New York

Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975, oil on canvas, 68 × 73 1/4". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975, oil on canvas, 68 × 73 1/4". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

Philip Guston

Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975, oil on canvas, 68 × 73 1/4". © The Estate of Philip Guston.

Who would have imagined that it would one day be possible to feel a sort of wistful nostalgia for the Nixon era? Yet that is the pass we have come to, facing an administration that might make his seem almost innocent by comparison. That’s why “Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975”—which was curated by Sally Radic of the Guston Foundation, and Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, and followed by a little more than six months Hauser & Wirth’s equally extraordinary and very different exhibition of abstract works, “Philip Guston: Painter, 1957–1967”—was probably the timeliest exhibition to take place this late fall to early winter, that is, in the period from just before the 2016 election to just after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new US president.

Guston had made his radical shift from abstract to figurative painting in 1968, just in time, as it turned out, for Richard Nixon’s comeback from the political wilderness following his unsuccessful 1962 run for governor of California (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”) to defeat Hubert Humphrey for president. The painter of Ku Klux Klansmen and other conspirators was evidently horrified by the state of his world but—unlike in the 1930s, when he had painted similar subjects in an expressively stylized social-realist manner—could no longer absolve himself of identification with what horrified him. In the paintings Guston started making at the end of the 1960s, the Klansman would sometimes be a painter—that is, more or less himself—and would always be (to use the word that Hilton Kramer threw at him) a stumblebum. As Guston said, “They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind a hood. In the new series of ‘hoods,’ my attempt was really not to illustrate, to do pictures of the KKK, as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me, and rather like Isaac Babel, who had joined the Cossacks, lived with them, and written stories about them, I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan and to plot.”

Likewise, in the drawings of Nixon that Guston produced in great quantity in 1971 (a few more would crop up four years later, when the by-then ex-president was suffering from phlebitis—Guston did not hesitate to employ Nixon’s physical suffering as a metaphor for his moral grotesquerie) an evident visceral loathing is strangely mixed up with a sort of empathetic identification. Although the impetus for the drawings may in part have come from Guston’s friend Philip Roth’s satirical novel Our Gang (1971) and though they are, as Dwight Macdonald described the book, “far-fetched, unfair, tasteless, disturbing, logical, coarse and very funny,” Guston’s depiction of Nixon and his creepy crew—Spiro Agnew, Henry Kissinger (often reduced to little more than a pair of eyeglasses), and Billy Graham (who seems to be carved out of stone, a deathly monument to himself)—goes deeper than Roth’s fantastical mockery of the eminently mockable crew. Guston gets a little bit closer to what it would be like to be the maudlin, self-regarding, self-loathing politician—to be not gleefully but shamefacedly evil, and to plan and plot without any clear goal.

Although the exhibition title put the accent on drawing—understandably, since the show included some 180 works on paper—three paintings of Nixon were also on display, among them an outrageous masterpiece, San Clemente, 1975, showing the tearful, long-snouted, monstrously swollen-cheeked and mouthless former president at the seaside dragging his massively swollen left foot as if he were its appendage rather than it his. From now on, this is how I will always picture Nixon. But who in the coming years will plumb the untold depths of our new president’s body and soul as Guston anatomized Nixon’s? The task may be tougher. And yet this thing of darkness we must somehow acknowledge ours.

Barry Schwabsky