Philip Goldstein Guston (1913-80)’s Ukrainian Jewish parents escaped pogrom violence so they moved to Canada from Odessa. Philip was born in Montreal then moved with his family to Los Angeles as a child. His parents had been brutally aware of Fascistic anti-Semitism at home, and Philip became aware of the regular Ku Klux Klan actions against Jews and blacks across California. Perhaps due to the earlier persecution, Philip’s father tragically hanged himself.
The Struggle Against Terror, mural, 1934-5 (top image)Philip Guston, Reuben Kadish and Jules Langsner
In 1934 Guston went to Mexico with his artist friend Reuben Kadish & poet friend Jules Langsner where they were given space in Emperor Maximilian’s former summer palace. These artists created the impressive The Struggle Against Terror (1934-5), an anti-Fascist and pro-worker mural. The 3 colleagues, all Jewish sons of European parents, were clearly sensitive to racist policies in the USA and faced Red-baiting, witch-hunting and anti-Union activities of the KKK in response. In any case, criticism of the Catholic Church led to the mural being hidden away in the early 1940s.
Celebrated mainly for his abstract art, Philip Guston later decided to move into figurative painting that included the Ku Klux Klan motif. In this post, I am focusing solely on the later, anti-Fascist images of this politically-engaged artist.
Guston died in 1980 at 66. Below are some of the works to be shown .. well after his death.
The Studio, 1969
Edge of Town, 1969
New York Times
Now let me cite the papers Guardian and NY Times that told the story of 4 important art institutions (Nat Gallery of Art Washington; Museum of Fine Arts Houston; Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Tate London). They were to host the much awaited travelling exhibition in 2020: Philip Guston Now. And given the surging racial justice protests in the USA this year, the c125 paintings and 70 drawings were going to be exhibited in the perfect year for depicting racism.
The decision to postpone the Guston show, which except for coronavirus would have begun earlier this year, caused conflict on both sides of the art world. So the retrospective was postponed, not for 3 months but for 4 years!! The four galleries said they’d wait until the powerful message of social and racial justice at the centre of Guston’s work could be more clearly understood. There was, they said, a risk that Guston’s messages could be misinterpreted and the resulting response could overshadow the totality of his legacy. And the 4 museums wanted to avoid painful experiences that the imagery could cause for viewers in 2020.
The directors recognised that the world was very different from what it had been in 2015, when they started the Guston project. The works that most ignited their concern were the white-hooded Ku Klux Klan figures. These white-hooded figures were images that the justice-focused, Jewish and left-wing artist had repeated from the early 1930s to his death. The directors felt it was necessary to reframe their programming, to step back and bring in new perspectives to shape how they presented Guston’s work to the public. That process will take time: until 2024.
But art academics told the Guardian that Guston’s work was exactly the kind of art that still needs to be discussed today. Guston’s work was deep; he had the foresight to see things as they were happening and his images are as poignant now as they had ever been. Art was not supposed to be a pretty picture; it was actually a reflection. So an exhibition organised several years ago, no matter how intelligent, must be reconsidered in light of what has changed. Thus the four museums seemed tone-deaf to what is happening in public discourse in 2020.
Musa believed this should be a time of reckoning & dialogue. The danger was not in looking at her father’s work, but in looking away.