The Banality of Tragedy
Rachel Burke on Philip Guston Now at the National Gallery of Art
June 6, 2023
Philip Guston, Untitled, 1968
The Philip Guston retrospective was postponed in 2020, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, for fear that Guston’s paintings referencing the Ku Klux Klan could be misinterpreted. The decision was controversial, taken as yet another symptom of the failure of art institutions to confront head-on and self-consciously their histories and complicities in regimes of power, specifically in white supremacy. The exhibition is now on view at Washington, DC’s National Gallery of Art, the third of four stops on its tour. Just steps from the seat of the US government, the museum is unusual from its peer institutions; though it was established at the impetus of industrialist Andrew W. Mellon with his funds and collection, it is thoroughly public by US standards——its operations are funded through the federal government and admission is always free. How did this public institution, the most-visited art museum in the United States, situate the painter’s idiosyncratic oeuvre, a landmark in the history of postwar art in the US, both formally and politically? Art historian Rachel Burke reviews here.
Philip Guston Now, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, March 2–August 27, 2023.
Philip Guston, Bombardment, 1937
Philip Guston, Passage, 1957–58
Philip Guston, Blackboard, 1969
Philip Guston, Black Sea, 1977
Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973
Rachel Burke is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University and a 2023–2024 Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her current research explores how nineteenth-century constructions of landscapes and terrain shaped identity formation, racial science, and models of subjecthood across the Atlantic world.