Philip Guston at Hauser & Wirth (Spike Art Quarterly, #50, 2017)

Untitled, 1971
Ink on paper
27.6 x 35.2 cm / 10 7/8 x 13 7/8 in
© The Estate of Philip Guston
Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston “Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975”

In case anyone should suspect too much novelty in the current state of US politics, Philip Guston’s drawings in response to the presidency of Richard Nixon prove that while the present rot may be freshly negative in character, the sense of revulsion is nothing new. While many other exhibitions that opened close to the election pursued their usual brand of introverted conceptualism, Hauser & Wirth realised that there was no time like the present to show this group of works in full for the first time, and rushed the show up a week before Trump’s acceptance speech.

Now, as then, it is unusual to find a fine artist, less still a famous one, producing works of fervent political satire. With expectations that the art world would engage with any politics other than its own at an enduring low, one feels grateful for the wealth of expression on show here – and wishes, perhaps, that someone would match it to portray the incoming US President. The Nixon drawings Guston made in 1971 and 1975 were a reaction on two fronts: to America’s leadership, and to attitudes within the art circle that slammed the turn to cartoonish figuration by this revered exponent of Abstract Expressionism in Guston’s solo exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in 1970. Signaling the reign of lumpen tribes of staring heads and pudgy post-classical objects in place of the high, optimistic abstraction of previous years, the show was widely seen as a betrayal of both his artistic abilities and the institution of AbEx.

Holed up with the writer Philip Roth in Woodstock after eight months in Italy (to escape the Marlborough backlash), feeling spat out by the New York scene and disillusioned with abstraction’s phony purity amid the troubled sociopolitical climate of the 1960s, Guston started drawing Nixon. His depiction of the president’s face with a penis for a nose flanked by the bristly scrotum of his cheeks is nothing short of sardonic genius; that the penis grows longer, Pinocchio-like, as time and Nixon’s lies went on is cleverer still.  On show here are some 180 drawings which include Guston’s selection from the “Poor Richard” series (published as a book in 1980) and later works viciously caricaturing his affliction with phlebitis. Two large paintings hung at the start of the exhibition, In Bed II and Alone (both finished in 1971 after the first batch of Nixon cartoons) add existential and painterly mass to the numerous drawings. In them, a characteristic late-Guston figure is seen lying in bed, facing up at the ceiling or down into the pillow, openeyed and block-nosed, anxious.

Among the numerous ink drawings that follow in this historic display, Guston’s aptitude and sentiment are striking. The force of repetition and the simultaneous development of a visual character clearly communicate the passion the artist was able to channel into his subject. There is Nixon recumbent, Nixon by the sea, Nixon ingratiating himself with a blank-looking old couple and a head-banded hippie, Nixon on TV. In some of the best sketches, the president’s full figure is drafted inside the jaws of a gleeful, stylised dragon head (following the news of his plans to visit China), or communes with the swollen triangle-being of Vice President Spiro Agnew and disembodied square spectacles representing Henry Kissinger. The penis-nose doubles up sometimes as a rifle or tank-gun, rests its heavy end on a scroll marked with imagined Chinese script or presses up against a wall.

As in all excellent satire, dismay and energy infuse these drawings in equal measure. During an interview at his studio from a later time, Guston remarks, “What I’m always seeking is some great simplicity where the whole thing is just there and can’t be this and that, and that and that.” Although their backstory is more complicated, the lucid, snorting economy of these cartoons is a brilliant overture to that simplicity, saluting an altogether different type of creative purity.

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