In October of 1970, the painter Philip Guston debuted a new show of figurative artworks at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. The exhibition has since lived on in infamy.
The Canadian-American artist (1913-1980) was then known for his talents in Abstract Expressionism, producing colorful artworks characterized by a nervous, shimmering quality that played on the senses and the emotions. But he shocked friends and critics alike when he boldly revealed paintings of cartoonish people wearing white hoods, like suburban members of the Ku Klux Klan. Evil had a face (even if covered), and in those works, you could find it enjoying an ordinary life—wedged cheekily into a comic strip frame.
The Marlborough Gallery soon turfed Guston out and ended the show’s run.
Fifty years later, Guston’s art has continued to court controversy. An American retrospective was planned for June of 2020 with stops at four galleries. After the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that year, the planned exhibition was put on pause for at least four years.
Yet after much heated public debate, the show opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in May of 2022. The museum introduced several sensitivity measures to help visitors navigate the charged content, including an “Emotional Preparedness” pamphlet penned by a trauma specialist and a physical detour for those who preferred to avoid the so-called “hood” artworks.
Tate Modern in London is the final stop of this infamous art tour, with “Philip Guston” running through February 25. The exhibition is the first major retrospective of the artist in the U.K. in almost twenty years, and it features more than one hundred artworks from a truly varied fifty-year career.
Yet it is still his later “Hood” pieces that earn Guston incredible artistic notoriety, even today. For context, these canvases only occupy one of the eleven rooms at Tate Modern. The paintings—mostly produced during the late 1960s—were an attempt to show how evil can exist in plain sight. Hooded Klansmen ride around in Fords, share cigars in high-rise apartments, converse in kitchens over scotches. Evil can and does live anywhere, Guston tells us in these artworks.
Unlike the MFA, Tate Modern is less inclined to offer visitors as many heavy-handed sensitivity tools—such as the pamphlet—but did use others. For example, documentary evidence greets visitors before they enter the exhibition, with imagery of the KKK and their heinous stain on American history soberly shown. There is also an anteroom before the “Hood” area, with clear signage announcing the context and contentious content of those Guston works.
After launching a successful career in the 1950s spent exploring the sensory pleasures of Abstract Expressionism, Guston turned to simple graphic figuration a decade later. These earlier paintings have a radiant metallic-like intensity in which viewers can lose themselves, such as The Return (1956–8), whereby single-colored brushstrokes convey a contradiction of rest and animation in one frame. In a post-atomic bomb age, his art joined that of peers like Mark Rothko in indulging a meditativeness that questioned freedom of expression or wrestled with anxiety.
Many contemporaries were therefore stunned when Guston swung from art so abstract to imagery so literal. The Studio (1969) infamously announced this new direction in 1970, providing an ironic portrayal of Guston as a Klansman sitting at an easel painting a self-portrait. People were confounded as to why he had abandoned abstraction for cartoonish imagery of people in hoods, physical junk and abject bodies (including his own).
As a young Jewish boy growing up in Los Angeles, Guston (then Goldstein) witnessed firsthand the violence of the Klan—at a time when membership reached its peak—terrorizing minorities in his community. Abstract art provided one outlet with which to wrestle with ideas of trauma and anxiety, embracing the artistic challenges set and celebrated by the burgeoning movement.
It was the 1960s, however, that calcified his disillusionment with this art style, as carnage and upheaval engulfed America: from the bloodshed of the Vietnam War to the social discord wrought by the civil rights movement. Literal figures in white hoods entered his visual lexicon as he sought to represent evil and the everyday perpetuation of racism in America—of which he acknowledged his own complicity.
The charged white hood content of works like Flatlands (1970) does briefly feature in “Philip Guston,” and it asks viewers to see the way racism and white supremacy can insidiously slip into and exist in the everyday. But beyond these infamous artworks are many other rich pieces that more palpably reveal insight into Guston and his works than those associated with the enduring fifty-year controversy.
First, there is Legend (1977), a dreamlike exposition displaying the prosaic everyday objects, like cigarette butts and empty bottles, littering Guston’s studio. It is one of his last paintings and indulges in a world of chaos and brutality—one he ultimately seems to have succumbed to after a lifetime of artistically fighting against, all for clarity and mental space. A trash can lid acts as a shield (far from holding any waste away) while the encroaching trash spoils his studio. The excesses of Guston’s life and world reveal a “legend” undone by vice and destruction—both his own and the outside world’s.
Then there are the magisterial works like Sleeping (1977) and The Line (1978). The juxtaposition of seeing the vulnerable, if frayed, sleeping artist—his snuggled body resembling disembodied intestines—against an omnipotent hand emerging from the clouds is an apt reminder of the role of art and that of the artist. The Line takes its cues from Michelangelo’s image of God’s heavenly fingertip but recreates it as a cartoonish hand shown to be marked by violence (or simply life itself), missing fingers and a thumb with pronounced gnarly veins. As the hand sketches out a thick charcoal line, the line between art displaying some heavenly higher truth and human reality is telegraphed for us.
In his later years, Guston had a particular penchant for painting abandoned everyday ephemera—cigarettes or paintbrushes, his daily “tools”—which take on an unnerving energy, such as in Kettle (1978). The seemingly abandoned kettle proves a sinister sight against a black sky and red desert, a kind of hellish landscape. The kettle has boiled—but what now? Other such works include those depicting discarded shoes, a grim nod to the atrocities of Auschwitz. Objects and junk, stripped of context, become surreal metaphors for humanity and evil or pleasure and vice.
While “Philip Guston” takes a rigid and chronological approach to the artist’s body of work, many visitors may be inclined to think about his output in reverse. Tate Modern provides minimal curatorial commentary, so patrons can lean into the aesthetic tendencies of each period and reflect on Guston’s response to each period. Perhaps because of the infamy of his later “Hood” pieces, the antecedents and early preoccupations (from sensory silence in post-WWII America to his final condemnatory and cartoonish takes on everyday evil) are tempting to seek out and trace.
By frontloading the exhibition with context on the KKK and avoiding too many sensitivity measures (like trigger warnings), Tate Modern brings ample breathing room to the work of Philip Guston. Unlike American institutions—which may have over-wrote the scripts for these shows—“Philip Guston” lets the dominant perspective remain simply that of Guston’s.
Such a recentering remains a welcome corrective—one that sensibly elevates the artistic and aesthetic evolution of the painter over his contentious motifs. It challenges contemporary audiences to see beyond any shorthand claims of racism and insensitivity that first marred the show in 2020 and to instead engage directly with Guston and his own artistic reckoning with evil, anxiety and identity.
Indeed, sometimes you just need to look under the hood.
“Philip Guston” is on view at Tate Modern in London until February 25.