More than 200 works by Philip Guston — the celebrated artist whose paintings featuring Klan imagery recently created a firestorm — are coming to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the personal collection of the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer. It will make the museum the largest repository of works by the American painter.
“I’m about to turn 80 years old,” Mayer said in a telephone interview. “I started thinking about what was going to happen after my lifetime — and after my husband’s lifetime — to these important works.”
Mayer had considered leaving them to the Guston Foundation, which she established in 2013 to share the artist’s work and further his legacy, but she worried that the paintings would not necessarily be kept together or exhibited on a regular basis.
Then last year she saw that the Met had received a lead donation of $125 million for its planned Modern and contemporary wing, “and thought that perhaps they were looking to acquire more work from the mid-20th century, since I knew that was an area that could be stronger,” she said.
Plus, Mayer had worked closely with the Met’s director, Max Hollein, in 2013, when he was director of the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, which presented a show of Guston’s late work.
“I thought, ‘Why not start at the top?’” Mayer said. “‘Why not start at a world museum that my father had loved all his life, and that I have loved all my life, and just ask if this is something that they would be interested in?’”
Now Mayer has promised to the Met 96 paintings and 124 drawings, spanning Guston’s career from a mural style to Abstract Expressionism to political satire between 1930 and his death in 1980.
Mayer and her husband, Thomas, are also giving the Met $10 million to establish the Philip Guston Endowment Fund to support the collection’s initiatives and to advance Guston scholarship.
“We see Guston as one of the important artistic figures of the 20th century — the Met has already collected Guston in a significant way,” Hollein said. “If you look at works by Martin Kippenberger and artists like Nicole Eisenman — there is a whole cosmos around Guston’s abstract and figurative phases, but also around him as an artist.”
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Under the terms of the gift, the Met has agreed to always keep about a dozen of the works on view in its new Modern and contemporary wing. “Significant parts of it will be on display almost all the time for the next half-century at least,” Mayer said.
“Because my father cared so much about the history of art going back to the Renaissance — and even before that — that he should be in the Met seemed entirely appropriate,” she added.
Museums are typically loath to take gifts that come with conditions, finding them curatorially confining and optically problematic — suggesting that donors can dictate the terms of artistic decisions. (The Fisher Collection gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2010, for example, stipulated that the collection comprise 75 percent of the works on display in the galleries, drawing some criticism.)
Hollein said the painter was worth this serious commitment. “It’s the very best of Philip Guston that there is, so we should not take this if we would not be interested in showing Philip Guston in our galleries in a certain way,” he said, adding that the Met will only have the capacity to show a limited number of works at a time.
“We will now forever be the main, not only custodian of Philip Guston’s work,” Hollein continued, “but also the main research center.”
Told about the Guston donation, Philippe de Montebello, the longtime director of the Met, called it “a great gift,” as long as “the numbers and space required to show the works do not create a serious imbalance in the presentation of postwar art.”
Mayer’s collection covers Guston’s entire career, including such important works as “Mother and Child” (circa 1930), “The Three” (1964), “Pittore” (1973) and “Flame” (1979). (Some work will remain available for sale through Guston’s gallery, Hauser & Wirth.)
The group coming to the Met includes “The Studio” (1969) — in which a hooded figure at an easel paints a self-portrait — currently featured in the touring exhibition that became the talk of the art world over concerns about Guston’s Klan imagery.
The four museums that organized the show (the National Gallery, Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) initially postponed the exhibition in response to an outcry, ultimately taking more time to better contextualize it.
Having initially experienced “shock at the postponement,” Mayer said, she “came to understand that this was a broader institutional issue on the part of the museums and they need to respond to the anticipated reactions of their public.”
She still believes, however, that the exhibition as it was initially designed “would have been able to show the hooded figures in a way that made it very clear how antiracist my father’s work has always been.”
Hollein said he saw no reason to shy away from Guston’s work. “I don’t see the works as a problem,” he said. “You want to make sure that we are able to widen the discourse.”
The museum first purchased a Guston in 1950 and then again in 1973 and 1983. It was also given a work in 1972. Over the years, the museum has acquired 12 additional paintings, drawings and prints through gifts — including two previous bequests from Mayer.
Guston was featured in the Met’s 1970 exhibition “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” organized by Henry Geldzahler, who also curated the 1973 exhibition “Philip Guston Drawings 1938-1972.” In 2003, the museum presented Guston’s traveling retrospective, organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas.
A show featuring some of the Mayer works will be on view starting May 27, 2023. Organized by Kelly Baum, the Met’s curator of contemporary art, the exhibition will focus on Guston’s “philosophical approach to the nature of artistic identity and the aesthetic possibilities of painting,” the Met said in its news release.
Though trained as a mental health counselor, and having served as an advocate for patients with metastatic breast cancer, Mayer has largely devoted herself to tending her father’s legacy. As an M.F.A. writing student at Columbia University, Mayer published her first book, “Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston,” in 1988. She has organized exhibitions and written books and catalogs on Guston.
“He was taken to task by most of the critics for having abandoned abstraction,” Mayer said, adding that “it took the better part of a decade” — and possibly the critic Roberta Smith’s 1978 article in Art in America — for public perception to shift.
“Fortunately my father lived long enough to see the tide turning,” Mayer said. “But it was a lot of lonely years.”