The Daily Heller: A Gift That Keeps on Giving— Philip Guston’s Richard Nixon

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Richard Nixon, for those who don’t recall, was the President of the United States who was forced to resign while holding office. While it caused a rift in the nation, it was a gift to artists, cartoonists, and fans of satire. During this season of gift-giving, I was happily surprised to receive a welcome gift— a beautifully produced book, Philip Guston: Nixon Drawings 1971 & 1975 (Hauser & Wirth). Never mind that Guston‘s later “cartoon” paintings are among my favorite period in the oeuvre of my favorite artist, the audacity, wit, and acerbic genius of these sketchbook renderings are richly satisfying on many levels.

Guston captures the then-President’s venality, using sarcastic caricature to transform Nixon into a true tricky dick. He also presents the nattering foolishness of the corrupt Vice President Spiro Agnew, the heartlessness of Henry Kissinger (reducing him to a pair of horn rimmed glasses), and Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell as bulbous nabob.

Edited by Musa Mayer and Sally Radic, curators of the eponymous exhibition at Hauser & Wirth New York and London from 2016 – 2017, designed by Damien Saatdjian with Mayer and Radic, this book collects Guston’s cartoons from “Poor Richard,” which was explosive on many levels. Nominally an homage to Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” Guston ignited rancorous critiques at the time from the likes of the neoconservative New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, who Guston believed was a danger to art and freedom. The polarization of left and right was at a fever pitch at the time when Guston produced his Nixon-bashing work, the history of which is well narrated in Debra Bricker Balken’s brilliant essay on “Poor Richard.”

What seemed to trigger acrimony was the fact that Guston, who held sway in the Abstract Art world, was coming out of its mainstream bubble into the politically charged air. Balken writes that Guston’s 80 drawings “caught one of America’s most maligned politicians in a depraved and monstrous state…These caricatures play on the brooding, self-pitying character that Nixon exuded throughout his life.” For many, this body of work was a “betrayal” of the New York School, and part of a new transgressive approach to establishment society.

Guston’s drawings had more in common with up-and-coming underground comix art that savagely attacked the mores and taboos that emerged in the postwar era. Guston was already a controversial figure breaking from a pack, as it were, whose art he believed had calcified and was “no longer driven by any deep aesthetic inquiry.” He believed that modernism was no longer able to confront the social issues of the day— “[to] remain current with the twentieth century”— and turned his art into a critical bully pulpit.

The Nixon Drawings come from a reservoir of skepticism over an America fraught with socio-political and cultural ills during the mid-60s. While the rationales for Guston’s cartoon work taps deeply into a dark psyche, the images are funny, acerbic yet artful. Guston exploits Nixon’s resemblance to dick and balls in such a mnemonic manner as to forever brand the infamous POTUS as PHALLUS.

This is how I will forever remember him. I almost (but not really) feel sorry for poor Richard.

Posted inThe Daily Heller