The Museum of Fine Arts has weathered scathing criticism in the weeks since director Matthew Teitelbaum joined colleagues at three other major art museums to announce they would postpone “Philip Guston Now,” a highly anticipated retrospective of the Jewish artist’s work.
The MFA and its peer museums — the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.; the Tate Modern in London; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — initially said they planned to postpone the show by four years, or “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”
On Thursday, however, the four institutions officially moved that date up by two years, announcing the show would now originate in Boston, where it will run from May 1 to Sept. 11, 2022, before moving on to Houston, Washington, D.C., and London.
Guston, a major 20th-century artist who famously abandoned Abstract Expressionism, worked in a variety of modes. But he is perhaps best known for his paintings that employ a figurative style reminiscent of underground comics to plumb the darker currents of American life, including cartoonish depictions of hooded Ku Klux Klan members.
These Klan paintings were at the heart of the institutions’ decision to postpone the exhibition. And while the show’s catalog included contributions by two well-known Black artists, NGA director Kaywin Feldman told the “Hyperallergic” podcast last month that “an exhibition with such strong commentary on race cannot be done by all white curators.”
But by then critics had already lambasted the decision. A diverse group of artists signed an open letter through the New York culture journal The Brooklyn Rail demanding the exhibition go forward and calling its delay an acknowledgment of the museums’ failure to have “prepared themselves to meet the challenge of the renewed pressure for racial justice.”
Now that the show has been rescheduled, the Globe sat down with Teitelbaum to discuss Guston, the controversy, and how institutions such as the MFA can present challenging works in today’s charged political climate.
Q. How will the newly conceived exhibition differ from the original?
A. It’s still fully to be determined, but in the meantime we are committed to the original concept: a retrospective view of Philip Guston’s career and the many phases of his achievement.
What we will do differently is engage a range of voices, be they art historians, cultural theorists, historians, or artists to create a fuller understanding of what this great artist’s work means in its reception today. Our intention is to deepen the interpretation of the work to meet this moment.
Q. Is it in some way significant that the show will now originate in Boston?
A. I don’t know if it’s significant. It’s something I’m quite pleased about. I really want the conversation to shift away from the acceptability of his images. For me, Guston is beyond reproach. I want to engage with the question of what’s the museum’s responsibility for creating context and understanding for its visitors. I also welcome it as a moment to deepen staff conversations, to connect us more directly with leaders in the community to understand what our projects mean to them.
Q. The show’s postponement upset many in the art world, prompting critics to charge that the MFA and its sister institutions acted paternalistically. Rather than trusting the museum-going public to judge the work for itself, museums made the decision for them. How do you respond to that critique?
A. The tenor of the response reminded me to some degree that a reasonable conversation around these issues is not always possible. My own feeling is that one can reasonably disagree on this, but there must be an understanding and willingness to understand from both sides.
I think people became so exercised and adamant because somehow they thought we didn’t think Guston’s images would be acceptable today. Guston was never the problem. The problem was the reception of his work and the context we could create for it.
Q. Did your critics overreact?
A. I don’t want to make a claim on behalf of those who reacted. What I do think is there was an immediate assumption we were going to cancel the show, and that became part of the language. That was never our thinking, but the response clarified the need for us to get this right.
Q. In announcing the show’s postponement, you and your fellow directors said you would wait “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.” The country’s been grappling with issues of racial injustice for centuries. Why will we have more clarity in 2022?
A. I accept that some who read that said, “At that standard, the show will never have its right moment.” But one thing that surfaced was the urgent need to have this conversation now. For me, it was the desire of the MFA staff to roll up our sleeves and say: “How can we be a responsible and responsive institution and create the framework for presenting these images?”
Q. Even so, Guston’s Klan paintings have hung in museums for decades without incident. Why was their inclusion in “Philip Guston Now” any different?
A. We live in a moment when extreme positions are taken quite quickly, in which visual symbols have real resonance and are used for very specific purposes. We also live in a moment when the question of how images are understood and what they stand for is changing.
Our feeling was that we needed a bit more time to integrate the exhibition into conversations we’re having with our staffs about what constitutes representation and to find ways to communicate that the museum is a space of many voices.
Q. And yet Guston’s Klan works continue to hang in galleries …
A. I’m not so sure any museum leader at the moment is thinking of the status quo as an expression of the perfect. We’re in an interesting time, in which our responsibility for images and objects is more clearly before us.
The presentation of those images can’t only exist within art history. They have to exist in a relationship with the times in which they’re presented. That’s why we paused. We wanted to have more of an institutional conversation around what it would mean to create the right context for these images.
Q. Fair enough, but how is it that, at this late date, a show that deals so explicitly with race could arrive at such an advanced stage of completion with an all-white curatorial staff?
A. It’s a reasonable question. The project was informed by a range of voices, but I agree that museums are late in thinking about how the authority of their staff reflects the communities with whom they wish to speak. We need more diverse inputs as a museum, as a creator of narrative.
One thing we cannot lose sight of in this moment is that things changed for us after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We understood the show differently — not because they were the first African-Americans who lost their lives in circumstances like that, but because the language that became part of the world made this show different than the one we were organizing in 2016.
Q. By the same token, Michael Brown died in 2014. The original show was conceived in a context of Black Lives Matter and heightened sensitivity to racial violence.
A. That’s true. You’re absolutely right to say: “Seems to me that there’s more work to do.” And my response is: “There’s more work to do.”
But the reality is that the conversation within the institution is simply different now than it was in 2017, and I don’t take anything away from the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death or the deaths of others.
Q. Your colleague at the National Gallery of Art has said the show needs to be about more than Guston, particularly because he appropriated images of black trauma. But Guston’s work, like all great art, is filled with many, often contradictory, meanings. Is there a danger that in this charged political moment the show will flatten the richness of Guston’s work, viewing him only through the politics of today?
A. I do think there’s a danger of narrowing. The bigger concern I have — and why I’m so clear that this is a retrospective that looks at the range of his interests — is that he might be seen, for example, only as an artist who dealt with issues of race, that the only reason we should be engaged is because he can teach us something in this moment. That I’m watching very carefully, because his language was developed and expressed over a lifetime of deep thinking and deep engagement.
The images in our care have to be understood art historically, but I would also make the case that understanding their meaning in a public space like a museum has to be rethought in relation to contemporary audiences. We’re not trying to take away the importance of great works of art; we’re trying to ensure that we are responsible for the ways in which they can be approached and potentially understood.
If we can get that right, then the museum will become more inviting, welcoming, and engaging. It will become more a place where people feel as though their voice is heard.
Interview was edited and condensed.