Across 50 years, the paintings of Philip Guston (1913–1980) shifted from figuration to abstraction and back again. Yet a persistent concern haunted each of his stylistic transformations: Guston never stopped questioning the place of the painter in the world. What did it mean to witness injustice outside his studio? What might paint render newly visible inside it?

This major exhibition—organized by the MFA; the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Tate Modern, London—foregrounds the artist’s lifelong commitment to raising difficult, even unanswerable questions. The selection of 73 paintings and 27 drawings from public and private collections features well-known works as well as others that have rarely been seen. Highlights include paintings from the 1930s that have never been on public view; a reunion of paintings from Guston’s groundbreaking Marlborough Gallery show in 1970; a striking array of small panel paintings made from 1968 to 1972; and a powerful selection of large, often apocalyptic paintings of the later 1970s that form the artist’s last major statement.

Animated by contradictions, Guston’s works are deeply ambiguous, defined equally by what he called the “brutality of the world” and by the palpable joy he took in the process of painting itself. Many of them address challenging themes, including white supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, and violence, in part through their imagery. The exhibition features multiple paintings of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen, truncated body parts, and enigmatic scenes of struggle. These images and their meanings can appear unmistakable, indeterminate, and everything in between. Taken together, Guston’s works challenge us to grapple with the lived experience we each bring to this museum, and to this city, today.

A Message from the Curators

In the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, the four museums planning this exhibition—originally scheduled to open in June 2020—decided to postpone the project. Many took issue with this decision, which was intended to give the organizers time to reframe the show in light of what one press release called the “urgencies of the moment.” Those urgencies figure within a long history, and they persist within an ever-shifting present. We are showing Guston’s work now in a different way than originally planned, yet we also aspire to more far-reaching and lasting change—taking a true, and hard, look at the building in which this art hangs, and the ways in which we care for our visitors. We also know we have not gotten everything “right.” The work of this exhibition is ongoing, much like Guston’s open-ended paintings themselves. Humbly and respectfully—with these paintings as our guide—we invite you to look, and reckon, alongside us.

—The Curatorial Team for “Philip Guston Now”

Megan Bernard
Ethan Lasser
Kate Nesin
Terence Washington

We Want to Hear from You

We invite you to engage with us and others in the MFA community to reflect deeply on Guston’s work. Please feel free to respond to one of the prompts or share your own thoughts.

If you’d like to engage directly with the curatorial team, please e-mail your comments to Guston@mfa.org.

Submitted by Elena on September 10, 2022 9:43 pm

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The whole "emotional preparedness" thing made no sense. There is much more graphic and racially challenging artwork in the same museum that isn't given trigger warnings! The general experience of the exhibition was condescending and strange, and the revision of Guston's own words in the wall text felt almost propagandistic. And, by using one white man's body of work as the grounds on which to build a history of 20th century tensions, it actually felt harmful to real work to unpack the histories of racism and antisemitism. I hope this curation team does not take on any more projects. It felt like they were so stuck in a bubble of fear and art-world insularity that they defaulted to meaningless "wellness" platitudes and forgot to have faith in the viewer.

Submitted by Opposition on September 8, 2022 6:34 pm

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Appalling infantilzation of viewers, tiresome curatorial virtue signaling, grotesque distortion of Guston’s personal and cultural environment, a complete and utter failure of the new, highjacked MFA, though perfectly in line with its puerile new graphic identity; what a dismal disappointment. The ridiculous decision not to follow chronology renders the arc of Guston’s career incoherent.

Submitted by Hans Henrik Clemensen on September 8, 2022 4:55 pm

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As a guest to this fantastic exibition I feel that you “stupidise” me by warning me of some of the pictures
Philip Guston was a faboulous painter and I am sure that He would not like you patronizing his audience.
Hans Henrik Clemensen
Denmark

Submitted by kayla mohammadi on September 8, 2022 12:48 pm

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I think there were too many disclaimers and too much fear in putting this show together. It is a great show with wonderful paintings. Having the curation reviewed by people outside the museum is helpful but the whole "group think" might be over the top.

Submitted by Barbara Lewin on September 4, 2022 2:06 pm

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This was an exceptional exhibition. Moving and powerful. I can't understand why the museum would have canceled it initially, but I'm glad it's up now and I like that you've opened room for sensitivity and discussion without veering toward censorship or succumbing to bullying from different factions. Conversation is always a better choice.

Submitted by Myles on September 3, 2022 4:49 pm

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While I can't say I'm the biggest fan of Guston's particular style, I do appreciate how hard he worked to bring attention to such serious issues. Especially since such issues were often overlooked in his time. I believe the gallery itself is extremely relevant and important food for thought as we navigate these divisive times.

Submitted by Arianna on August 19, 2022 9:46 am

If you have seen any of Guston's “hooded figure” paintings, what would you tell other visitors about them?
È stata una mostra bellissima!!! Ottima la scelta dei curatori di disporre i quadri in questo modo. Delle figure incappucciate direi che l'artista ha voluto denunciare gli orrori che hanno fatto i "kkk" ma anche far riflettere sull'indifferenza e il volersi nascondere dietro le sofferenze del mondo che chi consapevolmente e chi inconsapevolmente fa. Forse ci mettiamo un po' tutti quel cappuccio per non vedere la povertà o il bisognoso.

*Google translation: It was a beautiful exhibition !!! The curators' choice to arrange the paintings in this way is excellent. Of the hooded figures, I would say that the artist wanted to denounce the horrors that the "KKK" caused but also to reflect on the indifference and the desire to hide behind the suffering of the world that those who consciously and those unwittingly do. Maybe we all put on that hood a bit so as not to see poverty or the needy.*

Submitted by Vivien Wu on August 15, 2022 10:53 pm

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I used the Mobile App as a general guide to get more context with Gaston's work in various periods. It was helpful .. otherwise, I probably would be completely lost in some of the abstract works. The narration of "Wharf" is especially moving... it was by Gaston's daughter who saw her parents sinking or rising above the dark water.. yet encouraged everyone to find humor in daily mundane. Thanks for making these efforts to bring the work and life of the artist closer to its viewer. Thank you.

Submitted by Kara I Merry on August 11, 2022 5:49 pm

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This exhibition shook me to the bones. It was magnificent. This is why I come to the MFA. Thank you MFA.

Submitted by Heidi Caruso on July 28, 2022 7:04 pm

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I don’t walk out on too many exhibits, but I walked out on this one. His art was shit. Totally unappealing in any way, There was no message, that I could see, just random stuff and when I read that there was there was antisemitism where he was, he changed his Jewish name, I was done with him. As I walked through the rest if his stuff, looking for the exit, I couldn’t believe museums consider him one if the greatest artists of the century? Really?

Submitted by Afrah Farah on July 25, 2022 10:10 am

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I am planning to come to the exhibition. My recommendation, though, is to invite people from the poor African American community from just a few miles away to experience works meant to elevate their daily pain caused by racism. Organize invitations so that they have a chance to go into the MFA. The museum's visitors are probably mostly white! Why? Because discrimination extends all the way into art and access to exhibitions. I wish you could give a young African American child the chance to imagine painting what they feel and think. Art is a business, and it is still very elite and also somewhat pretentious.
Thanks for reading!
An art lover--
Afrah

Submitted by Joan Costas on June 25, 2022 11:07 pm

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Postponing the Guston show only makes sense from a business perspective. Art is to be seen, and the MFA has a business to run...so if George Floyd's murder would have kept people away from the exhibit, then that is something to consider. Again, because art is to be seen by as many people as possible. The idea that Guston's art needs any kind of sensitivity-based couching is a dangerous stance for any museum to take. Your job, as a world class institution, is to bring very worthy art to your visitors. But to "prepare" a viewer for a show is condescending and makes a judgment on the work itself.

I, initially, gave the MFA a pass on the cabinets containing hidden articles, chalking it up to an unnecessary step, but I was wrong. Any intro into who Guston was speaks to his interaction with the ugly side of humanity, so your hidden articles should come as no surprise to the audience. The world is an offensive place, and artists communicate this message, so why hide the real world impetus for the works? The viewer took responsibility for themselves when they decided to see the exhibit. George Floyd's murder was "televised." Please put the sliding door cabinets in storage because it isn't your job to hide the truth.

Thank you, MFA. When the world gets heavy, your art saves me, and I am forever grateful.

Submitted by lisa noble on June 20, 2022 1:46 pm

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I happen to be a fan of Guston's work, but I haven't been aware of these paintings and the ambiguity until now. I feel I have to read more about Guston to have a better understanding of what his intention was in these paintings.
One thing that I wonder about is how we have known antisemitic painters who are celebrated wildly across the country, such as Edgar Degas and this is rarely mentioned.
A question that comes to mind is if we knew of a white supremacist painter now who painted kkk images, would those be displayed in a museum? If not, why not? Isn't this all about who gives the most money to the museum at the end of the day? Aren't the board members the one who decide what the public should see and what they should celebrate?

There's a lot to think about here and when you pan out, one could ask, why are we not celebrating more non-white artists and non-male artists? Is there not room? The art world has been largely exclusionary, do we see any paintings of white men being hanged by black men? Would those be acceptable to show??

Submitted by Anonymous on June 19, 2022 10:27 pm

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The curatorial posture seems quite overblown, and becomes condescending and infantilizing. It so conspicuously tries to prepare people for “discomfort” that may cause them “harm”. One may be certain that all viewers at the show have witnessed far more grievous things than they will see in this display of oils on canvas, and have survived.
I won't even comment on the display cases with sliding covers that protect us from the material beneath, or the need for a trauma specialist.

Submitted by Jeremy Blank on June 10, 2022 11:34 pm

If you have seen any of Guston's “hooded figure” paintings, what would you tell other visitors about them?
I witnessed Philip Guston's large scale late works at his Whitechapel Art gallery show in 1982. The drawings and paintings of hooded figures struck me immediately. The directness of his line work and the depiction of hidden thugs struck me as a young person who had grown up being bullied and threatened throughout my childhood and youth in my own home place, London. I saw what I think Juan Miro advised us to do, to 'Paint the Monster'. I saw that Philip Guston had rejected the constraints of polite abstraction and had adapted that language in a bold and yet controlled celebration of humanity over the emotional challenges we all experience; like the death of his wife or reflections upon the holocaust. I am delighted that this exhibition has gone ahead. I am concerned that art does not become misinterpreted or censored by well meaning or woke gate keepers. It is wrong to judge the past with the emerging values or often reactionary responses of today. Guston's early works, (mural project) clearly position him in the history of social representation. It is absurd to suggest that just because an artist depicts the worst of humanity, and mocks its ignorance, that they subscribe to or celebrate it.

Submitted by Caroline Neal on June 10, 2022 7:05 am

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I like his lines and colors and possibly his “hooded figures” which I’ll up now and get back with you the viewer. Ah, the KKK. No, I do not like the subject matter.

Submitted by Ray Larrow on June 2, 2022 2:43 am

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Offer the menu, everything the chef intended, without asterisks and parenthesis and apologies and substitutions. Just show the damn menu, shut up, then step away.

Submitted by Steve Borsher on May 23, 2022 1:44 pm

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Art is not to be manipulated in an attempt to guess at what of it might be acceptable for consumption by the sensitive. Present it all as the artist would in his time, and let the sensitive stay away, with fair warning, of course. They don't belong there. You are letting the lactose intolerant keep everyone from drinking the milk.

Submitted by Re Almanace on May 16, 2022 11:08 am

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That painting above, of the bloated face and what appears to be cold cuts waiting to be consumed, remind me of Little Lulu's Tubby, eying the gustatory delights of an Italian Deli.

Submitted by denis Lacorne on May 16, 2022 9:42 am

If you have seen any of Guston's “hooded figure” paintings, what would you tell other visitors about them?
Why don't you represent the controversial hooded figures in the New York Times' portfolio? At least one of them? It sounds like censorship to me.
Denis Lacorne
Author of "The Limits of Tolerance", Columbia University Press

Submitted by S. Edward Burns on May 16, 2022 5:35 am

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“There is something death-like about a painting finished…destruction of paintings is very interesting to me and almost crucial.” Philip Guston once said that it is still relevant now. Guston's quote verified @ArtsEditor tweet video link interview.

Submitted by Jaclyn on May 8, 2022 2:17 pm

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I’m excited to view the show and appreciate the opportunity to listen to the conversations and audio tour prior to coming. His work has a rawness, immediacy and visceral quality that I have always connected to. The reminder to view the work through our own lens (experiences and perspective) as well as the lens, experience and historical context of the artist is helpful. I’m relieved we are talking about and shining a light on these issues in a more open, deeper and collective way than we have up until now. It gives me hope.

Submitted by Giles Eldridge on May 7, 2022 6:18 am

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Fine Art methodologies include dexterity and the exchange of ideas; propositions, not as promotion but in a play of instability with the simultaneous possibility of presentation and negation, forever questioning. Your reductive institutional methodology treats everything as Agit Prop. By intially pulling the show and now "reframing" you confront Philip Guston with a accusation. American culture has a long tradition of killing and you choose to scapegoat an artist ! With perverse cynicism you present him as the exact opposite of the man he was.

Submitted by Claude Reich on May 2, 2022 3:08 am

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Real humility would be to assume your audience is a mature one, capable of forming their own judgment by looking at the work and reading Guston's extensive writings, instead of calling on a "trauma specialist" to sweeten the blow these powerful works will always convey to their viewers.

Submitted by Dennis Sopczynski on May 1, 2022 10:14 am

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To read the collection of reviews that were brought to my attention within the past twelve hours you would think that a lot of people from the press and museums never heard of Philip Guston, or were surprised by what they saw. Where were they in 2003 when the Michael Auping curated Philip Guston Retrospective travelled the country? As a San Francisco area resident I spent a lot of time at that exhibit when it was at SFMOMA. Or how about the 1980 retrospective version? Or how about these publications: Must Mayer’s “Night Studio” and “Resilience”, Robert Slifkin’s “Out of Time”, the Hauser & Wirth publications? And a ton of other publications. Guston at the Venice Biennale recently? Something new and revelatory about Guston’s work to the museum professionals and the press in 2022? Yes. Perhaps the true story is not the exhibit, rather the manner in which it was handled. None of this hand holding stuff existed in 2003 with the Guston Retrospective. The work has not changed, but our brains have. We compromised the ability to handle such complex and mature work that Philip Guston represented.

Submitted by James Lee on May 1, 2022 12:05 am

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Philip Guston's art and his honesty, passion, protest, and politics resonate powerfully even halfway around the globe and half a century later in contemporary Hong Kong. Thank you Boston Museum of Fine Arts for not waiting until 2024 to give us here the opportunity to respond emotionally and intellectually through our own prism as we peruse Guston's paintings and drawings in your Image Gallery and watch and read the many videos and other resources you provide. In a lifetime of art appreciation (I am almost 70) I can honestly say that your online exhibition is one of the most inspiring I have 'seen.'

Submitted by Amanda Jaffe on April 30, 2022 11:22 am

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The thing that first comes in my mind when looking at many Guston paintings is the color. He so often uses pink with a bit of red and I would like to hear what the curators have to say about this color.

Submitted by Nancy Freeman on April 29, 2022 11:26 am

“We are image makers and image ridden,” Guston once said. You might feel similarly today, glued to the television, doom-scrolling on your phone. How do you process what you see?
What I see is a depraved and ugly image, not only visually ugly but giving difficult-to-fathom reasons for the ugliness…..I want to ask, What is the message?
Watching a person vomit tells me he is sick in some way, but looking at the vomit does not enlighten me to his sickness. In short, with Guston : neither the message ( if I could fathom it ) nor the shapes and colors he uses to attempt to deliver it are so unpleasant ( to me ) that I want to look away.
I am an oil painter, (a graduate of RISD and Boston Museum School ). The first rule of any art is….it has to be appealing in some way so the viewer keeps looking at it.
What is the value of any art if it is repulsive to look at?

Submitted by Dianne Goode on April 29, 2022 12:13 am

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I'm sorry but this is how culture wars are lost. Do we really need trigger notices to see works created decades ago? It's ART, the artist is expressing his reaction/interpretation of his life, emotions, history at a certain time and place.
Should we cancel Caravaggio, Picasso, or Rodin or whomever (insert another artist ) because they were murders, misogynists, abusers?
Guston was trying to shed light, not darkness. Let's look at the big picture, not the miniature.

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  • Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, Level 2

Image Gallery

Emotional Preparedness for “Philip Guston Now”

The content of this exhibition is challenging. Mental health and trauma specialist Ginger Klee offers an invitation to emotionally prepare for the experience and supplies anti-racist resources for further learning.

Read More about Emotional Preparedness

Sponsors

Ford Foundation

Lead Sponsor

The Guston Foundation

Generous Supporter with Musa and Thomas Mayer

Shapiro Family Foundation logo
Terra Foundation

Generous Supporter

Additional generous support from the Bafflin Foundation, Lisbeth Tarlow and Stephen Kay, Martin S. Kaplan and Wendy Tarlow Kaplan, Marilyn and Charles Baillie, Phil Lind, Michael Nesbitt and an anonymous donor. With gratitude to the Council for Canadian American Relations.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.