“To paint, to write, to teach in the most dedicated and sincere way is the most intimate affirmation of creative life we possess in these despairing years.” — Philip Guston
In the midst of a darkness we can barely comprehend, in Nazi occupied Paris, the summer of 1944, Pablo Picasso paints a still life with a tomato plant. The stench of death is in his nostrils; his friends becoming victims of the horror—Max Jacob had died that March in a concentration camp, Robert Desnos was sent to a camp in Germany where he would die soon after liberation. The allies had just invaded Normandy, and the possibility of liberation was becoming a probability. Was this still life (a celebration of domesticity) a product of hope, now possible again, or a prayer for a return to dull normalcy? “May you live in interesting times,” says the Chinese curse.
At that time Picasso was still painting dark subjects, The Charnel House, still lifes with skulls, but also domestic scenes, like a child’s first steps. He had proven his chops at dealing with the rise of Fascism with his bulls, Minotaur, and of course with the Guernica mural. I had just revisited Guernica last year, after not seeing it since I was a teenager. Standing in front of it, I felt strangely unmoved. My thoughts about this famous work is not opinion, analytic art critique, it is just my honest assessment of how I actually felt in the presence of this piece. It was not that I was too familiar with the work, via reproduction; I know Picasso’s Vollard suite just as well and they rarely fail to move me. The imagery that would be distilled in the mural was worked through in numerous etchings, ink drawings and gouaches; a variety of narrative and symbolic combinations tried out. These intimate pieces seem to constitute a far richer body of work than the famous mural—a staged parade on a grand scale. The many depictions of the Minotaur, seducing, dying, blinded, remain profound and mysterious, the beast we fear in ourselves and in others. The screaming women of Guernica are masks worn by mute actors, representing fear, but do they make us feel it?
Our reactions to an artwork, though dependent on subjective conditions, even temporary moods, are an objective fact; if we are moved, we are indeed moved. Theodor Adorno observed that in the aesthetic realm, culture gets this entirely backward, and believes that objectivity, a reality beyond controversy, can only be established by impassioned, reasoned analysis. Yet the analyst is a person, with loves, hates, and all manner of biases, many too subtle to detect. That is why art, in its tangled embrace of the subjective, can often tell truths that elude the journalist, philosopher or historian.
The current socio-political crisis, global in scale, has caused much reflection in art communities. Everyone is affected, artists are not unique in that regard, but art does function at the intersection of the individual and culture. Mathematicians may be disturbed, yet it is doubtful that there can be a mathematical response to political questions. Yet artists have, in the past, created brilliant works, out of this confrontation with world events. Even works that get dismissed as escapism, fantasy, or retreat from reality, may offer a necessary counterweight, of beauty and freedom of spirit, to the realities of brutality and destruction.
We are entering an era defined by ugliness, ugly appearances representing ugly thoughts. From an aesthetic perspective, one evident characteristic of our new leader is just how ugly he is, as if his personality chose that face and demeanor to represent his overwhelmingly brutal spirit. His semi-conscious attempts at grooming only enhance the effect—the comb-over, baseball caps, ill-fitting suits and poorly knotted ties. From the deformed hump of Richard III to the insipid smile of Carlos IV, artists have turned the ugly, physical and spiritual ugliness, into artworks, a thing of enduring beauty. How this is achieved, is one of arts many mysteries, one that requires a severe honesty on the part of the artist to express what they truly think and feel rather than engage in didactic platitudes, or express what they think they ought to be feeling.
In order to navigate through the fog of the present, we commonly examine the past for parallels. Common character traits develop into archetypes. Where have we seen the spoiled and deranged son of privilege rise to power and rule as a demagogue and tyrant? For one, the Roman emperor Commodus, son of emperor Marcus Aurelius, seems to be the prototype of our current leader. He fancied himself a gladiator, dressed as Hercules with lion skin and club, and entered the arena to fight professional gladiators to the death. Not surprisingly, he never lost, at least not until he was assassinated.
But in our own recent history, one name has come up quite a bit; Richard Nixon, and, surprisingly or not, the comparisons are favorable to Nixon. Like so many tragedies conforming to this archetype, the hubris, ambition and overreach of this personality plant the seeds of their eventual downfall. But who has the time or patience to watch this whole story unfold in real time? It is the uncertainty that really eats at us, and we wonder and worry if this time the story might end differently. Will the tyrant be among the corpses when the final curtain comes down, or will he be the last man standing?
It was in 1971, in a similar state of agitation, that Philip Guston produced his masterful drawings about the rise of Richard Nixon, a series he called Poor Richard. At the height of Nixon’s power and paranoia, those who saw him clearly could not be confident that his crimes and ethical transgressions, some yet unknown, some hiding in plain sight, would catch up with him. What if he got away with it all, or worse, what if the attempt to erode rule of law, checks and balances, were made permanent, became a feature of the system that would prove impossible to reverse? Isn’t that the fear, which we have today, one that overrides all others?
In 1975 Guston did another set of Nixon drawings. The drama had played out according to the archetype; the tyrant destroyed by his own sinister ambitions. Guston depicts him in exile on the beach of his compound in San Clemente, brooding like Napoleon in Elba. He carries around a gigantic leg, afflicted with phlebitis, a fact Guston gleans from the newspaper. The giant leg, hairy, bandaged, with bulging veins, is bestial; the animal leg weighs down the crafty Machiavellian mind that served Nixon’s rise and fall. That mind, in all of Guston’s drawings, hides behind a Nixon mask, not his actual face. Those exaggerations, so well known to us, then and now, were even more exaggerated; longer nose, cheeks like scrotum with Nixon’s signature five o-clock shadow.
A show of Guston’s Nixon drawings was hastily put together, in the midst of the strangest presidential election cycle since 1968, so that it would open before election day. The show, titled Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975, opened on November 1st at Hauser & Wirth, the gallery that now represents the Guston estate, and ran through the inauguration. Both the works themselves, and Guston’s decision not to publish or show them in his lifetime, have much relevance for our parallel dark time, as we ponder what role the arts might play in this drama.
Not only were the Nixon drawings never published or exhibited in Guston’s lifetime, but the current show of around 180 works, features more than 100 works that have never been exhibited to the general public. Ironically these works are having a greater impact today, than they would likely have had if they were exhibited when the events referenced were current. Picasso was the most famous artist in the world when he painted Guernica, and was known to a large lay audience as well as art professionals. Guston’s fame in 1971 was limited to a cultured minority, and in the context of that minority, his late figurative works, which the Nixon series is part of, did not enjoy the reputation they have finally achieved. And the images that were affecting political opinion at that time were not ones made by painters, they were the photographs of napalmed babies, or police beating protesters in Chicago or Birmingham.
Guston’s decision to keep the Nixon series private may have been justified, but needs to be seen in the context of the other work he did make public and the reactions to that work. According to the mythology, Guston, after achieving some fame as an Abstract Expressionist—art sales, positive press and a solo show at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum—turned his back on abstraction, and created a body of work that was rejected by the New York art establishment. But it is important to keep in mind that this art establishment referred to in tales of the Guston drama was probably about two dozen artists, critics and curators—they just happen to be those who write the first draft of art history and art history is rarely sorted out until at least the third draft. The truth is that if you were not among the few hundred people who frequented 57th street art galleries in the 60’s and 70’s, you would not be aware that Philip Guston was firing his booming canon shot at the already crumbling walls of the New York School fortress, and it was not until a decade or so after his death in 1980, that news of that battle began to spread.
As for that now famous written history, there was the notorious scathing review by Hilton Kramer of Guston’s breakthrough 1970 show at Marlborough Gallery, but there were also less mentioned favorable reviews by Harold Rosenberg and David Sylvester. Of course we all remember one insult with far more clarity than we remember a litany of praise, so Guston’s reaction to his critics advanced the mythology that is in current vogue. Many artists that were still committed to the seriousness of abstraction were outraged by Guston’s work of the 1970’s, but de Kooning, always a fellow heretic within the church, easily adapted to the change in style and praised the work. It was in fact far less radical than it appeared to the casual observer; the late abstractions had dark masses that offer intimations of what would soon be explicit. And even in his abstract phase, in 1960, Guston made a case for the impurity of painting: “But painting is ‘impure.’ It is the adjustment of impurities which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.” De Kooning once said that oil paint was invented to make flesh, and in his abstract works he continued to paint flesh. Guston’s abstractions, saturated with deep reds, were both flesh and blood, and more blood. There is the famous quote of his from the 70’s; “I was sick of all of that purity,” but clearly he was long sick of it.
The other thing that needs to be remembered and emphasized is just how much more dramatic these events seem from the narrow perspective of the New York School. London produced many prominent figurative artists—Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach—and the London-based Marlborough Gallery represented these artist when they took on Guston. In other American cities, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, the artificial membrane between “low brow” and “serious” art was far more permeable than in New York. Now artists like Peter Saul and R. Crumb are taken quite seriously in “high brow” circles. But Guston’s fame had come as a result of his abstract works, and as a member of the inner circle of Abstract Expressionist founding fathers (he was also a high school friend of Jackson Pollack). Not just a member of the congregation, a high priest, he proclaimed; “It was as though I had left the Church, …I was excommunicated.” That is only half right— he was not excommunicated—he was a heresiarch, a reformer, and nailed his thesis to the church door. Though criticized by those who clung to the high-minded principles of abstraction, he also attacked them: “American Abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit.”
It seems like he was energized by the conflict, which he did not wander into innocently. It is analogous to another famous “betrayal” in that tumultuous era, that of Dylan turning away from topical protest-songs, and going electric. In a strange way Dylan and Guston converged in creating very timely, yet personal expressions, but by rejecting opposite religious dogmas. Dylan had rejected the topical and overtly political and moved toward a more personal reaction to what he was experiencing. You can hear in the music and see in the concert footage that he seemed to draw power from the rejections, the booing. On stage in England, a former fan screamed “Judas!” Dylan turned to the band, later known as The Band, and commanded with a big grin, “play it fucking loud!”
Guston responded to his critics by keeping the volume up and breaking taboos. Like the dark-comic Dylan, Guston’s late works possess a wicked, mischievous spirit that add power to the mysterious iconography, images that emerge from a state of nervous tension, where the artist reflects the spirit of the culture as he feels it, not as he dispassionately reflects on it.
Guston’s Quinta del Sordo
It has been said that Guston kept the Nixon drawings to himself because he feared they would face similar criticism that his paintings were subjected to. A foray into the genre of the political cartoon, occupying a lower tier than “fine art” in cultural hierarchies, would further tarnish his reputation as a serious painter. But it is also likely that he too considered the political cartoon a lesser art form, and may not have been sure himself if these drawings were just cartoons, or works of art.
Guston also certainly had nuanced feelings about political art and propaganda, having made various forms of propaganda in his youth. As a young, left-leaning artist involved in the WPA, he made heavy-handed, didactic work that was typical of that period, and typical of youth, though he did it very well. Images of the Klu Klux Klan first appear in this phase. He also made illustrations of military training exercises for the war department during World War II. They are also beautiful and feel more humanistic, oddly less like propaganda—he did believe in the cause. The surrealist phase that followed these early works resemble the late works in that they deal with the political in a personal but also allegorical manner.
When Guston returned to imagery, he returned to the KKK, but this time, with a paintbrush in the hand of one hooded figure. Guston identified himself with what he cast his critical glance upon—in the same way that Picasso identified with bull, bullfighter, Minotaur and gored horse—they both identified with villain and victim. This is where art transcends mere propaganda; where artists show some truth about the world as it is, nuanced and ambiguous. The sincere artist avoids distorting simplifications—those sharp divides between good and evil, irresistible to the partisan.
We know Guston thought about posterity, where his paintings would lead: “The canvas you are working on modifies the previous ones in an unending, baffling chain which never seems to finish. (What a sympathy is demanded of the viewer! He is asked to see the future links.)” We also know Guston was consumed by self-doubt (what great artist isn’t?). So we can assume that he questioned whether the Nixon drawings were a major link in his chain, or just some exercise, or perhaps a therapeutic purging of his political frustrations.
I would answer Guston’s ghost by saying that he may have been correct to hold the drawings back at the time. Yet posterity has unequivocally deemed them works of art, great ones, and not mere political cartoons. Their enigmatic qualities keep them from ever becoming didactic. In this decision to keep them private, one is reminded of Goya’s Quinta del Sordo, the house where he painted some of his most powerful, original images on the walls, completely out of public view. They would likely have struck Goya’s contemporaries as being too roughly painted, unrefined, and would not have been deemed any good, yet images like the Saturn Devouring His Children now define Goya for us. I believe that in a similar way, the Nixon drawings will be seen as an important feature of late Guston, and a major facet of that period’s output—if not a major link on the chain, a beautiful charm hanging from it.
Pantheon: The Latin Cult & the Grand Tour
The Nixon drawings are often compared to Goya, Daumier, Picasso, or to Beckmann (Beckmann’s timely works relating to the rise of fascism were also on display this past fall, in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum). One name that gets left out, but is an important precursor, is Tiepolo. We know Tiepolo was a significant artist in Guston’s personal canon, from his painting Pantheon. The painting is like a mathematical equation, summing up the parts of the whole that is Guston. The imagery, a blank canvas on an easel, and a lightbulb, are surrounded by the names of painters—de Chirico on the far left, then the easel, then in a column; Massacio, Piero…., Giotto, and finally Tiepolo, larger than all others. We know many artists are left out, but this outline shows the important lineage of the art in that chain Guston refers to.
Guston belonged to an important American art subculture, one that continued to look to the European tradition as a deep source from which all Western art flows. Italy was their Mecca and at least one pilgrimage was required, in the tradition of the Grand Tour. His polemic against the New York School was not just a rejection of abstraction, but also a rejection of the idea that American art can sever itself from its European roots. Members of Guston’s club—still going strong—do not have a secret handshake but recognize each other by certain habits; they use stove-top espresso makers and are on a first name basis with Piero della Francesca.
The lessons of Italy give the American artist an appreciation for beauty that many Puritanical strains of American art see as sinful. But this beauty is coupled with an unflinching eye for the folly and tragedy of human behavior. An Italian painter might paint a massacre of the innocents with a sword passing clear through a child’s head, yet render the soldiers’ armor in magnificent jewel tones and even the blood spraying from the baby’s mouth might appear as rubies. Tragic, yes, but also maybe a weird humor, like a Monty Python skit with fountains of blood spraying from a severed limb.
The Italians have also witnessed bare-knuckle politics since ancient Rome. They have witnessed numerous businessmen turned dictator, prince, and warrior Pope. There was a whole class of businessmen whose product was war, the condottieri— mercenaries. The Italian princes were the greatest art patrons the world had ever seen, yet they might murder each other in the cathedrals they helped build. Not just Italians, all Europeans, have witnessed too much history to share in that uniquely American positivism. But that positivism is a curse; while always looking toward that golden age to come, we just failed to appreciate the one that just ended, the age of Obama.
That European tradition, stretching back to antiquity, the dark humor, beautiful color, exquisite design, saturates all of Guston’s work, but in the late work it is hilariously transformed into modern, crappy, Americana. The attention to lace and buttons in Donatello and Verrocchio are transformed into shoe-laces and nails in shoe soles. Uccello’s obsession with the geometry of armor is referenced in trash-cans and lid shields. The light of the logos, Apollo, enlightenment, has become a bare lightbulb, swinging from a single wire, as if hanging from a thread.
In 1948 Guston received a fellowship to study at the American Academy in Rome. On the ship to Europe, the Vulcania, he met Cranberry Island painter John Heliker, and the two became good friends. They traveled together to see the Piero della Francesca murals in Arezzo and also visited the ancient Etruscan tomb paintings in Tarquinia. After the famous Marlborough gallery show of 1970, where the late figurative paintings were introduced, Guston took a trip to Italy—a return to the source, the mother ship. It was on his return to America that he embarked on the Nixon series.
What is interesting about the iconography of the Nixon drawings is how they fit into the traditions of Italian painting, from the Renaissance to de Chirico. The use of attributes as signifiers—a baby in an animal skin would be John the Baptist, St. Catherine clutches her wheel, and St. Sebastian appears pierced with arrows—and so Nixon is identified by signature nose and cheek, sometimes abstracted into a mountain, a billboard, or transformed into a Roman trophy (homage to Piranesi as well as Tiepolo). Kissinger is often just glasses and hair, but in some drawings only a pair of thick glasses. Agnew, a pointy-peaked block-head, is also depicted with the attributes of Hawaiian shirts and golf clubs, the absentee vice-president/fool. The famous dog, Checkers, is a checkerboard pattern in a dog outline.
The Tiepolo I see in the Nixon drawings is the intimate and strange Tiepolo of his two suites of etchings, the Scherzi di Fantasia and the Varie Capricci. Tiepolo was the Cecil B. DeMille of the European palace wall, and his operatic dramas were filled with a retinue of extras from central casting: Orientals (Magi), Roman soldiers, satyrs, owls. In the etchings they become the main characters. But one in particular bears a striking resemblance to Guston’s Nixon mask; the masked Pulcinella. Visually they are both classic grotesques, but also thematically, Guston represents Nixon’s world as a dark circus, with Nixon as a twisted deformed carny. Kids and artists know how scary clowns really are, and Beckman, along with many others, portrayed fascism with circus imagery.
Guston’s imaginative power shows off in his Nixon carnival; witness Nixon with chopsticks and Fu Manchu mustache, as Nixon prepares for his historic China trip. Chinese imagery dominates many of these drawings—Guston was clearly obsessed by the China trip; it exposed the anti-communist crusader as an unprincipled opportunist. But through this hilarious Nixon as Chinaman subplot, Guston honestly explores the biases he might share with Nixon, both being a product of their times. In one odd drawing he gives Nixon measles, a sort of momento mori for the most powerful man in the world. Throughout this very modern Commedia the Pulcinella has been completely Americanized—the carny barker, snake oil salesman, confidence man tricksters of our rootless mythology. Yet throughout it all, this slippery enigma at the center never takes off his Nixon mask.
This is not funny
The circus is now back in town. The saddest, sad clown, Dr. Kissinger/Strangelove has blessed the 45th president. According to the Obama State Department, three Americans have recently had unfettered access to Putin’s Kremlin; current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, actor Stephen Segal, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (in his recent role as a consultant for Exxon Mobil). The new president, thug, prince is surrounded by military men, his condottieri, yet his brass plate aesthetic will yield no art patronage, quite the opposite—casinos, not cathedrals—all sin, no salvation.
I remember a Nixon aide once saying that, contrary to what one might believe, Nixon did have a sense of humor. Though he rarely laughed according to the aide, he would say, “that’s funny.” The situation we now find ourselves in is not funny, not funny at all. But does that mean humor is no longer an option? Can we still laugh? Perhaps a nervous laugh, or cathartic, hysterical laughter. Guston’s creepy, dark sense of humor, on full display in the late works, is a beacon in such times. Not a beacon of hope (is there cause for hope?) but an antidote for the poison of contemporary public discourse.
Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, wanted the Nixon drawing show to open before the election, in the hopes that it might exert some influence, remind young voters about the Nixon era. But art speaks to a small minority of a small minority in its own time. Over time, it picks up mass as a snowball rolling uphill. The importance of art is the message it sends to the future. Art illustrates a culture, how it looks and how it thinks. Who knows the name Giuliano della Rovere? As Pope Julius II, the “warrior pope”, he commissioned the ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel. But we do remember Michelangelo. Artists write history, but they write it in images. Guston’s legacy is as a fabricator of images.
Featured Image at top:
Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in
© The Estate of Philip Guston
Courtesy The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth