Made in Maine?

By Jeffrey Ackerman

Marsden Hartley, Blueberry Highway Dogtown, 1931

Regionalism
The term Maine artist and the concept of regionalism are political in the sense that the lines on paper defining these terms are drawn on political maps. It is currently difficult to divorce these topics from the related, bitter cultural divides that are roiling politics, not just in America but across the globe. These conflicts are not new and in fact this archetypal struggle stretches to the birth of human civilization, and is mythologized in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.

Marsden Hartley, Knotting Rope – 1939-1940

Cain was a farmer, a settler, and Abel a herdsman, a nomad. The story illustrates the real world tensions between settlers and nomads. This polarity plays an important and universal role in how cultures develop and evolve. Settlers organize, become specialists, invent and build. Nomads carry ideas on their backs from one settlement to another. Throughout history, culture has thrived in cities and regions that were advanced, well organized, but that also received travelers, traders and immigrants, and sent their own citizens out into the world, for commercial and cultural purposes.

 

Mario Sironi, Urban Landscape 1922

All over the world this divide between urban globalists and rural nativists is turning bitter, hostile and at times violent. It seems ironic that there is an international movement of isolationist, nativists—they are, ironically, involuntary globalists. Art culture is similarly divided between globalists and regionalists, each with legitimate leanings—pride and love of place pitted against curiosity and openness—and many have no problem situating themselves between these compatible sentiments.

The term regionalism came into use to describe the works of artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Stuart Curry, whose works were generally  set up as the antitheses of European modernism. They celebrated rural and working class America at a time when many urban American artists still looked to Europe, ancient and modern. Study in Paris and then the grand tour of Italy were seen as essential to an artistic education for many Americans, and these pilgrims, in turn,  set up a view of  America as provincial.

The Painter of Maine
Maine’s première regionalist, Marsden Hartley, is a more complicated story, and the works that are considered regionalist came after he established himself as one of America’s most prominent modernists. He made a conscious decision in the 1930’s to become, in his own phrase, the painter of Maine, and landscape painting is naturally at the core of Hartley’s regional identity. In Maine he found a wild nature, untouched by man, which allowed him to express a religious feeling between melancholy and ecstasy. He possessed a knack for discovering a profound beauty in the barren and desolate.

Marsden Hartley Carnelian Country -1932

But despite Hartley’s own desire to be the painter of Maine, I cannot see this work through a regional lens. The Maine works have the same mood and feel as his Alpine or New Mexico landscapes, or in his series on the barren rockscapes of Dogtown in Gloucester, Massachusetts. What Hartley found in Maine or in Dogtown was an isolation and solitude that many artists have found in the anonymity of the city. As with much current Maine landscape painting, the appeal is universally broad and the city dweller may even be more in need of Hartley’s portals to the primal than the rustic. Hartley’s sentiments are universal in the most cosmic sense of that word.

Marsden Hartley Mountains in Stone DogTown, 1931

Hartley transformed himself into a regionalist defensively. In the jingoist atmosphere of the 1920’s and 30’s, he was criticized as being too European and too modern. Regionalism was seen as true American painting and the preferred mode was realism rather than the imported mode of abstraction, though the most prominent regional artists look incredibly artificial to our modern eyes (and I imagine they likely did then to those not blinded by ideology). But Hartley was not a reluctant convert, and shared some of the nativist, xenophobic tendencies of the pro-American painting camp. The politics of that day pivoted around themes that sound all too familiar. The rural working-man was mythologized as the true American, as opposed to the urban, Europeanized, effete elites.

Marsden Hartley, Insignia with Gloves – circa 1936

For that latter type you can insert Jew, but Jew in this context is not an actual Jew, but a stand in for the foreign born, the financial elites, condescending toward the common man. Hartley’s essays implicitly betray his sympathies for this view, and his letters reveal them more explicitly. He had a well-known love affair with a German officer who died in World War I, and Hartley continued to have a love affair with German culture. In 1933-34, he traveled to Germany, where he saw and admired Nazi pageants and parades, and found common ground in the Nazi idealization of the folk. He linked a New England Anglo Saxon heritage to their German roots. Like the Nazis, Hartley was obsessed with youth and beauty as an expression of racial purity. His homosexuality, rather than mitigate his admiration for the Reich, played into a fascist fixation on masculinity, athleticism and male power. Even his admiration for Native Americans was colored by his viewing them as racially pure; he mentions in a letter how the Indians of Mexico would not go near the mixed race mestizo. This was all played down with his many Jewish friends in New York art circles, but Ettie Stettheimer, sister of painter Florine Stettheimer, stopped inviting him to her salon because of what she described as his admiration for Hitler.

Much of Hartley’s nativist attitude was quite common in New England, and all over America, at that time. He lamented that New England was being ruined by commercialism, and the nouveau riche. Criticizing the nouveau riche is different from criticizing the rich; the poor as well as the wealthy Anglo Saxon might use that term to describe a person of moderate wealth, one or two generations removed from immigrant poverty. Their names might still be foreign as well as their accents. Tending to be proud of their achievement, they might display their wealth to the degree that the Boston Brahmin might hide theirs.

It is in Hartley’s quasi-religious paintings of fisherman and loggers that this bias can be detected, and knowing his leanings does affect how these paintings are currently seen and read. The paintings themselves are often striking, but the brilliant paint-handling cannot be divorced from the subject matter. He indeed elicits a real sympathy for the subjects, but in light of the election and recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, these subjects are once again charged. This interpretation was present in the political moment Hartley’s images were first painted, but fell into the background in the intervening years. Saying this, is not to suggest that we should shy away from viewing the works, but rather that we should fully engage with them, because of—not in spite of—their flaws. Great works are inevitably made by flawed humans and contain flawed ideas, and the tension between Hartley’s authentic mysticism and (what we can now see as his) misguided politics make these paintings worth grappling with.

 

Mario Sironi, Pescivendolo, 1927

The heroes of these paintings are presented in a Biblical framework; the working-men are Christ-like, or like Christ’s fishermen disciples, and a fishermen’s dinner is clearly read as a last supper. The routine dangers that the loggers and fishermen grapple with make them suitably heroic subject matter. But these occupations were fading even in Hartley’s day, and today they are a smaller part of the Maine economy, though they play an oversized role in Maine’s myth-fed leading industry; tourism. There is a false note in having such figures stand for the region, and that is especially true now. Van Gogh painted his province’s working folk as he found them: a postman, a doctor, as well as farmers and fishermen. American regionalist sentimentality plays into a lie now current on both sides of the political divide—the mythos of the working class. This term is now antiquated and sexist, suggesting masculine physical labor but excluding, teachers, bank tellers, nurses, and other common, modern occupations. Women, exceedingly rare in Hartley’s work, take on a secondary role when they do appear, and the men are depicted in a style of exaggerated masculinity, as in his depiction of a Hercules in a G-string (Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy, 1940). That Hartley shares this quality with Hellenistic sculpture, Michelangelo and Marvel comics does put him in good company, but points out that his men look more like culture than nature.

Marsden Hartley Madawaska – Acadian Light-Heavy – 1940

Provincialism
We cannot blame an artist for painting what they love. That Cezanne chooses to paint his mountain is understandable. But Provence cannot claim Cezanne, who, though a Provencal, influenced modernist painting worldwide, not for what he painted but for how he painted it. That sort of promotional language essentially defines the parochial and provincial character of regionalism.

Marsden Hartley, Mont Sainte-Victoire, Aix-en-Provence – 1927

Hartley very consciously honed in on regional subject matter, but went on to make the dubious claim that even his style was native. Maine has no ruined temples from antiquity, no Romanesque or Gothic churches, and no Renaissance paintings—all of the historical components of Hartley’s, or any Western painter’s, style. Hartley claimed that Albert Pinkham Ryder was the source of this native style, Ryder being a fellow New Englander, born in New Bedford. But Ryder moved to New York City at age twenty and painted allegorical scenes from his imagination. It is a stretch for Hartley to claim him for Maine, but that is how regional thinking sours. Pollack also claimed Ryder as an influence, but considered him the only American painter of note and, in his view, the antithesis of regionalism—a painter who broke free of the parochial traits that Pollack bristled against.

Marsden Hartley, The Lighthouse – 1940-1941

I understand Provincialism to be simply the inability, or conscious refusal, to see an artist in the large context of art history. It is usually associated with geographical isolation, physical remoteness, but it is more of a mental construct, a filter through which the world is viewed. As a mental artifice, provincialism is not confined to geography; there is also temporal provincialism, confining oneself to a time period, usually the present one. The allegiance to stylistic ghettos may be the most common provincialism.

Provincials, whether geographically isolated or isolated by their biases, are slow to get news from outside of their borders and may argue about controversies long settled elsewhere. In Maine, abstractionists and conceptualists battle the heirs of Andrew Wyeth and Fairfield Porter—a faint echo of the controversy surrounding the 1960, abstraction-dominated, Whitney Biennial. Provincialisms also overlap and reinforce each other. Sophistication and education do not guard against parochial thinking. And academia is home to some of the most remote outposts in art culture, completely cut off from the common populace, by language and habits of thought.

In addition to the provincialism of the provinces, there is also the provincialism of capitals and powerful nations, the belief that all of the culture the inhabitants require exists within their borders. The New York school, at the height of its prestige and influence, was a very small town. There are more galleries in Maine today than there were in New York in the 1950’s.

The critic Clement Greenberg is a good example of an art capital provincial. As a champion of the New York School, he defended himself against the charge that he was an ideologue by insisting that he was merely an empiricist, and that the best art of his day was flat and abstract. However, he only seemed to consider artists and galleries within walking distance, or a few subway stops. Europe did not seem to exist for Greenberg. He ignored the north European COBRA painters. Established artists such as Picasso, Giacometti and Balthus were considered old news, though they continued to make often remarkable and relevant work until the end of their lives.

Hipness and cool are also provincial traps. This ideology ranks high all that is currently in fashion, and deems it the coolest. By always focusing on the present trend, the hip never seem to notice how cool the old stuff they ridicule or ignore once was. Related to this is Brooklyn provincialism, and all hip neighborhoods across America are being declared the next Brooklyn. It is a secret hid in plain sight that some of the best artists in Brooklyn have been working, in what is now seen as the style of the moment, for several decades.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens (1888–1891), National Gallery of Art

Art capitals are often where great art can be seen but not necessarily where it is made. Those currently considered the leading artists of the late 19th century, though connected to the Parisian art capital, did their most significant work in Provence (the original province), Brittany and Tahiti. Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin define that era for us, yet were largely unknown to their Parisian contemporaries and the leading painters of that period are now mostly unknown. That is not to say that the Provencals knew what great painting was happening in their midst. And who can truly claim van Gogh—the Dutch, Parisians, Provencals—all of them and none of them.

Can Maine claim artists like Marsden Hartley? He painted landscapes in Europe and New Mexico and unscrupulous dealers sold his Bavarian mountainscapes as Maine scenes. Does a border really determine who is a Maine artist? The reputations of local artists loom large in their homelands, yet fall into the middle of the pack outside of those locales.

Marsden Hartly, Landscape New Mexico, 1923

Hartley’s work and subject matter beg comparison with the Italian painter Mario Sironi, a great painter whose work is not well known in this country or even outside of Italy. Sironi was a fascist and so his reputation further suffers for his being on the losing side of World War II. He depicted poor workers in religious attitudes and his barren cityscapes are unquestionably close in spirit to Hartley’s landscapes. Architecture is a point of pride for the Italians, so the city is a nationalist expression of the genius of Italy. Sironi’s work and politics produce the same equivocal response that one might get from Hartley. Both are great painters whose work deserve to be seen and considered in the context of these thorny issues.

Mario Sironi, The model of the sculptor, 1923-24 4

Do Italians need to know more about Hartley? Do Mainers need to consider Sironi? Clearly not, but expanding one’s horizons is never a bad thing. It can correct the biases inherent in a regionalist focus. I would reject regionalism, though not regionalist art. For the artist, subject matter based on their passions is laudable, maybe even necessary. But to view art through a regional filter is provincialism, dragging the work into the small context. I do not have to be a believer to appreciate religious art or gospel music, but I do expect the artist—on some level—to be a believer. Hartley professed a creed that many of us might reject, maybe even strongly, but the power of his belief produced authentic and powerful painting.

In the past, many artists came to Maine to paint the landscape, and I contend that by defining the region did a disservice to artists like Robert Hamilton, who did not make Maine paintings. Today, many artists live here for diverse reasons and work in a wide range of artistic styles. To view this art through any regional filter,  is unfair to the artists who see themselves in the larger context. I still get a thrill driving over the Piscataqua River Bridge, but that has nothing to do with how I see art or make art.

 

Marsden Hartley, Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, 1942
Mario Sironi, Cityscape with Truck. date unknown

Hell’s Gate Illuminated: A Tribute to Paul Oberst by Kathy Weinberg

above: Paul Oberst, Studio shot

When people talk about tragic events they often start with where they were and what they were doing as if by introducing the mundane back-story one could perform some crude magic and reverse the outcome. What this does is illustrate how our pact with the continuity of things has been ruptured and forever altered.

We follow our trail of breadcrumb memories, back to the time before.

I was on my couch when I heard the election results. The night before I went to bed with the stock market crashing, globally, and an electoral map turning red, like a wound, across the country.

One month later I drove into Manhattan at sunset with my husband. An oppressive, solid, cloudbank was low in the sky. Stopped in a long chain of traffic, we sat while the sun edged through from under the clouds. The city was backlit, darkened, and the low angle of the orange sun made harsh silhouettes out of the rows of cars, metal shells—the shadows between objects were like chasms. Looking to our left, there on the Major Deegan Expressway, Hell’s Gate Bridge was illuminated and glowing against the grey black world around. “An Apocalyptic sunset,” we agreed.

Did I remember then how the morning began when the handle on a full cup of coffee broke just as I handed it to my husband? Or did I remember that later, when all things became signs and portents.

Paul Oberst, Installation

That same night, just before midnight, an old friend had just left after a long dinner. My husband checked his phone because a call came through during the meal. We were sleepy, happy, tipsy—in good spirits. He listened to the message. “Its Simone,” he said and we both looked puzzled, she did not usually contact us. Our relationship to her was with, and through, Paul Oberst—Simone was Paul’s former wife, current friend, partner and collaborator. “She said to call as soon as I got this message,” he said, “is it too late?”

It was too late. We have never called anyone at midnight. But sensing, already, that this was not a usual call, without hesitation, I said no, it was not too late. I never say that. We were less sleepy, less tipsy.

What follows are images, both of us pacing, my husband just holding the phone, not speaking, then sitting down on the edge of the bed, silent and listening to the voice on the other end. “What is it?” I mouthed at him. “The worst,” he mouthed back, and kept listening, his eyes had the same look as on the day he saw the World Trade Center hit by the second plane, and then both towers crumble, from our rooftop, less than a half mile away.

Even then I did not know what I believed the worst to be. A dark road, a deer leaping flashed through my mind. A state of profound ignorance enveloped me. A few moments later I mouthed, “An accident?” now wide-awake and sober. He made one gesture that said it all, a common gesture children use: an extended thumb and forefinger pointed at his temple. It was no accident, and it was irrevocable.

Did I sleep or just lie in bed drifting in fragmented thoughts? The next morning I began to look through my correspondence with Paul, wondering what our last conversations had been, what had we been saying, were there signs? Certainly signs could now be seen in retrospect, signs that were obscured by the light of reason and belief in positive solutions to everyday or unexpected problems. And always, always assuming that despair was not an option.

I began slowly at first, and then methodically, to compile my email exchanges with Paul into a document. Starting at the beginning, following many twists of threads and tangents often several threads at a time. Over the course of hours, then days, I transcribed an 800-page document that spanned four years. My husband has a similar collection. During those years we also regularly shared studio visits and meals where we talked and carried on the conversations in person. Our correspondence covered a range of topics and moods from thoughtful and philosophical to silly, from analytic to bitchy, sometimes gossip, often poetic, ending days before my friend killed himself, and just as I arrived in New York.

Paul Oberst, studio

What does this number, 800, mean to me in an age where numbers work at cross-purposes—Popular Vote vs. Electoral College? Paul had friends he had known for thirty years, or fifteen, one friend never met him but exchanged a meaningful note that moved her. And then there is his artwork, compiled and filling a measured space in the new studio he was building. His recent video had him measuring a section of beach. Numbers represent a need repeated, like three meals a day, or two aspirin.

To me the numbers meant continuity. Daily, and often several times daily, our emails exchanges became a voice narrating our lives. Paul, being a few years older, often took on a role of older brother, sage advisor and flat-out cheerleader. My correspondence with Paul continues now in my head, some days narrating events, describing an exhibit, something I read, or a fleeting thought. And times all I can say is “Dear Paul,” followed by a long silence, concluding with “Love Kathy.” Sometimes I repeat these lines, over and over, like a mantra.

Paul Oberst

We do not know what the next four years will bring. Hunter S. Thompson killed himself at the start of the second Bush term; despair set in even when his voice would have been helpful to counter what was to come. Paul’s abrupt departure took some of the light out of the room at a time when we feel dark forces gathering. Will I look back to the events of this time and read them like tea leaves, an oracle, as a prophecy? Whatever is to come, I will always look back on this moment in time as silhouetted by a late fall sunset, not shedding light, but casting darkness and deepening shadow. A time when Hell’s Gate was illuminated.

Paul Oberst, studio

 

Letters and fragments

from Paul Oberst to Kathy Weinberg

October 25, 2016

Sure is gorgeous at this moment with this sunrise. I just walked down the drive to appreciate my humongous pile of firewood. I can’t believe I have done that in such order. My peacock tail was in full display as I walked by it and picked up a stray stick to throw in the stove, which is stoked and running at this very moment. Life is good and graceful at this very moment.

Have a lovely day creating and being.

Paulo

February14, 2016

As for success, I was most successful as a child. All I really want and need to do is play like that and all is fine, and I do that at times and am going to work a lot harder at it from now on out. I think our culture is insane and at times I think somehow I am supposed to heal it. That is not possible. I can do a little counseling, I can be a shaman in the studio, and I can hang with my buds tearing it all asunder over a meal and drinks. And you know what. That is mighty fine my dear. Chin up. P

January 25, 2016

I’m caught in these streams of thought that are along the lines of, “Now why is it that this really matters?” I look around and for the most part I have rather efficiently organized my life and creations. Again the question is raised “Why?” It only matters if I am inspired. And I have been so inspired in this life. But I have learned not to avoid this current form of questioning knowing full well that such matters are best penetrated and explored fully.

L, P

May 29, 2015

Dear Kathy, You know, no matter how hard one works in an alternative way to one’s nature, the truth of one’s nature always comes through. I have always been drawn to black and to the mysterious. Death has always been fascinating to me. Even though I do banded poles of lovely colors, they suggest passage…passage to what, through what. The answer, LIFE. Back to the mystery, back to black. I take a set of dice and photograph them…dice, game! Light subject! Wrong! Luck. Death. Life.

I swear. It is insane. Kathy, when the dice are blown up…any of the out of focus images, the resulting mist of jet sprayed fine ink is so gorgeous my jaw drops…if only Seurat could have seen this printing…he would have stopped painting.

What a stunning day! Peggy Lee is in the background singing, but I can hardly hear her today.   Paulo

May 27, 2015

Art is so damned hard. It is exactly like life. And at times it is so flawlessly graceful. Remember the Barnes Collection tour. Imagine the struggles that went into the creation of all those works. Imagine the struggles to exhibit it all! Sobering. It is like walking this warrior’s path of heart. Not for the faint of heart. But, there is no choice.

Paulo

May 26 2015

There is a song by Peggy Lee that goes “Is that all there is to—“. And it goes from her childhood up to her mature years and then reflection on life at the very end. Is that all there is to a circus, is that all there is to life, etc. So, Simone and I call such days as today, “A Peggy Lee Day.” … It is irrational, art. IT defies logic. I defy logic.

December 13, 2014

Kathy my dear, one could argue that I am an arrogant son of bitch about my art….and the art of my friends. I just feel that what we are doing is sacred work, pure and simple. As long as it is sacred and speaks to the great and noble longings of humanity and creation, then the art world can kiss my scrawny ass. Their loss…surely not mine because I am making the shit no matter what. Sacred Shit. We make this shit because it brings balance to the world because creation deems it necessary to do so because it is the nature of our nature in resonance with nature.

July 9, 2013

Okay the gardens are now in peak performance…the fireworks of plant blossoms…the Day Lilies and the lavender spiked native Maine flowers and Black Eyed Susan. The Hosta is starting to bloom and so much more. The day lily are over 5 feet tall and each year get taller. The last picture is taken from the enclosed porch above the entrance door. Eventually the garden may all displace me.

Paulo

December 12, 2013– Part of a poem, in a letter

Most appreciative

I am most appreciative of the moments

(I was going to say time

but it wasn’t time.

Such events are moments

we string together like beads on a rosary.)

Such moments are prayer.

Sunset, December 2, 2016

 

Paul Oberst
January 11, 1955 – December 2, 2016

Philip Guston’s Hysterical Laughter by Jeffrey Ackerman

“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.

Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975, Oil on canvas 172.7 x 186 cm / 68 x 73 1/4 in

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.

1971

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?

 

Philip Guston, Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in

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?

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in

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.

Mythologies

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in

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.

Philip Guston
Untitled (Poor Richard)
1971,
Ink on paper,
26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in

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!”

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1971, Ink on paper
27.6 x 35.2 cm / 10 7/8 x 13 7/8 in

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.

Philip Guston, Alone, 1971, Oil on canvas, 132.1 x 237.5 cm / 52 x 93 1/2 in

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.

Philip Guston, Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in

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.

Philip Guston, Untitled(Poor Richard), 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in
Philip Guston, Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in

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.

Philip Guston, Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in

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

Philip Guston, Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in

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:

Philip Guston
Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in

All images:

© The Estate of Philip Guston

Courtesy The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth

https://www.hauserwirth.com/exhibitions/3002/philip-guston-laughter-in-the-dark-drawings-from-1971-1975/view/