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There’s the president aiming a gun at the US Capitol building. There’s the president making a fool of himself — and, by extension, all of us — during a state visit to China. There’s the president as a giant misshapen cookie, as an oblivious astronaut, with a cat using his face as a scratching post. There’s the president’s vile visage turned into a gaudy, Mount Rushmore–meets–the pyramids of Giza monument. These could be political cartoons from November 12, 2017, mocking the misdeeds of the first 11 months in office of the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, but they are in fact from 1971, part of a vast body of work that Philip Guston made about our 37th president, Richard Nixon.
“The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world,” Guston told the New York Post in 1977. “What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?” That quotation, which is included in the wall text of Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975, gets at why this show seems so apt: just replace “magazines” with “Twitter,” and it’s 2016. At a moment when the sadness, fear, and disbelief at the outcome of Tuesday’s election are turning into resolve, galvanization, and mobilization, Guston’s incredible 170-something works here offer a case study in simultaneously overcoming a political and a creative block.
The exhibition marks the first time Guston’s entire body of work about Nixon has been shown together: a huge set of black-and-white drawings in pencil and ink from 1971, including a series of 73 that were intended for a planned book, Poor Richard (finally published in 2003), and seven works from 1975 depicting the then-former president suffering from phlebitis, which he developed while still under subpoena for three former aides’ trials. The 1971 drawings came at a crucial time in Guston’s career, when he was still reeling from the critical establishment blasting his turn to representational work the year before. “He is one of those painters fated to serve a taste instead of creating one, and his latest turn suggests that his sense of timing — so important for artists who are always running races with the Zeitgeist — is not what it used to be,” Hilton Kramer wrote in a savage New York Times review of Guston’s 1970 show at Marlborough Gallery. “The taste his new paintings are designed to serve may already have run its course.”
Guston got the last laugh, and the taste he created is evident everywhere in this show. Combining a cartoonist’s sense of narrative, a caricaturist’s knack for stylized visual puns and symbolic shorthand, and a painter’s ability to refine a distinctive formal lexicon of shapes and subjects, the Nixon drawings offer a masterclass in political satire.
Guston typically portrays the president as just a long, straight nose projecting from between his jowly cheeks awash in five-o’clock shadow, an unsubtly phallic distortion (he was, after all, nicknamed “Tricky Dick”). Sometimes he has a thick unibrow. His tiny eyes alternately suggest suspicion, guilt, and cluelessness. His mouth, depending on the drawing, is either a crack between the butt cheeks that form his face or, in the more phallic images, a tumorous lump on the giant testicles of his cheeks. (I was regularly reminded of a favorite South Park episode while visiting this exhibition.) Grouped thematically and, in the case of the Poor Richard drawings, chronologically into a derisory biography, the drawings give a mocking account of famous episodes from Nixon’s life and presidency, as well as fanciful extrapolations like the president’s face as a kind of exploding, practically Cubist riff on Chinese temple architecture fused with battleship machinery. Guston turns grotesque in the seven works from 1975, which portray Nixon’s enflamed leg as a monstrous manifestation of his rottenness that he drags behind himself on a purgatorial beach.
The Guston exhibition seems especially apt as we prepare to live under a commander in chief who has been through more scandals in the last year than Nixon did during his entire, disastrous presidency; one who is vocal about and proud of the types of racist beliefs that Nixon only copped to after leaked recordings were released. To what kinds of satiric art will the Trump era give rise? What new tastes will artists invent from the extreme distaste Trump inspires? A concurrent exhibition at Joshua Liner Gallery, appropriately titled Why I Want to Fuck Donald Trump, offers some hints. The work in it was all created during Trump’s campaign, so its tone is more cautionary than Guston’s sustained assault on a buffoonish presidency, but in such works as Aaron Johnson’s raucous “The Burial of Liberty” (2016) or William Powhida’s “Study for Some Names for Drumpf” (2016), we see a similar spirit of satire and critique at play. Powhida’s work in particular, with its laundry list of insults and palette of mocking portraits, suggests an artist preparing for a protracted conflict with an ascendant tyrant. Like Guston’s epic visual poem to Nixon’s failures, such works offer a lexicon of words, symbols, characters, and caricatures that may help artists — and all of us — make the most of the next four years.
Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 continues at Hauser & Wirth (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 14, 2017.
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