Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark
Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975
Hauser & Wirth | November 1, 2016 – January 28, 2017
Philip Guston’s 180 Richard Nixon drawings—there are also three paintings in the show—are nasty, scabrous, witty, grossly unfair and one of the juster verdicts handed down on our thirty-seventh president, the only one to resign from office. They are relentless, in part because Guston drew them without let up in two short bouts, possessed, in a fury of anger and joy at what he saw come from his pen. They gouge and hit below the belt yet the closer you look the more subtleties emerge. They are the work of a master artist who knew his man, an exact contemporary, the way a Jew (Guston) knows an anti-Semite (Nixon) and there is nothing like them, not remotely, in American art.
Both men were born in 1913 and grew up in Southern California, Guston in Los Angeles and Nixon in Quaker (yes, he was reared a Quaker; Whittier and both of them found fame and fortune in the East). Guston became a Nixon watcher in the late 1940s when the Alger Hiss case opened for Nixon, a California congressman, the road to fame as an anti-communist. Guston never lost interest in the politician that dominated the American scene like neither of his contemporaries JFK or LBJ. They had the glory of initials; Nixon never escaped the epithet “Tricky Dick.”
In 1971, outraged by the Vietnam War and spurred on by his friend Philip Roth’s satirical novel on the Nixon administration Our Gang, Guston, in a matter of weeks, did most of the 180 drawings in this show. Nixon so engaged his imagination that it ran away with him to China, taking Nixon there before China was a gleam in his and Kissinger’s beady eyes. What resulted from Guston’s furious pursuit is a portrait of Nixon, part biography, part extended riff, part lashing rant, and of Nixon’s core conspirators, Attorney General John Mitchell, Veep Spiro T. Agnew and, the one still around to meet with Donald J. Trump, Henry Kissinger. The Reverend Billy Graham makes numerous marvelous appearances.
The wit in these drawings is in Guston’s giving Nixon a schlong for a nose, the better to fuck America with, and playing endless variations on Dick’s dick. His Agnew has a pyramidal, nebbish-like head out of which sparse hair protrudes. Up close you see that the hair is nails driven into the skull of a man dumb as a post, an insurance policy for Nixon until he got caught accepting “papers”, cash bribes, from Maryland contractors in his Vice President’s office. Kissinger is the simplest, just a pair of heavy horn rimmed glasses, scuttling crablike, all intellect and no soul.
Four of these drawings appeared in Dore Ashton’s 1976 book on Guston, Yes, but…, in company with superb caricatures of his friends Franz Kline, John Cage, Harold Rosenberg, and Willem de Kooning. In 2003 Debra Bicker Balken assembled some eighty of the Nixon drawings under the title Guston had given them, Poor Richard, a nod to Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Her book and a subsequent show at the David McKee Gallery brought the Nixon drawings before the public. Why did it take so long?
Here’s where I come in. During the mid to late 1970s when he taught at Boston University, Guston and I became friends. We discovered that we had Nixon in common; I had begun my Nixonology as a boy watching his “Checkers” speech and kept track of him through his “You’re not going to have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore” speech after he lost the 1962 California gubernatorial race and he looked finished only to arise, like one of the undead, in 1968. Guston and I loved few things better than spiking our late night conversations with Nixon lore.
One evening Guston arrived for dinner with a binder, photocopies of the Nixon drawings. We began to go back and forth about a book, my text to accompany the drawings. Guston became excited at the prospect only to reverse himself, finding reasons why he could not do it. He did not want to be known as a “Nixon hater”, which would have happened had such a book come out so soon after Nixon’s fall and disgrace. Further, he did not want the cartoon aspects of his late work to be emphasized by critics as he felt they would be if the Nixon drawings appeared. Shortly before his death, Philip asked me to return the binder and I did.
Things have worked out for the best. Who could have imagined that President-elect Trump plans to hang a letter Nixon wrote him in 1987 in the oval office. A sentence in that letter reads, “She [Pat Nixon] predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner.” She had seen the young Trump on a television talk show. Now he is ours, think skinned and vengeful as Nixon, an invoker of Nixon’s buddy, his mentor, the viper Roy Cohn. Those of us who know enemies of freedom when we see them have our work cut out for us. Laughter in the Dark lights our way.
WILLIAM CORBETT is a poet who has written books on the painters Philip Guston, Albert York, and Stuart Williams. He directs the small press Pressed Wafer and lives and works in Brooklyn.