The Banality of Tragedy

Rachel Burke on Philip Guston Now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

June 6, 2023

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1968

Promised gift of Musa Guston Mayer to 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

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 2August 27, 2023.

Visitors to the Philip Guston Now exhibition at the National Gallery of Art first encounter Guston’s 1976 painting Rug. Hung alone at the top of a short staircase that descends to the exhibition entrance, Rug is a canvas in Guston’s signature palette of meaty pinks that warm against the grey slate wall of the museum. It’s a figural painting at the center of which cartoonish tubes bend in an uneasy cluster over an area rug. These are legs, drawn in bold contour lines from the bottoms of their simple oval shoe soles. Although solid and dense, the limbs hover, stacked together as a mass of disembodied flesh floating in the middle of an empty room. The wall text explains that Guston pulled from his experience as a cartoonist to respond to photographs he had seen from Nazi concentration camps, thus introducing the primary tension that unfolds through the halls of Philip Guston Now. Over the course of his prolific career, Guston experimented with a range of styles and subjects, constantly in pursuit of a visual language through which to articulate life’s unspeakable brutalities. 

By the time the visitor arrives in the first room of the exhibition, walking beyond the pink title-wall that bears an oversize black-and-white image of the artist in his studio, they learn that Guston was no stranger to tragedy. The room groups his earliest works under the theme “1930s: Early Lessons,” establishing the chronological and biographical framework that organizes the rest of the exhibition. Guston was a first-generation Ukrainian American born in 1913 in Montreal to Jewish parents fleeing from the anti-Semitic regimes spreading across Eastern Europe. He grew up in a Los Angeles patrolled by white supremacists and insidious with anti-Black violence; at age ten, he found the body of his father in the family shed where he had hanged himself. Less than a decade later, his older brother died in an accident the same year the city police vandalized a mural he painted condemning the Ku Klux Klan. These “formative events, both personal and political,” as stated by the wall text, “affected him deeply.” 

Philip Guston, Bombardment, 1937 

 Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Musa and Tom Mayer, 2011

© The Estate of Philip Guston; Photo: The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

This is the first directive of an exhibition so desperate to insist on the good politics and intentions behind Guston’s controversial works of the late ’60s and early ’70s for which he is now most well-known. These paintings, which feature hooded Klansmen drawn in crude simplicity and bold, graphic strokes, are the reason behind the exhibition’s delayed debut. Philip Guston Now was intended to tour in 2020, starting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before traveling to Washington, then the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Tate Modern in London. However, with the Covid-19 pandemic and the global attention turned to the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, museum officials had reservations. Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery of Art, explained that a postponement would allow more time to come up with an approach to the exhibition that “respects our audience and can best communicate Guston’s intentions.” However, many artists, critics, and curators—including several involved in the exhibition—did not agree with this institutional mandate. In an open letter published in September 2020 and signed by over 2,600 art world professionals, the decision was seen as a “failure of nerve” by museum directors.1 It was a move that admitted the longstanding negligence in creating public spaces for the discussion and education of white supremacy’s histories at the same time it temporarily withdrew these museums and their complicity from interrogation. The reluctance to show Guston’s paintings of Klansmen—motivated by a fear that audiences would mistake his depictions as a celebration of the terrorist organization—betrays a deep culpability in a society that codes art institutions as predominantly white spaces. 

In the time since the exhibition was scheduled to open, each museum had the opportunity to reconsider their approach to installing Philip Guston Now. Although the final checklist at the National Gallery of Art did not change, there were a number of measures taken to ensure that Guston’s oeuvre was presented with sensitivity. First, the roughly one hundred paintings that spanned his career were presented chronologically, grouped in rooms that loosely correspond to different decades. At the beginning of his career, in the 1930s and ’40s, Guston experimented with style, drawing inspiration from Mannerist vernacular, for example, to paint Bombardment (1937), a rosette of bombing victims twisting around a central explosion. Compared to Rug, it is a legible indictment of violence, one that shows a spectrum of bodies, including a figure in a gas mask, being thrown and distorted by the mechanisms of war. The painting’s kaleidoscope of colors exaggerates the modeling of the bright yellow, green, blue, and red fabrics draping the figures. Only a few years later, Guston tried yet a different approach, painting portraits such as Musa McKim (1941) with the stoic impenetrability of Picasso’s late Rose Period. Neither achieves the look he lands on in the late ’60s, the fleshy, cartoonish figuration used to scrutinize hooded white supremacists, yet the source of his creative impulse is already clear. Guston is driven to register the trauma of existence, from the most spectacular expressions of terror down to the quiet, private agonies endured in everyday bodies. 

Philip Guston, Passage, 1957–58 

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Bequest of Caroline Wiess Law, 2004.20

© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

The choice to arrange his oeuvre chronologically makes sense for an exhibition of this size and scope. It is the most comprehensive retrospective of Guston’s work since Philip Guston, which was organized in 2003 by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas. However, as if anxious that the stylistic disjunction could lead to uncertainty about Guston’s sympathies, the National Gallery of Art relies heavily on biography to explain how his process responded to the politics of each decade. This strategy necessitates large blocks of wall text that reassure the viewer that Guston’s personal experiences made him sensitive to systemic injustices. Signage in the second room, which groups together Guston’s figural experiments in the ’30s and ’40s (including a drawing of Ku Klux Klansmen at a lynching), defines the “common thread” among his array of subjects and styles as the “imperative of bearing witness and the terror of doing so, a dilemma that preoccupied Guston throughout his entire life.”

While the curatorial recourse to biography and didactic wall text erases any potential to misread the KKK works as endorsements, it flattens Guston’s oeuvre by imposing an implicit teleology to his career. His stylistic developments are insinuated as a function of his political consciousness and maturity, setting up a narrative in which his large-scale abstract works are read as a kind of lapse. In the ’50s and early ’60s, Guston painted in New York City, pursuing abstraction in line with the ethos of his contemporaries Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. To reconcile these canvases within the biographical trajectory, signage in the two rooms of abstraction direct the viewer to understand these years as a period of disillusionment. The title of the first room, “1950s: ‘I had no subject,’” takes a quote from Guston—who, it should be remembered, struggled with bouts of deep, depressive self-loathing—to imply this work as somehow vacuous compared to the legible (figural) paintings of his earlier career. In another pull quote, Guston more forcefully indicts his abstract work, proclaiming that “American abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit.” The gallery of his canvases, however, points to a different story. 

Philip Guston, Blackboard, 1969

Private Collection. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Collection Services

© The Estate of Philip Guston; Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Philip Guston, Black Sea, 1977

Tate: Purchased 1982

© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Indeed, the halls of abstraction that precede the room of Klansmen paintings are quietly one of the most powerful moments in the exhibition. It is certainly one of the only times this many of Guston’s abstract paintings are gathered in one place and the effect is stunning. His canvases are given a hall wide enough to incite their explosive, almost violent energies. With evocative titles like Beggar’s Joys (1954–55), his abstract experiments do not eschew the figure but seem to assign that role to the artist, indexing his animate presence in the somatic application of fleshy pinks and reds. There is a subject, a figure, clawing to get out and desperate to make himself known. His signature palette emerged in this period, evocative of blood and raw wounds. There is an undeniable pain in these pinks that foreshadow his re-engagement with figuration and suggest that his call to register tragedy did not disappear with the figural subject.

After finishing the room of Guston’s abstract works from the ’60s, the last paintings he made in New York City before his deteriorating mental health prompted a retreat to Woodstock, the visitor faces the third curatorial intervention imposed during the exhibition’s postponement: a bypass. In addition to the biography and the wall texts that work to contextualize the KKK paintings, audiences are given the opportunity to skip it altogether. They can either continue on the left, through a hall packed with small oil-on-panel object studies, or they can enter a room full of paintings first exhibited in 1970 at the Marlborough Gallery in New York City. These works, text at the juncture warns, were made “amid the turbulence of the 1960s.” Guston painted what he called “hoods,” figures of Klansmen, as they “went about their ordinary lives,” to suggest how evil and malice are “everywhere around us” and, at times, “even in us.” Another panel, in bold font, explicitly describes Guston’s subjects, advising that the room “contains depictions of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, including images of lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and victims of Nazism.” Closer to the entrance of the room are two more signs. The first introduces the paintings in the context of their public debut, a “bombshell” of a solo show at the Marlborough Gallery. Although the art world was “outraged” at his return to figuration, Philip Guston Now frames the moment as the consummate alignment between Guston’s moral imperative and his style, finally coalescing around symbols of hate and evil. The final plaque posted before the gallery gives a cursory overview of the terrorist organization, explaining how the Klan had a resurgence “in response to the Civil Rights Movement” and how today “its ideology endures on the streets of America and across the internet.”

Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973

Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, acquired with the generous support of the Vereniging Rembrandt and Mrs. Guston

© The Estate of Philip Guston; Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

The effect of having one room full of Guston’s KKK paintings is undeniably potent. The first painting, The Studio (1969), depicts a hooded Klansman as an artist, at his easel painting either a self-portrait or the likeness of another hood out of frame. This was the image that generated the most concern behind the exhibition’s postponement. What if the audience mistook it as Guston’s explicit identification with Klansmen? However, there is no chance for reading sympathy or apology for these figures when presented all together. Of course, Guston’s whiteness implicated him in the broader societal toleration of the KKK. But he does not excuse or celebrate this complicity. He simply registers it, using forms recognizable from cartoons and Disney animations to reflect the long tendrils of white supremacy governing all aspects of culture in the US. I wonder if there is an impulse to worry that his “cartoony” style will be interpreted as a lighthearted treatment of traumatic subject matter. Unlike the figuration of the ’30s and ’40s, for which Guston drew from more “serious” sources and models that constitute the Western artistic canon, the “hoods” are drawn like characters in comic strips. The introductory plaque offering a brief history of the KKK stresses that despite the style, which Guston employed “perhaps to distance himself from the horror,” he “was well aware that the Klan was no joke.” But, again, the danger of potential misunderstanding here is not inherent to Guston’s paintings, rather, it is a symptom of institutions with vested interests in the distinction between “low” and “high” art. As Guston reminds us, the visual language of the everyday is also a conduit for serious meaning. There is nothing optimistic about these hoods, shown driving and sitting and smoking in a pink haze of the anti-Black bloodshed that permeates US history and sociality.

The following rooms of Philip Guston Now seem to exhale, as if the curators finally trust Guston’s paintings to speak for themselves. The more overtly personal subject matter is easier to calibrate with the biographical chronology. Even for somebody familiar with his oeuvre, this hanging brings greater appreciation to his mature works. What tormented him during his Klansmen period has not gone away, but simply changed shape. Evil and atrocity still haunt, plotted as an extension of the violence in the ’70s through the artist’s portrayals of disembodied fists, faces, and feet. Far from minimizing the KKK’s reign of terror, Guston insists on its connection to other brutalities, from the genocide of Jewish people to the slow death of a loved one. The anachronistic inclusion of government work produced between 1936 and 1942 in a dark room at the end of the exhibition is a curious choice, distracting from the dramatic momentum of the previous rooms, but thankfully it’s tucked away and easily passed, not compromising the impact of the exhibition’s final gallery. A wall text titled “1970s: Legs and Lids” again points out the resonances of Guston’s late imagery with concentration camp photography, but at this point the viewer cannot escape the macabre undertones of objects as innocuous as garbage lids and shoe soles. Painted in his signature graphic hand, these final paintings capture the unsettling banality of tragedy. Everyday forms presented in the everyday legibility of figuration represent ineffable horrors beyond their immediate contours. The “brutality of the world,” as Guston called it, does not only present itself in the cataclysmic events that make headlines. It is simply everywhere, always looking for the next vehicle, the next sign, through which to be felt.

1 “Open Letter: On Philip Guston Now,” Brooklyn Rail, September 30, 2020,

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.