After 2 years of delay, Philip Guston’s art exhibition explores his Jewish identity – under a cloud of controversy

BOSTON (JTA) — Many visitors to the new Philip Guston (born Goldstein) exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts won’t know how his Jewish background influenced his work: from his roots as the son of Jewish immigrants to his early encounters with anti-Semitism, the way the Holocaust became a theme in his artistic creation.

Instead, many will no doubt have some knowledge of the controversy that has swirled around it for nearly two years – which is alluded to in the exhibit itself.

One of the most influential artists of the last century, Guston’s style for 50 years shifted from figurative to abstract expressionism and back to figurative in prolific work that confronted the ills of society, often relying on irony and humor. “Philip Guston Now,” which in its Boston iteration consists of 73 paintings and 27 drawings, was slated to first open in the summer of 2020. After a COVID delay, it was held back months later, in September, after the directors of the museums through which the exhibition passes – the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Tate Modern in London, the MFA Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston – expressed concern about the way Guston’s work, notably his striking comic book images of Ku Klux Klan figures would be welcomed as part of the nation’s take on racial injustice.

Philip Guston in his studio in 1970. (Photo: Frank K. Lloyd, Courtesy The Guston Foundation/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

It was just months after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis shook the world and led to protests against pervasive racism across the country. The museums have delayed the exhibit until 2024, “until the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be interpreted more clearly,” they said in a statement to the time.

Defenders of their decision insisted that the changing cultural and political context necessitated rethinking how Guston’s art should be presented. Critics have accused museums of censoring Guston’s difficult art. A group of 100 artists and curators protested the decision, calling on museums to “do the work necessary to present this art in all its depth and complexity”. The list of signatories has grown to over 1,000.

The exhibit has now opened well before 2024, on May 1 in Boston, in a shake-up of the show’s touring schedule, with a whole lot of historical context. Visitors are warned of the powerful emotions of the exhibit and have a choice at different locations of what to see, as well as an exit point. Photographs and archival documents of brutal violence against black people and other Holocaust victims that relate to Guston’s work are in display cases under sliding covers, giving viewers the option to see them or not. . A brochure written by a trauma specialist says visitors should “identify your limits and take care of yourself”.

Organized thematically, the curators also weave in the narrative of Guston’s biography, a key part of Boston’s MFA advisory group, according to Kate Nesin, the museum’s guest curator who has worked on the exhibit for about four years. A timeline that runs through personal and historical events hangs on the walls of the galleries.

“[Guston’s] biography, including his name change… that’s how we understand his relationship to the self-esteem that we see in these paintings,” Nesin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during a preview.

The catalog for the exhibition, published in 2020, includes two essays that shed light on Guston’s Jewish identity, one by Harry Cooper, head of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery, and the other by Mark Godfrey, then at the Tate, who was one of the artists in the exhibition. four curators. Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist and author of “Maus”, intervenes with an artist’s essay on the influence of comics on Guston’s work.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A view of Philip Guston’s painting ‘Couple in Bed’ (1977) is seen during a major exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, April 27, 2022. (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Guston (1913-1980) was the youngest of seven children, three of whom, including the artist, were born in Montreal, where his parents and older siblings first settled after fleeing Ukraine. A decade later, after the family moved to Los Angeles, his father committed suicide by hanging, a tragedy the artist came to terms with through images of hanging ropes.

Guston’s lived experience and the arc of his work are key to understanding his thought-provoking images, Megan Bernard, director of memberships at Boston’s MFA and one of the exhibit’s curators, told JTA during an interview. phone call.

“Many outside of the art world come to Guston through Klan images. It…probably colors his work in a way that’s unfair to who he was. There are many moments in his life that haunt him and that he keeps coming back to throughout his career,” she said.

Guston first gained acclaim in the 1950s for his Abstract Expressionist paintings, among luminaries of the movement such as William de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, a friend of Guston’s since high school.

He abandoned the style in a 1970 exhibition at a New York gallery, moved by the social and political unrest of the time.

“The [Vietnam] the war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated rage about everything – then going to my studio to adjust a red to a blue? Guston said in an oft-quoted remark from 1977.

“The Black Sea” (1977), from the end of Guston’s life, is part of the Odessa series, a nod to Ukraine, where his parents fled the pogroms of the early 20th century. (The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In bold new works featuring the hooded figures of the Klan, Guston adopted the figurative style of his formative years; but now, years after painting the Klansmen as menacing figures in politically charged murals in the 1930s, those paintings were more ambiguous, at times comical and at others deeply introspective.

Other works featured designs of staff-like limbs and shoe soles, images evoking the Holocaust and also reflecting personal tragedies that haunted Guston’s life, including the accidental death of his older brother, Nat, died of injuries after his legs were run over by a car.

A display case with a sliding lid reveals larger-than-life clippings of photographs from the 1945 “Lest We Forget” exhibit, put together by journalist Joseph Pulitzer, who visited Nazi death camps after liberation. Viewers learn that Guston would most likely have seen the exhibit when it launched in St. Louis, where he was teaching at the time.

In “Porch 2”, a leg sticks out in a flattened scene with emaciated bodies, part of a series painted in 1946 which Guston said in an interview was in response to the Holocaust. The images reappeared decades later in paintings such as “Rug” (1976), where stick-like limbs and shoe soles, in shades of red and pink, are stacked in shape and forms reminiscent of photographs of death camp victims. .

Other powerful later works in the show that feature the hooded Klan figure include 1969’s “The Studio,” displayed in a studio-like space within the gallery. In Guston’s palette of pinks, reds, and blacks and a splash of bright green at the window, a hooded performer – is that Guston? – is caught in the act, painting the silhouette of another hooded figure on a canvas.

The show – which will then travel to Houston, Washington and then London, ending in February 2024 – concludes with “Black Sea”, part of the artist’s Odessa series. In the contemplative painting, an arched, horseshoe-shaped image resembling the shoes in Guston’s other works, floats on or emerges from a dark sea, against a richly layered pale blue sky. It connects Guston’s past and his family’s roots to current events and the war in Ukraine.

“He embodies the idea that at the end of his life, [Guston was] looking back on a legacy he didn’t know about,” Ethan Lasser, director of Art of the Americas at MFA and curator, told JTA during a preview.

It struck a strong generational chord for Lasser, who is Jewish. “It’s a nod to the Goldstein family,” he said to himself.

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