Because the mask is your face, the face is a mask, so I’m thinking of the face as a mask because of the way I see faces is coming from an African vision of the mask which is the thing that we carry around with us, it is our presentation, it’s our front, it’s our face.
—Faith Ringgold

The Ku Klux Klan mask also suggests identification with the aggressor—the persecutor of blacks and Jews. Thus, Guston is simultaneously victim and victimizer.
—Donald Kuspit

Is the private life, the deepest self, unconnected with public performance, both of them sealed off from each other, alternate masks one puts over one’s face?
—Gary Wills

The issue at the heart of the “Philip Guston Now” exhibition’s postponement is unusually nuanced. In September of this year, the four museums participating in the exhibition—the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Tate Modern, London—asked for more time to prepare a presentation of Guston’s fifty-year-old artworks, well-known for their highly charged racial justice component. The unspoken implication was that this content would likely prove more controversial than in the past due to 2020’s still-simmering currents of activist energy. Opponents, overwhelmingly artists, feel the postponement demonstrated a lack of courage. The four institutions have held to their position of revisiting the project before presenting it to the public, despite having already completed the plans and the catalogue.

In a letter published in The Brooklyn Rail and since updated regularly with additional signatures, those opposed to the postponement declare that the exhibition “must proceed as planned, and the museums must do the necessary work to present this art in all its depth and complexity.” Considering that the museums are proceeding cautiously in response to the very complexity that everyone seems to agree characterizes Guston’s work, perhaps an examination of what is meant by this complexity might clarify what’s really at stake.

In the period after Guston’s return to political figuration in 1969, he occasionally included hooded Ku Klux Klan figures in his work. Controversy was baked in from the start. But “complexity” gives a euphemistic spin to the greater problem: Guston was intermittently ambiguous in his conflation of noxious political imagery with mundane art studio grumbles. The body of work in question mostly concerns Guston and his professional or domestic routines. Its so-called complexity lies in the awkward context in which Guston chose to place his Klan figures.

Any hesitation to show racially charged paintings by a sympathetic but decidedly white artist seems likely to be a response to the recent Sam Durant Scaffold incident at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and the Dana Schutz Open Casket dispute at the Whitney, both of which ended in highly publicized capitulations to art world pressure, circumstances that were once rare but are now increasingly frequent as, with notable irony, museums have achieved the levels of public attention that they have sought for decades.

Both the Walker and the Whitney incidents involved self-identifying ethnic groups objecting to the appropriation by white artists of tragic historical narratives, or more precisely, the appropriation by members of the very ethnic group responsible for the atrocities alluded to in the work. On balance, the criticism Durant and Schutz sustained challenged neither their sincerity as artists, nor their empathy as citizens, but instead questioned the cogency of their participation, a criticism akin to the legal idea of “standing” but inspired by deeply emotional imperatives. But Guston’s Klan figures are only occasionally contextualized by overt polemics. In many other paintings where they appear, they function as edgy notes spicing a modernist stew of autobiographical infatuation. The overriding question is, does an emphasis on ambiguous intuitive thinking in the art studio suit the requirements of meaningful public discourse?

Addressing public issues through an autobiographical filter has a long history. Louise Bourgeoise’s feminist subtext certainly comes to mind. But Guston’s mostly internecine art world rebellion in taste begs an impossible alliance between social criticism and self-regard. His primary subject in these paintings is the art world, not the “real” world. The crude spontaneity at the root of Guston’s work, the jumbling of cartoonish juxtapositions that seems to be the source of his considerable influence on a generation of painters, served to provide distance between his late burst of figurative liberation and the supposedly limiting abstract elegance that had defined the New York School.

Spontaneity as a guarantor of aesthetic virtue is as fundamental to his clumped objects as it is to Robert Motherwell’s light-absorbing voids. The ungainly attack Guston adopted in the late 1960s taunted the presumed sophistication of his AbEx colleagues by replacing serendipitous brushwork with spontaneously gathered images scrawled on a canvas. This is where the trouble lies. The symbolic power of the Klan robe is in many Guston canvases set adrift in an avant-garde disarray of clocks, cigarettes, easels, light bulbs, giant clown hands, and R. Crumb–inspired footwear.

Philip Guston, City Limits, 1969, Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright © 2020 The Estate of Philip Guston.

Among the early Klan pieces there are moments of promise. City Limits (1969), a six-by-ten-foot painting composed around three hooded Klansmen in a car, is both eccentric and purposeful. One takes the wheel, one is on the passenger side, one sits between. The arrangement is emblematic of post-war Detroit’s lavish family car designs, which often featured a continuous front bench seat. Typically, the center position would be occupied by an older child, with Mom on the right and Dad, as always, behind the wheel. The familial intimacy of this image lent Guston’s restaging an effective satirical potency.

In City Limits, Guston replaces the parent/child union with a sinister mentor–acolyte arrangement. The gleaming family car becomes a jalopy, a farcically outdated machine reflecting its owner’s unbroken ties to the past—which, William Faulkner famously reminded us, is not even past. The skyline and window patterns repeat the trio form, as if they were homecoming banners for these out-of-towners. One figure brandishes a cigar with the confidence of someone expecting a warm reception.

The humor of City Limits is off-putting but effective. Unfortunately, a search for similar coherence in Guston’s other paintings with hooded men returns an unsettling glibness. The Studio, also dated 1969, depicts a single hooded figure immersed in painting a self-portrait. It looks gratuitously edgy. For such imagery to survive the awkwardness of the painting’s likely reception post-Charlottesville and post-BLM would require a clarity of intention that is simply not there. We are instead offered an affidavit of the artist’s personal feelings regarding social justice, as if Guston—because he is Philip Guston, the radical New York painter with solid liberal credentials—bears no responsibility for his painting’s confusing message.

“They’re about freedom,” Willem de Kooning is said to have offered at Guston’s first exhibition of these canvases, an assessment reflecting the liberation most painters craved at the time from the allegedly narrow perspective of critics like Clement Greenberg. Considering the overall tone of the work, it stretches credulity to suggest that Guston’s primary concern as a painter was the freedom of his fellow citizens from murder and intimidation by hooded thugs.

For the most part, Guston’s purposefully coarse technique was a gamble that paid off. Like his AbEx colleagues, he embraced the daily routine of the loft-dwelling bohemian, but ultimately he did so by illustrating rather than channeling his cultural angst. Some of his political work—his Richard Nixon drawings for instance—address a public figure in a manner similar to that of a political cartoonist. In these instances, Nixon’s offenses match the ridicule and pathos of Guston’s treatment. Yet the same treatment seems inadequate in addressing generations of racist lynch mobs, which suggests that the “Philip Guston Now” curators were perhaps prudent to consider the possible response from viewers not likely to let a flippant use of racially loaded imagery go unnoticed, despite the artist’s liberal credentials and his unquestionably sincere intentions.

Guston’s brand of ambiguous humor seems out of place in addressing decades of racial strife and murder. His little Klansmen owe more to the image of Elmer Fudd than to the haunting killers presented in the artist’s own 1930 Drawing for Conspirators, a piece included in the proposed exhibition that could have helped prime a viewing public with the unguent facts of the artist’s youthful commitment to a deathly serious subject. The inclusion of this earlier drawing may soften the blow of the artist’s later scattershot tantrums, but it may also expose the possibility of an artist trying to have it both ways—unbridled spontaneous panache girding a poorly choreographed polemic. Unfiltered arrays of shoes, clocks, beds, and light bulbs, with a few doll-like klan figures thrown in, hardly constitutes an effective lunge at white supremacy.

In today’s climate, Guston’s mix of political signifiers and autobiographical histrionics could read as unduly privileged, or perhaps harmlessly outdated. His artist supporters, including the hundreds of tallied regularly by The Brooklyn Rail, beg to disagree. But the curators remain concerned, which highlights a fascinating rift between creator and presenter, between a studio practice of radically personal expression claiming political relevance and the institutions that provide the public context for those expressions. When the exhibition finally opens (the date was recently moved up to 2022) it may prompt an overdue debate over whether an art of indulgent impishness can effectively address political or moral issues.

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