When four prestigious museums pulled back a long-anticipated retrospective of modernist painter Philip Guston’s work, were they exercising reasonable caution—or cowering in fear of protests that might occur over the artist’s subversive use of images of Ku Klux Klan figures? We won’t know for sure until the exhibit opens, and that needs to happen much sooner than in the four years museum officials initially said they needed to reshape the show. Gus-ton is a beloved artist with enduring influence worthy of a major retrospective, and his searing examination of evil and racism has never been more relevant.
The art world was roiled last month when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Tate Modern in London, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Museum of Fine Arts in Houston announced a postponement until 2024 of “Philip Guston Now.” By the time he died in 1980, Guston was seen as one of America’s most important artists of the 20th century. Five years in the making, the exhibit was set to open in June, then pushed to next year because of the pandemic. Museum officials said the exhibit needed to be put in a more appropriate context for the current moment, acknowledging concerns that the images of hooded figures and a lynching—intended to criticize racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry—would upset some audiences or be “misinterpreted.”
An open letter from some 100 artists, curators, dealers and writers, later signed by more than 2,500, condemned the decision. Critics accused the museums of cowardice, censorship and underestimating the intelligence of art fans, who understand that art is meant to provoke debate and evoke strong emotions.
A number of art museums in recent years have buckled to objections about work seen as too polarizing. Officials say this isn’t such a case: They just want to make sure they get this exhibit right. Their announcement was clumsy, and the reopening date seemingly plucked out of thin air. But the decision itself seems to have been thoughtfully reached after consultations with institutions that have faced similar issues and heartfelt talks with staff. The four museums individually concluded that the exhibit would benefit from some fundamental rethinking that is more inclusive of other voices.
Museum officials say the pause will allow for a wider circle of voices to be heard and result in a more powerful exhibit. They should be judged on that promise, and much sooner than four years from now.
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