After Backlash, Philip Guston Retrospective to Open in 2024

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The much-discussed Philip Guston retrospective will now open in 2024, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery of Art in Washington said on Wednesday, after the announcement last month of a delay until 2024 sparked a backlash in the art world.

The National Gallery and three other major museums had announced that they were delaying the retrospective, which was originally intended to begin its tour last June, after taking into account the surging racial justice protests across the country. The museums had decided that roughly 24 of the Guston works featuring Ku Klux Klan members risked being “misinterpreted” and needed to be better contextualized for the current political moment.

Some critics said the decision to delay the retrospective amounted to self-censorship fueled by fear of controversy, but the National Gallery countered that the museums were still committed to the exhibition.

A National Gallery spokeswoman, Anabeth Guthrie, said that the four sponsoring museums — including Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — were in the process of confirming tour dates for 2024.

Ms. Guthrie said the rescheduling was not a result of the backlash. When the museums announced the postponement, she said, they chose a time that was well beyond the pandemic; 2024 seemed like an achievable time frame for each institution.

Scheduling such an expansive exhibition with an international tour in normal circumstances is already complicated, Ms. Guthrie said, but the pandemic has made it even more so, with the challenges of transporting 200 objects from multiple locations amid border restrictions.

“We never would have identified 2024 as a possible timeline if we were not serious about doing the show,” she said.

The repercussions from that September announcement of the delay have continued to unfold. The Art Newspaper reported Wednesday that a curator who co-organized the exhibition at Tate Modern had been suspended by the institution because he had criticized the postponement on his Instagram account last month.

The curator, Mark Godfrey, wrote that museums had already been engaged in putting the Klan imagery in context and that the delay to 2024 came off as “extremely patronizing” to viewers.

“By canceling or delaying, a message is sent out that the institutions ‘get’ Guston’s Klan paintings, but do not trust their audiences,” he wrote.

The Tate declined to comment and Mr. Godfrey did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But in a letter to the British newspaper The Times, responding to a columnist saying that the postponement amounted to “cowardly self-censorship,” the directors of Tate and the Tate Modern wrote that “Tate does not self-censor” and suggested that the decision was primarily made by the U.S. museums that were grappling with the “volatile climate” over “race equality and representation.”

“Proceeding on our own would not have been possible for financial and logistical reasons and would have been disrespectful to our partner museums,” the directors wrote.

The museums had already decided to delay the opening from June, in Washington, to February 2021, at Tate Modern in London, because of the pandemic.

Earlier this month, the director of the National Gallery, Kaywin Feldman, in an interview with The Washington Post, defended the decision to postpone, saying that the retrospective needed an African-American curator as part of the project. She also said that the museum needed to prepare its largely Black security force for the content of the exhibition.

Titled “Philip Guston Now,” the retrospective was to include roughly 125 paintings and 70 drawings. Twenty-four works have imagery that evokes the Klan, as well as two works in which the Klan imagery is not as obvious. Later in his career, Guston painted Klansmen as cartoonish and haggard figures, like in “The Studio” (1969), in which a white-hooded figure smoking a cigar paints a self-portrait, suggesting that there is racism ingrained in all of us.

An open letter signed by nearly 100 artists, curators, dealers and writers called on the museums to reverse course and open the retrospective next year, as planned. The letter asked that museums “engage in a reckoning with history, including their own histories of prejudice.”

Alex Marshall contributed reporting from London.

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