2016-10-30 22:07:08
Philip Guston and His Barbed-Pen Nixon Years

In the summer of 1971, the artist Philip Guston and the writer Philip Roth were refugees of a sort in Woodstock, N.Y. Mr. Roth was fleeing what he called his “overnight notoriety as a sexual freak,” after the publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Guston, in a crisis of self-doubt, was turning his back on practically the entire art world.

Introduced by a mutual acquaintance a couple of years earlier, the two men shared a love of books and of what Guston called “crapola”— billboards, diners, junk shops, burger joints — and Richard M. Nixon was soon added to the list. “He was a shared delight,” Mr. Roth recalled recently. “It wasn’t just the criminal war in Southeast Asia that he was waging but his vile character that aroused the wicked impulse to satire.”

That summer, Mr. Roth began working on what became “Our Gang,” his book-length satire, which begins with the president, Trick E. Dixon, hoping to give the vote to the unborn and ends with him in hell, after being assassinated in a hospital where he had gone to have his sweat glands removed. Mr. Roth showed some early chapters to Guston, who in a mood of shared Nixon-loathing exuberance, responded with a flood of satirical drawings. In a couple of them Guston’s Nixon is a hooded Klansman conspiring with his cronies Spiro T. Agnew and John Mitchell, but in most he is a kind of walking gonad, his nose a penis that grows longer with every lie he tells.

On Tuesday, these drawings will be part of a show, “Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings From 1971 & 1975,” opening at the brand-new Hauser & Wirth gallery space on West 22nd Street in Manhattan. It was a last-minute idea, Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, said at the gallery last week as she and her co-curator, Sally Radic, of the Guston Foundation, were getting ready to hang the show even as workers were still renovating the space. “The gallery approached me just six weeks ago,” Ms. Mayer said. “I thought, ‘We have to get it up before the election.’” She was thinking in particular of young people, she added, who might not be familiar with Nixon’s history. “I’m hoping the drawings may remind people of what can happen.”

Seventy-three of the drawings were published in book form, as “Philip Guston’s Poor Richard,” in 1980, after Guston died. They form a loose narrative that begins with the young Nixon at home in California, dreaming of greatness, and culminates in a grand fantasy in which the presidential schnozz travels to China and is consumed by a dragon.

But the new show displays almost 100 more drawings that Guston had weeded out, in a couple of cases probably because he considered them too obscene. The show includes some darker drawings made in 1975, after Nixon had resigned in disgrace, and a monumental, seldom-seen painting, “San Clemente,” which shows a weeping, red-faced Nixon in agony from a colossal, phlebitis-inflamed leg.

Mr. Roth owns several of the Nixon drawings. “I always wanted Philip to publish them in a book,” he said. “But he was loath to do that then. He wasn’t sure about whether to go public with them. I think he didn’t want to be sullied as a cartoonist. But actually the people who didn’t like those wonderful last paintings sullied him as a cartoonist anyway.”

Through the ’50s and most of the ’60s, Guston was a leading Abstract Expressionist, greatly admired for the shimmering elegance of his painting. But in the mid-60s, in one of the most famous about-faces in art history, he began to repudiate his own work. “American Abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit,” he wrote. Abandoning abstraction, he started to make paintings that weren’t just figurative but amounted to a catalog of comic-strip crumminess: light bulbs; rusted nails; old shoe soles; hairy legs; hooded, slit-eyed Klansmen smoking fat cigars. The world of Guston eventually came to look, as a number of critics pointed out, a lot like the world of R. Crumb.

When he showed some of this new work at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970, the reviews were vicious, especially one in The New York Times by Hilton Kramer, which ran under the headline “A Mandarin Pretending To Be a Stumblebum.”

Ms. Mayer was grown by then and living in Ohio, but even from there, she said, she could tell her father was very wounded. “It was as if he’d been excommunicated,” she said. Explaining his growing dissatisfaction with abstraction, she cited a quotation of his she meant to use as a wall label: “So when the 1960s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”

Mr. Roth said, “He was a wonderful, wonderful man and a great friend,” adding: “But he was a very brooding painter. He brooded all day, full of doubt.” Mr. Roth then recounted an anecdote told in “Night Studio,” Ms. Mayer’s memoir of her father — about how the critic Ross Feld once visited Guston in his studio and seemed taken aback by the paintings of dismembered limbs he saw. “As if it’s a picnic for me,” Guston complained, “who has to come in here every day and see them first thing.”

The Nixon drawings share some of the vocabulary of the late Guston paintings, but have a larksome quality all their own. As the critic Peter Schjeldahl has pointed out, they’re hilarious but also compassionate in their way. If Mr. Roth’s Nixon is a raving madman, Guston’s is an almost tragic figure, imprisoned in his own comical anatomy.

“My father often had intense periods of work,” Ms. Mayer said. “It was not unusual for him to work almost around the clock. But the Nixon drawings are unique in being focused on this kind of external story and life. I think that reading what Philip Roth had done inspired him to think that maybe he could do that, too.”