Philip Guston’s drawings of Nixon have transcended their subject.
“A lot of work after the election looks very different,” I overheard someone say in Hauser & Wirth as we followed the saga of Poor Richard, Philip Guston’s satirical drawings of Richard Nixon’s rise to power. The show had been installed on November 1 as a last minute idea; on opening night it drew an amused crowd of boomers and millennials, the distance in their experience bridged by the convincing sense of security many of us had that doomed week. When I returned to the show less than a month into the Trump transition, the drawings had turned on us: a joke at the expense of our smugness.
Guston made most of the drawings in August 1971, in Woodstock, egged on by his friend Philip Roth, who had taken Nixon as the subject of his novel Our Gang. Just a month earlier, Nixon, who had built his political career as the wunderkind of the House Un-American Activities Committee, announced he was planning to visit China. Poor Richard and its preparatory sketches ride the arc of this hypocrisy, from Dick’s beginnings in California, where, lonely, poor, and studious, he dreams of the White House, crushing hammers and sickles in his path. He poses for photographs with his arm around the necessary demographics—hippies, blacks, “mom and pop” whites—bearing a grin betrayed by a hungry glare. Guston dresses him in a police uniform, a Ku Klux Klan hood, blackface, and, in the final panels, offensive Orientalist costumes as he sets sail confidently on his ill-fated “journey of peace.”
As Philip Roth wrote, “The wonder of Nixon (and contemporary America) is that a man so transparently fraudulent, if not on the edge of mental disorder, could ever have won the confidence and approval of a people who generally require at least a little something of the ‘human touch’ in their leaders.” But Poor Richard has, in the years since Guston drew it, transcended Nixon himself, becoming a recurring character in American politics. It wasn’t until 2001 that Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, allowed the drawings to be published and exhibited for the first time. On that occasion, Tricky Dick and his follies were warning against that year’s dangerous Republican president, George W. Bush.
Guston’s career, more than any other artist in the modern period, took dramatic turns. He was a WPA muralist in the thirties; by 1962, he was treated to a midcareer Guggenheim retrospective as a member of the New York School; later, when he broke with abstraction, he was “excommunicated” (his word) by the art establishment. Today, he’s been canonized for his bravery as a freethinker with a moral compass. His work is often shown as a kind of before-and-after story, and this is the second time this year Hauser & Wirth has mounted unseen works from the period in-between.
Poor Richard came soon after Guston’s return to the figure. Of this time he said, “I am left only with a sense of my perversity. Yet I must trust this perversity.” It was perhaps the “perversity” of these drawings that made him wary of publishing them—Guston was already suffering disrepute for the crudeness he was beginning to explore in his art, and, having drawn Nixon only months before his landslide reelection, Guston risked being seen as just “another Nixon hater.” As he approached realism, he had to make boundaries for when to turn away from the world.
Poor Richard’s closest predecessor may be Pablo Picasso’s The Dream and Lie of Franco, in which the title is needed to identify the tumorous, hairy monster on its path of carnage. In that sense, the greatest feat of Poor Richard is how recognizable Nixon actually is, though his jowls, perpetually in need of a shave, double perfectly as a scrotum, his long nose an erect penis which grows Pinocchio-like in correlation with his ego.
As much as his career zigged and zagged, Guston always worked in opposition to something. The impetus for his early work was a John Reed Club appeal to “abandon decisively the treacherous illusion that art can exist for art’s sake.” In 1932 he made the Scottsboro Boys frescos, introduced towering Ku Klux Klan figures, their hollow eyes full of malice. Later, when he painted abstractly, it was always against the “known image,” as he called it. Once he returned to figuration, he labored under a sort of scrutiny that the Pop artists avoided. Their slick, media-derived imagery was an appealing comment on commerce; his goal was to develop an iconography already half-ruined by iconoclasm. Guston infects his objects with tragicomic suffering. Bugs, shoes, bodiless heads, KKK fools, hands and the cigarette caught between their fingers—all were, as he put it, “doomed.” Poor Richard fits into this late work because of its humor, more complex and insidious than the earnestness of his early murals. Guston understood that when you laugh in an art context, you are laughing alone; you are laughing at yourself. The moral question at the heart of his late work is complicity.
That the self-pitying Richard Nixon reminds us of chest-pounding Donald Trump is a matter of genealogy. Nixon was the first to use dog-whistle politics to embolden the Southern Strategy, appealing to white voters resentful of civil rights legislation. In one sequence, Nixon and Spiro Agnew take turns peeking beneath each other’s patchworked Klan hoods, only to find there is no head within. Today, Trump retweets white suprematists. These are politicians who endorse everything but advocate nothing. Their masks are sheet thin.
Poor Richard captures the paranoia and plotting of the Nixon White House tapes, the desperate need for affirmation from his cronies, whom he gathered close by way of insult, blame, and deceit. But we must remember these drawings were made two years before the Watergate hearings, when the taping system was discovered. In 1971 Guston was working from the public record, which didn’t contain the overt racism, homophobia, sexism or anti-Semitism of the tapes, but was just as dangerous. He saw Nixon stack the Supreme Court with three law-and-order judges, he saw him brutalize the 1971 May Day protesters, he had read the Pentagon Papers in The New York Times, outlining the government’s lies and hidden atrocities of the Vietnam War.
After Watergate, Poor Richard looked very different; after 9/11, it looked different again; today it’s different still. In these drawings as in his career at large, Guston owes much of his success to the power of hindsight. Poor Richard isn’t an op-ed writer’s hot take or an activist’s solution. It trusts that feeling is the realm of artists, and such a realm is often prescient. In a 1982 documentary, Guston says, “The first thing in art is the only possession is freedom … that sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it’s rough.” He goes on,
The most you can do is try. And I don’t think it’s courage and all those nice words. In fact, one could make a list of all the negative things [that compel me to] continue painting, and [it] would include things like boredom, disgust, all the things you’re not supposed to think about. It’s not inspiration … but anger.
The show ends with San Clemente (1975), the only major painting by Guston that explicitly treats his long-tortured subject. Dick drags a swollen leg dripping in bandages. His nose hangs flaccid and swollen, and under a crimped Neanderthal’s brow the bloodshot eyes release one thick tear. Most brilliant is the combination of the painting’s sources: recent news that Nixon was suffering from phlebitis, inflammation of the vein in his foot, and an infamous 1971 photograph of Nixon strolling on the beach, in a stiff dark suit and wingtip shoes, the antithesis of Kennedy glamour. In Guston’s hand the massive leg becomes divine retribution for the weight of his deeds, the jacket ratty, pierced by an imaginative addition: an American flag pin.
All images © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 is at Hauser & Wirth through January 14, 2017.
Sarah Cowan is a freelance writer and a video editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She lives in Brooklyn.