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'Philip Guston Now' portrays art of controversial and confrontational painter


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawz: Well, two years ago, four museums were set to present a retrospective of painter Philip Guston. And then, in one of the biggest controversies to hit the art world in the last few years, it all imploded.

Now the show has finally launched at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

And a warning: Some of the artwork may be disturbing to some viewers.

Jared Bowen: Philip Guston was the Jewish son of immigrant parents from present-day Ukraine, who learned early on what it meant to be a Jew in America.

Ethan Lasser, Museum of Fine Arts: The seminal moment for him is in 1933 in L.A., when he submit's a work showing Klan violence to an exhibition, and it's vandalized by the Red Squad of the LAPD, which has affiliations with the Klan.

Jared Bowen: The event marked him deeply enough that, within four years, the then-Phillip Goldstein changed his name to Guston, and he embarked on a career that, alongside his high school friend Jackson Pollock, would make him one of the most famous names in 20th century art.

Ethan Lasser: Guston is, in the '40s, '50s, one of the great abstract expressionist painters,selling out shows, but always feels the limits of that approach to painting.

Jared Bowen: Ethan Lasser is co-curator of the nationally touring exhibition Philip Guston Now, which recently opened at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. It's a retrospective that charts how hate and antisemitism churned within Guston.

Ethan Lasser: In 1968, as he's watching TV, he's watching Kent State, he's watching Vietnam, and he says, what kind of man am I going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue to make abstract paintings? What can an abstract painting actually say in the world of civil rights?

Jared Bowen: So the painter made a pivot, walking away from abstract expressionism. It was abrupt and, to the art world, unforgivable.

Taking cues from the Sunday comics, and "Krazy Kat" in particular, he started painting cartoonish images, often in pink, a comics color, but one that can also be read as fleshy and raw. And, in a motif that would appear throughout most of his 50-year career, he painted the Ku Klux Klan. Guston did not discuss his work. That's been left to interpreters like Lasser.

Ethan Lasser: What he paints are images of Klansmen who had haunted Guston since he was a young artist, images of himself in a hood, as a Klansman, painting images that call to account the underlying, I think, structures of racism in the art world and in America in general.

Matthew Teitelbaum, Director, Museum of Fine Arts: How do you create a way for those images to be understood?

Jared Bowen: Matthew Teitelbaum is the MFA's director. He, along with the heads of the three other presenting museums, were caught in a firestorm of controversy in 2020, when the show was set to open at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Protester: We're marching for Black life.

Jared Bowen: In the wake of George Floyd's murder and ensuing protests, the museums, which also included MFA Houston and London's Tate Modern, chose to postpone the show four years, when, they announced, the work, including its KKK imagery, could be -- quote -- "more clearly interpreted."

Matthew Teitelbaum: We felt it was a very charged moment to talk about race and to not have the community voices helping us interpret how these images would be received. It was never about whether or not Guston had a voice that we needed to hear at any time and at all time.

Jared Bowen: But that's not how the art world saw it.

Thousands of artists, curators, and writers signed a petition blasting the museum's decision and accused them of -- quote -- "lacking faith in the intelligence of their audience," and worse.

How much did it hit you when you were accused by artists, you being the four institutions, of cowardice?

Matthew Teitelbaum: I never had anybody say that about me before. And it wasn't something that I even thought about. It wasn't about avoiding something.

Jared Bowen: Instead, the MFA is now launching the national tour two years ahead of schedule. It's curated the show unlike any other, inviting museum staff to weigh in, engaging a trauma specialist, and expanding the curatorial team to four, including guest curator Terence Washington.

Terence Washington, Guest Curator: The debate around the controversy talked about this exhibition as being the one that would start a conversation about whiteness, and it would hold up a mirror to people who had stormed the Capitol, dot, dot, dot.

And I just thought, yes, but, like, are those people coming in? This feels really abstract.

Jared Bowen: Washington's approach had less to do with Guston than museums themselves. Are they, he wonders, as accessible as they claim?

Terence Washington: To me, that's the central thing. How do we understand why exhibitions are done and for whom they're done?

All these places are open because they're supposed to be for everybody. And I'm just not sure that that's the case.

Jared Bowen: Each of the four museums is devising their own plan for showing the work.

Here at the MFA, some of Guston's most searing hood paintings are on view in a single gallery. If visitors prefer to avoid them, they're invited to circumvent the space. If they do enter, it's deliberately claustrophobic.

Terence Washington: We hope that will cause people to be a little less comfortable, or cause people to aestheticize them and neuter the paintings a bit less.

Jared Bowen: Because Washington wants to ensure that we never get so used to seeing Klan images that we don't really see them anymore, just as he doesn't want museums to get used to programming with the same old limited perspective.

Terence Washington: Whiteness is not abstract. Whiteness is structuring the conversation around this exhibition. It's not something that we can put on and take off.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston.

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