Philip Guston, “Alone” (1971), oil on canvas, 52 x 93 1/2 inches (all photos by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)

I don’t know if laughter is the best medicine: sometimes it is the only medicine. That’s one thought I had while walking around the exhibition Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 at Hauser & Wirth (November 1, 2016 – January 14, 2017), which has nearly 180 works. There are three paintings — one of which has never been shown before — and the rest are done in pen and pencil on paper. Co-curated by Sally Radic of The Guston Foundation, and Musa Mayer, the daughter of the artist, this is the first time the entire group of “Nixon” drawings and paintings have been presented to the public.

Guston was obsessed and outraged by the actions of the Nixon presidency, as was his friend and Woodstock neighbor, Philip Roth, who had just published his novel, Our Gang (1971), with its central character “Trick E. Dixon.” It is worth remembering that Our Gang was published right after Roth’s controversial Portnoy’s Complaint, which had turned him into a celebrity. Portnoy’s Complaint is an explicit, detail-packed monologue of a guilt-ridden, sex-obsessed young Jewish bachelor confessing to his psychoanalyst, while Our Gang is written entirely in dialogue. It’s a closet drama driven by Nixon’s position on abortion:

From personal and religious beliefs I consider abortions an unacceptable form of population control. Furthermore, unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on-demand, I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life — including the life of the yet unborn.

Philip Guston, “Untitled” (1975), ink on paper, 19 x 23 x 1/2 inches (top) and “Untitled” (1975), ink on paper, 19 x 24 inches (bottom)

What is it about “personal and religious beliefs” that seems so phony and self-righteous? Isn’t this claim really just a way to be hateful in the name of God? Initially, Roth’s novel and friendship inspired Guston to make these drawings and, no doubt, share them with his neighbor, but then the whole thing took on a life of its own. Both men shared a bitter humor. What they also shared — and this is rather important to remember — is that they weren’t afraid to be tasteless.

Guston did the first group of drawings in 1971, shortly after coming back from Rome, where he had gone after critics savagely dismissed his landmark 1970 exhibition at Marlborough Gallery, with Hilton Kramer leading the charge. The one exception was Harold Rosenberg, who got what Guston was up to. In his review, “Liberation from Detachment,” which was published in The New Yorker, Rosenberg wrote: “Guston is the first to have risked a fully developed career on the possibility of engaging his art in the political reality.” Rosenberg went on to write:

Drawing like a child is a recently acquired talent for Guston, and his new crudeness has an important expressive function; it enables him to give a simple account of the simple-mindedness of the violence. His metropolis is patrolled along its borders by “characters” who are triangles or pyramids (with pairs of parallel strokes for eyes) and who, by this association with peaked hoods, become members of the Ku Klux Klan […].

Guston appreciated Rosenberg’s support and dedicated a painting to him.

In Guston’s time, the hooded figures were “characters,” people who were afraid to reveal themselves. Today we have smug bullies, such as Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, and Milo Yiannopoulos, and sanctioned hate is on the rise. How this hatred will be institutionalized and openly approved of, conveniently overlooked, or carefully swept under the rug – as it surely will be — remains to be seen, but that certainly seems to be the push these days, from the return of waterboarding to the revival of “Stop and Frisk.” The best way to make America great again is introduce a wave of terror, and I suspect the new administration will try and be very good at it. Guston’s sarcastic unruliness might prove inspirational.

One likely reason that Guston didn’t show these drawings during his lifetime was because he was worried that he would be seen as a caricaturist and not an artist. Perhaps he thought that the drawings would only provide more fuel for those who had dismissed him. Luckily, I don’t think artists currently worry about such things, and that is a good thing. To be taken seriously — as certain postmodern artists are — more likely than not means that you have accommodated your work to the discourse of seriousness and are happy to be paid for being a parasite.

Walking around the Guston show, tornadoes of thoughts touched down and lifted me off. I remember how pathetic Nixon was and that people elected him and that the nation survived. I used to wonder if I would ever get to vote for someone who wasn’t assassinated or who lost by a landslide. I hadn’t thought about what other betrayals awaited.

Philip Guston, “Untitled” (1971), ink on paper, 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 inches

This is what Hunter S. Thompson wrote about Nixon:

It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise. Our Barbie-doll president, with his Barbie-doll wife and his boxful of Barbie-doll children is also America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts on nights when the moon comes too close…

Guston’s Nixon has a penis for a nose. He sticks it into at least one butt to get a good whiff. His famously drooping jowls are large hairy balls. He’s the president and he’s gross and comical – a small-minded, lowlife jerk. He hangs out at his compound at Key Biscayne, Florida, which became known as the Florida White House. Guston draws Nixon playing golf with his crony “Bebe” Rebozo, identified by the FBI as a “non-member associate of organized crime figures.” Bespectacled Howard Kissinger shows up. He didn’t need to hang out with the Mafia to commit crimes.

Nixon goes to China, where it is clear that he doesn’t understand anything. He’s a befuddled idiot, and that’s about as good as it’s going to get. Remember Nixon had an even dumber and more inarticulate fool for Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who famously characterized the news media in no uncertain terms:

In the United States today, we have more than our share of nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club — the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

Philip Guston, “In Bed II” (1971), oil on canvas, 41 3/4 x 80 1/2 inches

The two paintings you see when you get off the elevator, “Alone” and “In Bed II” (both 1971) came after the first group of drawings: a young Nixon is lying in bed in Whittier, California. In a related drawing, a train can be seen through the window, chugging by. America doesn’t know what it is in for. Nixon’s nose resembles a dowel: he is Pinocchio. He will grow up to be a suspicious, paranoid, parsimonious liar. There is no fox or cat to rescue America from him.

I wasn’t sure if I laughed or gnashed my teeth. I know that I felt good that I was looking at the work and that Nixon was dead. I won’t lie about that.

Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 continues at Hauser & Wirth (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 14, 2017.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...