, Nixon’s nose grows longer and more penislike, his jowls more testicular. Henry Kissinger is represented solely by his thick, horn-rimmed glasses (in one scene, they travel by propeller plane to China; in the next a Chinese cannon shoots the glasses home) — while Vice President Spiro Agnew is depicted as a triangular blob, not unlike Guston’s cartoonish Klansmen.

But some drawings stopped me in my tracks.

In one Nixon plays for the camera by holding a young Black girl in his arms. The use of racist stereotypes here is shocking. In a later instance, he appears in blackface at a Halloween party. In another he is shown addressing Africans rendered with white googly eyes and white lips. Elsewhere, Nixon prepares for his trip to China by donning an embroidered changshan and sporting a pigtail and a so-called Fu Manchu mustache; his eyes tilt upward slightly.

This drawing, “Poor Richard (no. 22),” from 1971, contains stereotypically negative imagery. In the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, a warning appears at the start of the galleries, but labels offer no specific discussion.Credit…The Estate of Philip Guston, via Hauser & Wirth

In a book dedicated to the “Poor Richard” series, published in 2020 by the National Gallery to accompany “Philip Guston Now,” Cooper, its author and curator of the show, doesn’t remark upon these images at all. In the exhibition itself, a warning about “depictions of anti-Black and anti-Asian racism” is appended to the wall labels at the start of the galleries devoted to the series, but beyond a short statement that the caricatures are an expression of Nixon’s attitudes, no further discussion of the imagery is offered.

In a telephone interview, Cooper agreed that some of the drawings used racist imagery, but felt that Guston’s approach could be “contextualized by the rest of the series.”

He added, “In Guston’s view, Nixon was pandering to various groups of voters, including Blacks, hippies, the youth vote, the elderly, and we have caricatures of all of those which are in essence a comment on Nixon’s racism.”

Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter and president of the Guston Foundation, who characterized the series of satirical drawings as unique within the artist’s work, said in a separate telephone conversation: “Obviously my father wasn’t celebrating those feelings himself. He is instead pointing a finger at Nixon for his own hypocrisy.”

Guston’s approach is one that’s familiar in the history of political caricature, which often relies on the bluntest visual cues to convey meaning, even if those cues veer into stereotype. But no matter how familiar the strategy, or how numbed some have become to it, it’s still worth asking the question: Are we OK with this?

Philip Guston, “Poor Richard (no. 42),” 1971. Nixon in another caricature is shown addressing Africans in a nonsense language. Guston condemns Nixon while sometimes dragging down his victims as collateral damage. Credit…The Estate of Philip Guston, via Hauser & Wirth

Guston’s Klan paintings kneecapped supremacists through humor. But while the racist stereotypes that make their way into “Poor Richard” may serve to condemn Nixon, they also drag down his victims as collateral damage. When an artist like Kara Walker traffics in sometimes shockingly debased anti-Black imagery, she does so in order to transform it and challenge her viewers, not merely reproduce its violence.

The question here is not one of censorship. Nor is it the relatively uninteresting or narrow one of whether the artist was racist; Guston was certainly not a closet white supremacist.

But the series rankles, especially because Guston, only a year or so before “Poor Richard,” in his Klan paintings at Marlborough Gallery, found a much more effective and infinitely more courageous way to take on the pernicious anti-Blackness he saw around him. Perhaps he realized that himself: Though he gathered his chosen “Poor Richard” drawings in a binder ready to send to publishers, he never quite got around to actually putting it in the mail.

Philip Guston Now

Through Aug. 27, the National Gallery of Art; Sixth and Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.;

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