MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The art world is in upheaval over the cancellation of a show by four major museums. It was to include the work of the late Philip Guston. Some of his images include a series of hooded Klan-like figures. And though he was known for tackling racism in his work, at this tumultuous moment, the museum's backed away from mounting an exhibition planned years ago. Emma Jacobs has more.
EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Philip Guston was born Phillip Goldstein in Canada to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants. His family moved to Los Angeles, where he encountered Klan members breaking up labor strikes in the 1920s. That led to paintings of hooded figures Guston would make in the 1930s and returned to three decades later. He discussed them in a documentary called "Philip Guston: A Life Lived" with filmmaker Michael Blackwood.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PHILIP GUSTON: A LIFE LIVED")
PHILIP GUSTON: Gradually, these hooded figures started coming in, like dumb human beings who were always covered committing these senseless acts. It felt right to me.
JACOBS: But it apparently didn't feel right right now to the four museums that co-sponsored the exhibition - the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Tate Modern in London and the Boston and Houston Museums of Fine Art. So they announced it would be postponed for four years.
TRENTON DOYLE HANCOCK: It's the one thing that could get me out of the house during COVID is to really go and see that work.
JACOBS: Trenton Doyle Hancock is an acclaimed artist himself who also wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue.
HANCOCK: You know, I'm a Black guy that was shown that work and jumped right in and swam. And it was perfectly OK with me. But it's hard for me to speak for someone else.
JACOBS: Last month, the museums released a statement saying they were postponing the exhibition so that the work's message of social and racial justice, quote, "can be more clearly interpreted," unquote. This set off a huge argument in the art world.
RACHEL HARRISON: From the conversations I had at the beginning, people I knew, artists and not artists, critics, historians, people who work in museums and galleries were all appalled.
JACOBS: Rachel Harrison was one of nearly 100 art world figures, multigenerational and some artists of color, who signed a letter protesting the preemptive cancellation. The letter said the museums, quote, "fear controversy," unquote, and showed a lack of faith in their audiences' ability to understand the work's message about white culpability. In the later paintings and drawings, the Klan figures are buffoonish, shown doing everyday things like driving a car or painting.
HARRISON: I think it sets a really bad precedent. And I think there will be a ripple effect that confirms what's already a trend in museums in America, which is to avoid complexity and ambiguity in art.
JACOBS: A number of other artists who signed the letter declined to be interviewed. Last year, Darren Walker became the first African American trustee in the history of the National Gallery of Art. He's also the head of the Ford Foundation, a funder of NPR. He agrees that Guston's themes are especially relevant now. But he says an exhibition planned years ago can't possibly account for what's going on outside museum walls today.
DARREN WALKER: White supremacy and white supremacist ideology are being discussed at the highest levels in our society and are being normalized by some.
JACOBS: All four curators who collaborated on the exhibition are white. The director of the National Gallery, Kaywin Feldman, says the museum felt it needed more time to reconsider how it will present the images and to hold conversations with people inside and outside the museums.
KAYWIN FELDMAN: It's not about being risk-averse. It's being answerable to our publics. In the past, it sort of assumed that museums would do the research and put the shows up, and people would just accept it. And we are seeing in modern America that the public really wants to have a voice. They want to be involved.
JACOBS: For his part, artist Trenton Doyle Hancock is disappointed the show won't be coming to Houston, where he lives, for quite a while. He notes museums have had decades to figure out how to present Guston's work, which was never easy to talk about.
HANCOCK: It's hard to talk about by design. It's why he made the work. And that, to me, is the reason to talk about the work. It's like, why would someone approach such complicated imagery and deal with it in this very strange, nonlinear fashion?
JACOBS: But he says he's also seen images misinterpreted or get co-opted in what he calls this crazy time.
HANCOCK: It could have been a great teaching tool, and people could have come to it with open eyes and had a great conversation about it. But I also have to look at the worst-case scenario around it.
JACOBS: He'd still like to hear those conversations today, but he's afraid they won't be any less relevant in four years. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.