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.” Read More