After Philip Guston (1913–80) ditched abstract painting in 1971, he embraced a vulgar, raw and comic realism that increasingly sought to respond to the world and his place in it. Often featuring ominous Klansmen-like figures, his paintings and prints tapped into the general cultural malaise that followed the conventional optimism of the 1950s and countercultural utopianism of the 1960s.
Nearly a decade after Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968 with a mere 43 percent of the popular vote, nine years after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, four years after Lieutenant William Calley received a presidential pardon for killing 22 Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre and three years after the Watergate scandal brought down the nation’s 37th president, Philip Guston confessed his frustration as an abstract painter to Jerry Tallmer from the New York Post: ‘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 a frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? I thought there must be some way I could do something about it.’
Besides turning from abstraction to figuration in 1971 – setting off an artworld scandal that rivalled the one that broke out when Dylan went electric – Guston penned a suite of ink drawings (plus a single painting) that savaged the man who was formerly considered America’s most detestable president. The drawings were published posthumously (like Goya’s Disasters of War, 1810–20) as Philip Guston’s Poor Richard. The painting crystallised the repugnance and fury Guston felt for a worldhistorical figure who remains beyond redemption.
Like other artists who confront the issues of their time, Guston learned how to paint from outrage. “One could make a list of all the negative things [that compel me to] continue painting,” he declared in a 1982 documentary, “and [it] would include things like boredom, disgust, all the things you’re not supposed to think about. It’s not inspiration… but anger.” Picasso’s 1937 etching cycle Dream and Lie of Franco was a direct precursor; but so was Goya, who channelled both a hatred of superstition and the abuses of Enlightenment reason into prints and paintings that did their share of power-bashing.
Titled San Clemente, after the small California town that served as Nixon’s ‘Western White House’, Guston’s painting portrays ‘Tricky Dick’ as the very picture of rottenness. Made two years after Nixon’s resignation, it conflates two reported facts about the ex-president. The first is an infamous 1971 photo of him strolling a beach in a stiff dark suit; the second, news that he had developed a painful case of phlebitis, a debilitating but non-life-threatening condition that swelled his leg to twice its normal size.
The resulting picture, which is all hot pinks and shameful reds, features a seaside Nixon – with bloodshot eyes, hairy jowls and penislike nose – looking over his shoulder regretfully as he drags his bandaged limb across the sands. Besides having a dick for a face, the man is all diseased leg. His bloated and veiny shank stands in for his malignant state. It bursts the confines of his sock and ratty suit much like his criminal activities poisoned the office of the president of the United States. Consider Guston’s portrait of Nixon’s raging degeneracy a cautionary tale of the ravages of political corruption – then and now.
From the Summer 2018 issue of ArtReview