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October 1, 2020

Hundreds in Art World Sign Letter Urging Restoration of Postponed Philip Guston Exhibition

Philip Guston’s Courtroom (detail), 1970. Photo: Flickr.

NEW YORK—An open letter being circulated by The Brooklyn Rail calling on the four institutions responsible for postponing a controversial Philip Guston exhibition to reinstate the show has drawn more than 300 signatures in the four hours since it began circulating, including those of artists Matthew Barney, Nicole Eisenman, Coco Fusco, Zoe Leonard, Shirin Neshat, Adrian Piper, and Rirkrit Tiravanija; curators Catherine de Zegher and Hamza Walker; scholars Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Thierry de Duve, and Fred Moten; and Artforum editor-in-chief David Velasco.

The letter, drafted by noted critic and Artforum reviews editor Barry Schwabsky, is addressed to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Tate Modern, London, which together took the decision last week to postpone until 2024 a highly anticipated retrospective of the American-Canadian neo-expressionist artist citing concerns over Ku Klux Klan imagery in the work. The decision was widely condemned as representing an unwillingness on the part of the institutions to engage viewers in a nuanced dialogue with the work, and a failure to consider how historical contexts inform its meaning. Seen as especially offensive was the concept that the exhibition could go on once the current climate of outrage surrounding issues of social and racial justice had presumably shifted.

“Rarely has there been a better illustration of ‘white’ culpability than in these powerful men and women’s apparent feeling of powerlessness to explain to their public the true power of an artist’s work—its capacity to prompt its viewers, and the artist too, to troubling reflection and self-examination. But the people who run our great institutions do not want trouble. They fear controversy,” says the letter. “They lack faith in the intelligence of their audience. And they realize that to remind museum-goers of white supremacy today is not only to speak to them about the past, or events somewhere else. It is also to raise uncomfortable questions about museums themselves—about their class and racial foundations. For this reason, perhaps, those who run the museums feel the ground giving way beneath their feet. If they feel that in four years, ‘all this will blow over,’ they are mistaken. The tremors shaking us all will never end until justice and equity are installed.”

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