Philip Guston’s paintings are controversial. But here they are


“P ROBABLY THE only thing one can really learn”, Philip Guston eventually concluded, “is the capacity to be able to change.” The modern artist’s fate, he said, was “constant change”. As a painter he embraced that fate—and in posterity his work has proved both an index of change and a challenge to it. A new show in Boston charts his restless genius; it is also the canvas for a struggle over art’s freedom and obligations, and the contested balance between them.

Twice Guston, who died in 1980, made a reputation and gave it up—first as a figurative artist and muralist in the 1930s and 1940s, next by plunging into abstraction with his friend Jackson Pollock and other mid-century American pioneers. Boldly he returned to figuration in the late 1960s, dwelling on banal yet somehow uncanny objects: light bulbs, bricks, boots. He painted heads, distorted or half-submerged. And he made a series of paintings of triangular hooded figures that recall the Ku Klux Klan.

When first exhibited in 1970, these caused an art-world scandal—not because of the imagery, or Guston’s right to use it, but over the brashly cartoonish technique. A retrospective staged in 2003-04 passed without uproar. But in 2020, in the ferment after the murder of George Floyd, the organisers of the then-upcoming new show quailed at Guston’s motifs and themes. The director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it was due to open first, said he had “appropriated images of black trauma”. The problem, implicitly, was both what Guston painted and who he was.

Well, who was he? The son of Jewish refugees from Odessa, he changed his name from Goldstein to evade anti-Semitism. The Klan was active in the Los Angeles of his youth and his early work also evoked its crimes, alongside other fascistic atrocities. He turned away from abstraction in part out of an enduring sense of political duty. “What kind of man am I”, he felt in the 1960s, “sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”

As for the later hoods themselves: Guston delighted in telling stories with them, and in the expressions he could conjure in their almost blank visages. At bottom, though, they were—and are—a reproach. They are terrible in their ordinariness, surrounded with everyday bric-a-brac, glimpsed smoking or riding in a boxy car. In “The Studio” one sketches a self-portrait, blood on his hand and costume. The stitching in the hoods matches and merges with the window slits in the buildings Guston painted. His hoods are knitted into society. They are everywhere.

These works are an indictment of racism, glaring or insidious, not a case of it. But it appeared today’s viewers might not get a chance to see that for themselves. In 2020 the exhibition (already hit by the pandemic) was postponed by the four museums involved in it, initially until 2024. Opponents of censorship protested, as did many artists. Some thought the delay smelled like a cancellation, and that “Philip Guston Now”, the show’s title, might become Philip Guston Never.

They were wrong. Ahead of the mooted schedule, it opens on May 1st at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, and will be adapted in Houston, Washington and London. It is a magnificent exhibition and—at a febrile, polarised time—an important one. The MFA brought in African-American curators and has carefully laid out the political context of Guston’s life and work. Visitors can avoid the hoods if they choose to: they can make up their own minds.

But with a few forgivable exceptions, the intended artworks are there; Guston’s vision is honoured and explained. The format gives consideration to those who might be offended, but not a veto. It affirms and accommodates art’s power to provoke, and its right to. Lots of cultural skirmishes end in shouty hostility or shabby retreat. Here is a wiser sort of resolution, relying on a mix of principle, reflection and what you might call tact, or good manners.

Besides the hoods, other themes and motifs recur. Red was the main colour in Guston’s palette, bleeding into pink. He was always influenced by the Italian Renaissance masters, especially their gorgeous visions of the apocalypse and the damned. Heaven was dull, he noted, but “when they’re going to hell the painter really goes to town”. The same is true of him, and of the new show: they draw art from anguish and force you to think.

"The Deluge", 1969. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of Musa Guston. ©The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth
"The Studio", 1969. Private Collection. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

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