The Philip Guston retrospective was supposed to be one of 2020’s blockbuster art shows. The exhibition would have been the first in 15 years to examine the celebrated artist’s catalog, bringing hundreds of provocative paintings to four prestigious stops: the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Tate Modern in London; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It felt topical and exciting.
The paintings, however, include depictions of the Ku Klux Klan—satirical, even cartoonish ones that Guston described as “self-portraits” contemplating the nature of being evil. But given this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the museums decided to postpone the show to 2024. Their directors released a joint statement in September arguing that the artwork had to be delayed “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.” Later, they pointed out the fact that the show had been curated by an all-white team.
The backlash to the four-year postponement began immediately. In an open letter, nearly 100 respected artists called the move an indication of museums’ “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.” In other words, the group of signatories, which included several Black artists, felt that the museum directors had delayed the show to avoid self-examination and were censoring Guston’s work out of fear. (The museums subsequently shortened the postponement by two years.)