After almost a month and a half of fierce debate over the postponement of a much-anticipated retrospective of postwar artist Philip Guston, the exhibition has a new itinerary beginning with an opening now planned for Boston in May 2022.
Other dates for the exhibition—which had previously been delayed until as late as 2024—include openings in October 2022 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, in February 2023 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and in October 2023 at Tate Modern in London.
In a lengthy statement announcing the new dates, Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA Boston’s director, said, “For me, making the decision to postpone this show was not, as some have claimed, the silencing of an artist; it is, on the contrary, a commitment to putting the Museum at the center of these conversations and creating a public space for in-depth discussions about great art and how we understand its reception and its effect. I wanted to take the extra time, at this unpredictable moment, to make sure that Guston’s voice not only was heard but that the intent of his message was fairly received.”
The exhibition, titled “Philip Guston Now,” had originally been scheduled to open at the National Gallery of Art this past summer but was pushed until next year because the coronavirus pandemic. But in mid-September, the directors of the four institutions set to host the show quietly posted a statement saying that the show would be postponed “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”
At first, the new time horizon stretched to 2024, but as the show’s postponement became the center of controversy, the museums said that the show might open as early as 2022. Part of the reasoning cited for the postponement owed to certain of Guston’s paintings and drawings from the 1960s and ’70s, which feature hooded figures evoking the Ku Klux Klan and, the museum leaders said, might be misinterpreted as glorifying white supremacy rather than calling attention to the pervasiveness of racism and white supremacy, as Guston intended.
The outcry against the show’s postponement was swift, including an open letter signed by nearly 100 artists including Nicole Eisenman, Joan Jonas, Julie Mehretu, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, and Stanley Whitney. The objectors said they were “shocked and disappointed” by the decision, adding, “These institutions thus publicly acknowledge their longstanding failure to have educated, integrated, and prepared themselves to meet the challenge of the renewed pressure for racial justice that has developed over the past five years. And they abdicate responsibility for doing so immediately—yet again.”
Mark Godfrey, a senior curator at Tate Modern, was reportedly suspended for posting to Instagram a lengthy statement also strongly coming out against the museum’s decisions to delay the show. (Reports have said that Godfrey will return to his post once the suspension is over, and a Tate spokesperson has declined to comment on the matter.)
Another concern with the show’s current framing, as expressed by Kaywin Feldman, the National Gallery of Art’s director, owed to its having been organized by an all-white curatorial team and without public programming that would be able to fully engage with the work and how it relates to racism.
In his statement, Teitelbaum spoke of his decision to open the show in Boston: “We all feel a sense of urgency. That is why, when offered the opportunity to open the exhibition sooner than planned, we said yes. Museums must be participants in framing the issues for and with our communities. We must reflect on how narratives and images are received to create robust and sustainable programming. And we must take the time we need to get it as right as we can.”
Musa Mayer, the artist’s daughter and president of the Guston Foundation, said in a statement of her own, “I believe it is essential for the exhibition to contextualize the depth of my father’s social conscience, allowing the hooded figures and other imagery to reclaim their meaning, including but also moving beyond specific references to the Ku Klux Klan. … What we need now, as so many have pointed out, is to actually see Philip Guston’s paintings and drawings in all their complexity, without reductive characterizations. So, I am cautiously optimistic that we will all have a chance to do just that, beginning in May of 2022 at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.”