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”
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.
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- Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, Level 2
Philip Guston, Couple in Bed, 1977
Philip Guston, Gladiators, 1940
Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973
Philip Guston, Head I, 1965
Philip Guston, Untitled, 1980
Philip Guston, City, 1969
Philip Guston, Book and Charcoal Sticks, 1968
Philip Guston, Web, 1975
Philip Guston, Tower, 1970
Philip Guston, Dial, 1956
Philip Guston, Aegean, 1978
Philip Guston, Black Sea, 1977
Philip Guston, Open Window, 1969
Philip Guston, The Ladder, 1978
Philip Guston, The Deluge, 1969
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.
Emotional Preparedness for “Philip Guston Now”
The content of this exhibition is challenging. The Museum offers these words in a spirit of care and invitation.
It is human to shy away from or ignore what makes us uncomfortable, but we unintentionally cause harm by participating in this practice. You have an opportunity to lean into the discomfort of anti-racist work on an experiential level as you view art that portrays America’s past and present racial tensions. You have every right to feel your feelings throughout this exhibition, whether you are navigating it as a person of color or not. I encourage those who have experienced oppression, and allies, to name your feelings, sit with them, and learn from them. And identify your boundaries and how far you can push yourself.
The more you learn about yourself and other people’s identities and histories, the more you can appreciate who you are and understand other people. Yet this process can also provoke periods of grief, sadness, guilt, and anger due to the injustices that victims of oppression continue to fight. It’s difficult to manage the guilt one can feel in not doing enough, not fighting enough, or not learning enough. My advice to you on this complex journey is to embrace that guilt and the journey, which we often forget to do because we can be so desperate to get to that destination. With intersectional identities—no matter how many you may have or how many you want to be an ally or accomplice to—there is always more to learn. That’s the beauty of it, and the exhausting part of it. We don’t want to forget the foundation of these identities or where we come from, yet they are all constantly evolving and changing with society and cultural norms. They change with us, and even good change is uncomfortable. In fact, if you aren’t uncomfortable on this journey, you likely aren’t learning from it, at least not as much as you could be.
A term I think encompasses these ideas well is cultural humility, which emphasizes that understanding various identities and cultures is “a dynamic and lifelong process focusing on self-reflection and personal critique, while also acknowledging your own biases. It recognizes the shifting nature of intersecting identities and encourages ongoing curiosity rather than an endpoint,” as stated by Dr. Shamaila Khan. That’s why there will always be more learning to do. If we could all do our best to embrace that, we could all be better for it—better in our own understanding of ourselves, and also of each other.
Though I encourage you to lean into the discomfort of this work and remind you that we all have more learning to do, we also must prioritize rest and identify how far we can push ourselves. It’s important to take care of and love yourself. Part of this fight for equality, equity, and justice is self-love and care. Rest is productive. Rest is resistance. This is why community and support are so important in this fight and journey. Community can give us the space and time to rest.
—Ginger Klee, MS, LMFT, LPCC, consultant to the “Philip Guston Now” curatorial team