Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975
Hauser & Wirth Gallery, New York
1 Nov 2016 – 14 Jan 2017, 22nd Street
By DAVID AMBROSE, DEC. 2016
“So when the 1960’s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”
Philip Guston, as quoted in Tallmer, New York Post, 1977
Arriving at New York’s Penn Station on Thursday, November 10th just two days after the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States I felt palpable sadness. The city was still wet with raw emotion from Tuesday’s outcome. If this election taught us anything it’s that adjusting a red to a blue has never seemed like a more difficult proposition. I was in town to review Philip Guston’s dark, satirical drawings of the rise and fall of Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. The show at Hauser & Wirth presents some 180 works, over 100 that have never been shown in public made by Guston after he had relocated to Woodstock, New York in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War.
Most of these drawings in the exhibition are small in scale and made with black ink on white spiral bound sketchbook or drawing paper in a concentrated, one month frenzy. Guston would occasionally use white paint to remove lines from the composition (more visible now with the yellowing of the paper). The best of these drawings were selected and eventually bound by Guston in book form with the hope of having the group published. The white erasures would not reproduce on the printed page. There are virtually no ink washes in these drawings. Instead, Guston orchestrates a variety of lines made with a bamboo quill to add dark value to the drawings.
While the show is predominantly works on paper, it is buttressed by oil paintings: two large horizontal, bedbound self-portraits (Alone and In Bed II) made after the early Nixon drawings in 1971 and the great bowing full figure portrait of a tearful Nixon – (“I beg your pardon”) - afflicted with phlebitis, from 1975 (San Clemente) that brings the show and his presidency to a close.
The oil on canvas self portraits present Guston wrestling with the painter’s forms that will soon multiply and inhabit his “new alphabet”. Guston had just returned from an eight month sojourn to Italy after a disastrous debut of his radical figurative works at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970. In each, Guston lies motionless in bed, tightly wrapped in a blanket, with only the artist’s head making an appearance from under the covers. The figure of Guston calls to mind Egyptian mummies (with a painted portrait attached) or a newborn in swaddling clothes. On top of each blanketed torso rests a series of objects; some clearly from the Guston canon and others, as yet, defying definition. The objects seem to haunt him like the incubus resting atop the woman’s body in Henry Fuseli’s, “The Nightmare”. The inaction of his body perhaps symbolizes his personal conflict over the shift of his work from abstraction to figuration, a figuration drawn from a pool of crass, pop cartoon imagery that Guston and friend, the writer Philip Roth called, “crapola”. The figures that haunt Guston’s late work are distant relatives to Italian Renaissance and call to mind painters such as Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico and Andrea Mantegna.
The first galleries present a large group of the never exhibited ink drawings. A title page announces “Satirical Drawings” as Nixon’s spirit escapes an open bottle of ink like a genie. In some cases these drawings appear to be studies; the line not nearly as assured or refined or the characters traits not yet fully realized. In other cases they were multiples (outtakes) from the Poor Richard Series, where Guston acts as Nixon’s unauthorized biographer highlighting events from Nixon’s formative years leading up to his historic presidential trip to China in 1972.
In a second gallery, the drawings for “Poor Richard” are presented sequentially. The single file installation allows the drawings to march like a line of cars in a long funeral procession. That funeral procession becomes a reality in the next and final room of the exhibition with the Phlebitis Series where Nixon’s apparent political suicide has him once again wrapped in a blanket and lying in state on the beach in San Clemente, California.
Throughout these drawings, Guston scathingly satirizes Nixon’s facial features as a crude, scatological joke with an elongated phallus shaped nose with bloated, stubbly testicles for cheeks (Tricky Dick). Nixon’s “schnoz” could also be easily interpreted as an elephant’s trunk and therefore a representative of the Republican Party. In yet another drawing of Nixon on a television screen, his nose appears to resemble the nose of the American F-100 Super Sabre jet used by the United States throughout the Vietnam War. Nixon’s nose proves to be a bit of a Swiss Army knife morphing a male sex organ, an eating utensil, an extra appendage, and even a tattooed barrel of a tank.
In one early drawing of an empty room, Nixon’s childhood home in Whittier, California reads like a stage set decked out with a wood burning stove, desk full of books (with Lincoln written across one cover) and a wooden crate to sit upon. Others present events which Guston has populated with some of Nixon’s cronies (cabinet members and advisors). Like a small group of actors in a traveling troupe, each member of the team is drawn in a graphic shorthand: Vice-President Spiro Agnew as a pyramid-shaped nose, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger as a pair of bipedal glasses, Attorney General John Mitchell as a flaccid nose and a pipe or two, Billy Graham as a stone monument or as simply his name and a crucifix. But Nixon alone is this troupes “Olivier” - in blackface, yellowface, as an astronaut, a ventriloquist (with what appears to be his parents as ventriloquists dummies resting on his extended left arm) courting different voting demographics in the run-up to the election. I am surprised that these sets, actors and costumes have not found their way onto the stage. Clearly, William Kentridge’s costume for Shostakovich’s, “The Nose” owes a debt to Guston’s Spiro Agnew.
Guston mocks Nixon at every turn. The young freshman congressman is seen in profile with a five o’clock shadow gazing at the Capitol Building. Nixon mistakenly holds a gun by the barrel, pointing the grip at a floating, shattered symbol of communism, the hammer and sickle. Beginning in 1948, Nixon had gained considerable notoriety as a leading proponent of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Duty and virtue quickly turn to hedonism in another drawing of orgy scene. We see Nixon’s head pop up like a thought bubble, his conscience more a voyeur than a participant. He surveys the scene along with a group of hermaphroditic flatworm penis periscopes; the tangle of bodies like waves on an unsteady ocean.
The ocean and beach prove to be a common backdrop throughout many of these drawings. Nixon is seen vacationing in his “Winter White House” in Key Biscayne, Florida. Whether resting under a palm tree or marching across the sand with his advisors in tow or swimming in the ocean, Nixon’s thoughts remain on his pending “Asian Tour”. In one drawing, an ancient Chinese guardian lion appears in cloud form above Nixon and Kissinger afloat in the ocean. Nixon’s Red China anticommunist stands becoming the thread of irony that weaves its way through many of these drawings.
Yet, as biting and cruel this group of drawings is, I couldn’t help but feel an air of empathy. Guston knows how it feels to be a leader now regarded as a pariah or an outcast. His departure from abstraction, no matter the reason, had been seen by many as treasonous. I couldn’t lose sight of the fact that this group of drawing wasn’t published until well after Guston’s death. The overwhelming majority of these drawings remained hidden (diaristic and therapeutic).
The temptation here is to take the mask off Nixon and apply it directly to Trump, who has stoked the flames of racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia while championing an America first agenda, but both sides of the divide should be wary. The most importance lesson we can take from these drawings is tolerance. Tolerance in a sense that no matter what our divisions, these vibrant lines deserved to be made and allowed to exist, and the tolerance that allowed people to choose not to publish them at the time. Nixon was forced to resign. He suffered greatly. We all suffered greatly. These drawings stand here today as a powerful historical record of that mutual suffering.
And if the current global climate has taught us anything, it’s that that is no easy accomplishment. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.view all articles from this author