On ViewHauser & Wirth
Resilience: Philip Guston In 1971
September 14, 2019 – January 5, 2020
The catalog for Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971 concludes with an excerpt from a letter by Guston to his friend, the poet Bill Berkson. It reads, “Forces seem to be at work, all unpredictable.” Guston is, of course, referring to developments in his studio, yet his aphoristic formulation about the wonders of the creative process, as he saw them when he wrote the letter in early 1972, could easily apply to the entirety of his career—from the various breakthroughs that benchmark his decades-long output to the breakdowns they wrought, including the tired tale of backlash against his 1970 exhibition of figurative paintings, executed in a style that is now considered quintessentially Guston, at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York.
Given the artist’s exalted place in the pantheon of 20th-century painters—an appointment granted in no small part to honor his tenacity despite critical rejection—and the inseparable romanticization of his struggles vis-à-vis his overall renown, one might find his tribulations undeserving of sympathy. After all, he made it! Such is the after-effect of his legend built by forces hard at work to secure his image as a triumphant genius.
In the case of Resilience, the forces responsible for its production are entirely predictable: his estate in all its authority. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the exhibition is exactly what one might expect. The work is masterful. The catalogue is handsome. The curatorial premise—to showcase the artworks Guston made in the year following the Marlborough-Gerson controversy while in residence at the American Academy in Rome (and shortly thereafter), and thereby reinforce his mythos as a phoenix for the modern painter—is compelling.
The whole endeavor neither demands nor needs additional praise; it has been refined to the point of sacredness, making it indisputable. Were one to tender a disparaging word about the artworks, one would find oneself in bed with the naysayers of 1970 who ended up on the wrong side of history, like Hilton Kramer, whose New York Times review of the Marlborough-Gerson show, “A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum,” apparently stung Guston the sharpest. And really, what more can one say about the 1971 “Roma” paintings that compose half of the exhibition, other than to confirm their importance? Yes, Guston’s studies of antique forms align him with the foundational humanities of Western culture; and yes, the trademark “hoods” are mercurial symbols of the moral/immoral self; and, above all, yes, by making this work Guston persevered and in doing so provided a great service to every future artist who has an underdog impulse and a story to tell, even if it is unwelcome.
Ironic that the other half of Resilience consists of selected “Nixon drawings” from 1971—including a full presentation of a subset entitled “Poor Richard”—which Guston was reluctant to share with a fickle public. The series viciously satirizes President Richard M. Nixon (another person who ended up on the wrong side of history) on his rise to power, from his earliest days as a poor boy in Southern California into his first Presidential term. Tradition holds that the political cartoon lampoons the actions and idiosyncrasies of the heads of state, but tradition was not equipped for the manic vim with which Guston accepted its charge.
That Nixon’s face is drawn to look like a cock and balls is Guston’s least insane invention, though it lends itself to obscene jokes. What is perhaps more outré is the off-the-rails narrative in “Poor Richard” Guston concocted for Nixon’s then-forthcoming visit to the People’s Republic of China, a diplomatic voyage rife with hypocrisy given the administration’s fervent anti-communist platform. In the China sequence, Nixon enjoys a wild ride through a stereotyped vision of the land, accompanied by his pals Spiro Agnew (depicted as a pyramidal blockhead) and Henry Kissinger (depicted only as a pair of glasses).They desport themselves at the beach, ride in rickshaws, float in sampans, and speak “Chinese” via speech bubbles containing faux-Hanzi. Racist tropes emerge as brazen commentary on the politicians’ social ineptitude and amorality. One drawing features Nixon sporting a queue hairstyle and a “Fu Manchu” moustache, which he gazes upon in a mirror, bemused. The trio appear at a costume party in another, where Nixon is inexplicably dressed in blackface. At the end of “Poor Richard,” their reputations are reduced to associated foodstuffs. Kissinger is assigned the pot pie; Agnew gets the sponge cake. Nixon gets a face-shaped cookie (a visual pun for “milquetoast”) that foreshadows the glass of milk accompanying his resignation lunch, three years later, of cottage cheese and pineapple.
Resilience aims to shim another layer of complexity into an already complex, if abundantly charted, career. Preceding the artist’s retrospective Philip Guston Now, opening in 2020 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, perhaps the goal is to prove there remains more to explore. Were Guston’s legacy less strategically adamantine, this might well be possible.