Tate Modern in a terrible tangle

Tate Modern gets itself in a terrible tangle over a cancelled show

On Art

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


What is happening at Tate Modern? As a result of positioning itself as the official face of avant-garde art in this country, and explicitly setting out to expand its reach beyond the old male and western boundaries, it finds itself having to deal with cultural issues that have little to do with art itself. And it is getting itself in a terrible tangle.

The latest misstep concerns the American painter Philip Guston (1913-1980). In the 1960s Guston began to paint expressive, near cartoonish paintings — often in bubble-gum pink — full of grotesqueries, in which he took aim at modern America, from Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Klan to the mundanity of everyday life.

The inadvertent racial aspect here folds into another bit of Tate muddle

Tate Modern was one of four galleries (alongside the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) that organised a major touring retrospective of his work to commence this autumn.

Go to Tate’s website, however, and you will be directed to a statement in which the institutions’ directors exclaim they “have jointly made the decision to delay our successive presentations of ‘Philip Guston Now’”. They are waiting, they say, until a time when “Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted”.

This is baffling in itself but the reason for this push-back until 2024 is even more so: Guston’s Klan paintings. The KKK was a regular theme and hooded figures feature in 25 pictures that were to be included in the exhibition.

Guston himself though was no white supremacist: indeed he was Jewish, left-wing, the painter of a mural supporting the “Scottsboro Boys Trial” defendants (nine black teenagers who had been falsely accused of a rape in 1931 and sentenced to death), and an artist whose Klan pictures comment on everyday racism in America.

Nevertheless, in a fit of exquisite sensibility, the galleries decided the KKK images might, could, would cause offence. So, although no one had complained about them and although the quartet acknowledge that Guston’s “message of social and racial justice” is “powerful” they postponed the exhibition. His message is too powerful for today, obviously.

The directors go on to compound this illogicality by stating that while they remain “committed” to Guston and his work, they “have a responsibility to meet the very real urgencies of the moment” (since when? says who?) which means they must “step back, and bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public”. This last conveniently ignores the fact that several black artists contributed to the exhibition catalogue, which, bizarrely, remains on sale. The phrasing of the statement is mealy-mouthed: Tate and the others simply bottled it in the face of a non-existent foe.

The decision prompted an outraged open letter signed by more than 2,000 artists and complaints from the artist’s daughter and, bravely, the Tate’s own curator in charge of the exhibition, Mark Godfrey, who wrote that the postponement is “actually extremely patronising to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works”.

It is entirely probable that the American galleries took the lead on the decision but Tate’s acquiescence comes without caveats, and the signature of Frances Morris, Tate Modern’s director, sits in solidarity alongside the other three, signing off a ridiculous act of self-censorship.

This cravenness comes at a bad time for the gallery. Earlier this summer Tate issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter: “We have a platform, a voice, and a duty to our black members, employees, artists, visitors and followers to speak up and stand for human rights and anti-racism.”

Shortly afterwards it announced hefty Covid-induced job cuts at Tate Enterprises — the galleries’ commercial arm responsible for its shops, catering and publishing roles — which will disproportionately hit its BAME staff. More than 300 staff out of 640 will go.

The inadvertent racial aspect here folds into another bit of Tate muddle. In 2008, the art dealer Anthony d’Offay donated his collection of some 1,600 works valued at more than £125 million jointly to Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. They were used to start the Artist Rooms initiative, an educative touring programme that takes selections of the works to galleries around the country where they have been seen by some 50 million visitors.

In 2018, however, three women who had worked with d’Offay accused him of historical acts of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour. D’Offay has vehemently denied the claims and a police investigation is still ongoing. Tate quickly severed its ties with him but a year later quietly resumed the association, a rapprochement that was widely criticised.

This volte-face was followed by another this past September when Tate cut its links with d’Offay once again. The cause of the hokey-cokey this time was a 2017 selfie in which d’Offay posed with a golliwog in front of a mirror. “We do not condone racist imagery, abuse or discrimination,” said the gallery. “Tate and Anthony d’Offay have agreed to end their relationship. This involves the return of works on loan . . .and the removal of public signage at Tate.”

All this maladroitness may stem from good intentions but it raises the question of whether Tate believes in its own actions or is simply scared of criticism. And while it slips from mess to mess other galleries have kept their feet dry by remembering that their first and primary purpose is to display art.

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