In Philip Guston’s pictures we see a panorama of scabrousness, of clogged desire, a cloaca of thwarted vigour, a pestilent ague. This is – perhaps surprisingly – a balsam to the nerves and over-active mind.
Did Guston mean to depict Richard Nixon, his subject at Hauser & Wirth in London (until July 29), like this? Perhaps he was drawing from his own state of mind. Guston and Nixon seemed to have various similarities. They were both born in 1913 and grew up in relatively hardscrabble backgrounds in southern California. Both also loathed their critics in the print media (Nixon loved TV). They also went through the biggest change in their lives in 1968: Nixon with his presidential campaign (he assumed office in 1969) and Guston with his abandonment of the Abstract Expressionism of De Kooning and Motherwell and his journey into the style he is known and celebrated for today.
Guston’s Neo-Expressionist, semi-figurative, highly humorous, candy coloured cartoons have a power to display the bog-ugly id, the under-evolved subconscious hiding in the scrub. “I don’t think about beauty, anyway, I don’t know what the word is,” he would say. “But no, I don’t plan the crudeness.”
The New York School, as Guston preferred to call Abstract Expressionism, emerged from a 1930s West Coast school that had looked to Cubism and eschewed the formal “beauty” of the concurrent, parochial Regionalist movement. Guston came from the former side.
Guston had his annus horribilis in 1970, when an exhibition of his new, Neo-Expressionist stuff at Marlborough Gallery in New York, was panned by critics. He was called “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum” by one – in an echo of his new vernacular style. He retreated to Woodstock to lick his wounds, accompanied by the novelist Philip Roth.
Guston, an avid magazine reader, devoured everything about his hated Nixon, reviling what he perceived as false modesty, self-pity, base deviousness and an ability to remorselessly scrape himself out of a jam. Roth, a fellow Nixon-hater, would share dinners with Guston, which would be fuel to two fires – Roth’s novel Our Gang and this, Guston’s series of drawings, completed mostly in July and August 1971.
We see Nixon, his slab-like jowls and notch-ended nose depicted as genitalia, with his vice-president Spiro Agnew presented as a conehead figure similar to Guston’s memorable Ku Klux Klan pictures. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State, is seen just as a pair of glasses. John Mitchell, Attorney General, smokes his pipe.
We see Nixon at Duke University, dreaming of his future, with acid depictions of a servile Nixon chasing the votes of hippies, black Americans and middle America. He points a gun at ceramic hammer and sickles in Washington, harking back to his days on the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he helped to secure the conviction of communist Alger Hiss.
Nixon’s planned visit to the People’s Republic of China is featured heavily, and another drawing references his victory in the moon race with Apollo 11 in 1969, showing him in a space suit, attempting to seduce the Man in the Moon.
Guston was a fan of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and said of his switch to cartoonish painting: “I had metamorphosed again, perhaps from something in flight, to some kind of grub.” Guston liked that this switch took him back to his childhood. He used to enjoy painting cartoons in a little closet in his home in Los Angeles, with a small bulb glowing above him. The light bulb would be a frequent motif in his work. His father committed suicide at home in 1923, when Guston was 10. Perhaps with his cartoons he was looking back to a life before the Fall.
Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 takes its inspiration from the rise of Donald Trump. It is easy to draw parallels between Nixon and Trump, in terms of public perception. While Nixon was less thin-skinned, Trump has never ceased to lambast the media that hates him.
One of the only paintings in the exhibition hangs in the central chamber of the Savile Row gallery, entitled San Clemente. Nixon had, by then, been diagnosed with phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins in the leg. Nixon’s supposed self-pity is accumulated in the tear lolling over his unshaven cheek, under a red, sweat-slaked brow. Magma-like pus erupts from sores on his swollen leg.
The depiction is pitiless, the leg represents … I’d say it represents the side of us we’ve chosen to ignore, the ravine in our psyche where our care never chose to dally. I’d say this art is personal, not overly political. Guston said: “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?” But perhaps he was “sitting at home, going into frustrated fury” because of the art world’s rejection of his Neo-Expressionism, rather than the chicaneries of Nixon. Here, Guston’s “inner me” elided itself with his pen-and-ink depictions of his enemy, Richard Nixon.
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