The Philip Guston hoard: A boon or overkill?

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The Philip Guston hoard: A boon or overkill?
Philip Guston (American (born Canada), 1913–1980), Floor, 1976. Oil on canvas, 69 x 98 in (175.3 x 248.9 cm) © The Estate of Philip Guston The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift of Musa Guston Mayer.

by Roberta Smith

NEW YORK, NY.- How much is too much? It’s a question that consumers should ask themselves every time they shop, build or step onto a fuel-guzzling jet.

It is also a question that museums might raise before adding works of art to their collections. This does not seem to have happened when the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to accept 220 works by celebrated — and prolific — American painter Philip Guston (1913-1980) from the personal collection of his daughter, Musa Guston Mayer.

The gift came with a big bright bow: Mayer and her husband, Thomas, are also giving the museum $10 million to establish the Philip Guston Endowment Fund to support Guston scholarship, which will instantly make the museum the world’s center for Guston studies.

Of the 220 donated works, 124 are drawings. Ninety-six are paintings, which is the important number here. Close to 100 paintings by a single painter might seem unremarkable when you first read it, but it is huge — “transformative,” as the press announcement said.

Clearly, this was an offer the Met decided it could not refuse even though it is unprecedented in its history to accept so many paintings by a single artist.

The Met, in return, has promised to have a dozen works by Guston — abstract expressionism’s greatest apostate — on view at all times for the next 50 years. This means that the majority of the gift won’t be shown at the Met or could languish in storage for long periods of time.

The number overshadows every one of Guston’s abstract expressionist contemporaries of similar stature in the collection. For example, there are barely 60 paintings — combined — by artists such as Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell. Even the 2014 gift from Leonard Lauder of about 80 cubist works on canvas and paper spanned four artists, not one.

So, is this the transformation that the Met really needs?

Accepting so many free Guston paintings flies in the face of the challenge that many museums face right now to redefine their missions in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Practically, and symbolically, it takes up too much of the oxygen in the room. To broaden their collections and audiences, museums should be seeking to avoid, not reinforce, the so-called master narrative that has largely excluded the achievements of women and artists of color.

This is also a period when museums are seen as overstocked treasure houses. Careful consideration should be given to how many artworks museums assume responsibility for. It would seem that the last thing the Met needs is an enormous monument to an exemplar of America’s most famous art movement.

Met director emeritus Philippe de Montebello offered some words of caution to Robin Pogrebin, who broke the story of the gift in December. He called the Gustons a “great gift” provided, he said, that “the numbers and space required to show the works do not create a serious imbalance in the presentation of postwar art.”

But how could they not? And not only Guston’s generation will be overshadowed, the Met does not own 96 paintings by any other European or American painter, living or dead — nor do most American museums. For perspective, the Museum of Modern Art has 55 paintings by Pablo Picasso and just 34 by Henri Matisse. The Guggenheim has 70 paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and the Whitney has 222 by Edward Hopper, but a great number of these are early or small works. Furthermore, these artists are foundational to their respective institutions’ identities — present from their founding, if not before.

Other stipulations in the Met’s agreement with the Guston family emerged from questions I submitted to the press department. Probably the best news is that the dozen Gustons required to be displayed at all times will be free-range: They can be exhibited anywhere in the building, next to any kind of art. Nothing will be locked in place, as is unfortunately the case with other large gifts to the Met (the Annenberg collection of impressionism and postimpressionist works comes to mind) that have been isolated in specific galleries, which stifles curators’ creativity.

One of the limits of the Guston gift, however, is that the museum has agreed never to sell any works from it. This is not surprising, but it is regrettable since it saddles the museum with a lot of art to care for and not much opportunity to show it off.

The Met says it intends to share the wealth of Gustons with extended loans to other museums. This is a good thing. But it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if the Met had negotiated a counteroffer with the estate: to accept half (or even one-third) of the paintings and drawings for itself and to distribute the remainder to museums around the country. This is an arduous project but one that would have better served all concerned by getting the work seen as widely as possible.

One example of such a collaborative arrangement is the decision of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation to promote the work of self-taught Black artists from the American South — supporting local communities and fostering racial and social justice, and intellectual nourishment — by sharing 350 works by more than 100 artists with 17 institutions around the country, including the Met.

The Guston gift gives the Met something it has never before had, nor needed: a one-artist museum within the museum. How good will this be for the Met, for Guston’s legacy and for the art-viewing public everywhere?

There may be a case to be made that a concentration of Guston’s work at the Met is commensurate with his achievement. Yes, right now and maybe forever, Guston’s accomplishment is outshining Pollock’s.

Pollock’s art may have changed the history of abstract painting, influenced artists of several generations (including Guston) and helped push the art world’s center of gravity from Paris to New York. But Guston opened up the future, at least for American painters. He left abstract expressionism for his own comically self-doubting self-portraits, such as “The Studio,” and politically charged figuration (depictions referring to the Ku Klux Klan and, such as “Floor,” evoking the Holocaust).

The representational work of his last decade disrupted the linear progress of the modernist canon and ignited the freedom of 1980s painting, which is basic to the ongoing resurgence of figuration. It was inspiring to observe one of the leaders of abstract expressionism outgrow it, taking what he needed (mainly, it taught him how to paint) and moving on.

I think a gift this size can be dispiriting, too. After all, the Met is an encyclopedic, or universal (the preferred term lately) museum, arguably the greatest on Earth. Its goal should be to evenly distribute its attention to as many different cultures and peoples of the world, no matter how impossible this task may seem. Notorious for its emphasis on Western painting, the museum has a chance to devote more time, space and curatorial energy to the achievements of long-overlooked nonwhite, nonmale and non-Western artists.

Recently, to its credit, the Met has seemed to lean away from the tried and untrue approach to history. It has put artists from previously excluded groups in the museum’s Great Hall, commissioned sculpture for its niches on Fifth Avenue and mounted the dense, challenging Afrofuturist Period Room. It has also been assiduously acquiring works by excluded artists. Yet, the Guston gift kind of pushes these efforts to the margins.

With a major new wing devoted to modern and contemporary art coming, designed by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo, the museum has a wonderful chance to seek out from its patrons works that will fill some of its more egregious late-20th century gaps.

It currently owns only three paintings by Bob Thompson, a Black painter who looked to old masters and died young, in 1966. It has only two large collages by Romare Bearden and one painting by Beauford Delaney. As for Mitchell, whom the museum itself ranks as “among the most eloquent interpreters” of abstract expressionism, the Met has just two of her paintings.

Imagine the joy if the Met announced the acquisition or even the purchase of 10 to 20 works by any of these artists, among so many others. Now that would truly be cause for celebration.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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