What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

October 31, 2019

Philip Guston
Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971
Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles
September 14, 2019 - January 5, 2020

Philip Guston

Of late, impeachment is on everyone's mind. It is mentioned in the news on a daily basis as more and more accusations are leveled against President Trump. Few presidents have been impeached and none removed from office. Nixon resigned, Johnson and Clinton were acquitted in the Senate. What happens to Trump remains to be seen.

Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971 is a must-see exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles consisting of works three discreet bodies of work Guston made or began in 1971. This was a prolific year for Guston. He was an artist in residence at the American Academy in Rome for five months where he created numerous small-scale paintings (presented in the exhibition as "The Roma Paintings") that abstractly referenced the relics, ruins and landscape of the ancient city. Upon return to the United States, Guston found America in turmoil. Nixon was in his first term, the war in Vietnam was raging and Guston needed to make sense of things.

Mostly created in the month of August, the second section of the show is The Nixon Drawings, consisting of over a hundred ink on paper works. In these pieces, Guston imagined Nixon's early years: growing up in Whittier, CA, as well as the trajectory toward his presidency with an ironic wit and satirical eye. Surprisingly, these works were never exhibited or published during Guston's lifetime (1913-1980) and it was not until much later that his daughter allowed the drawings to be exhibited and published. A book, Poor Richard, based on Guston's original sequence of 73 drawings, was published in 2001, however, they were not exhibited until 2016 when Hauser & Wirth organized an exhibition for their New York gallery. In 2017, they also showed them in London and are now on view in their Los Angeles space (through Jan 5, 2020).

When we view these images today, it is through the lens of history. We know Nixon was impeached and resigned from office. We know there was a scandal around Watergate. We know when the war in Vietnam ended and what the outcome was. In 1971, none of this was on record. It was a time before social media and Instagram and Tweets. The way news was communicated was more limited and Guston relied on the morning newspaper, radio and television broadcasts for much of his source material.

Nixon's unpredictable and corrupt politics angered Guston. Returning from Rome and confronted with uncertainty, he focused on the politics of the day. A skilled draftsman with a keen eye and wry sense of humor, Guston created a body of work that played with Nixon's extreme features. He imagined Nixon's daily life, fears and fate. In retrospect, what he created feels true. How these drawings might have been received at the time remains unknown.

In thinking about the daily bombardment of images and texts by and about Trump that we receive today and our constant access to breaking news, creating a series of works about today's presidential blunders would be relatively easy. Jim Carrey's project IndigNATION, which was on view at Maccarone Gallery, Los Angeles in 2018, comes immediately to mind as an example of a recent body of work satirizing and criticizing our current president.

Guston's Nixon Drawings however, cannot really be separated from his other works and seeing them in context with paintings also made in 1971 sheds light on his struggles, process and motivations. His reductive style, pink-toned palette and now iconic forms were not fully embraced when originally presented. The return to figuration in the form of drawing was a way for Guston to reflect on how art and politics might fit together.

The drawings from Poor Richard include depictions of Nixon with bushy eye brows, a long nose and prominent chin. The title image, "Poor Richard" depicts Nixon at the beach under a blanket and umbrella. His dog Checkers stands on his extended body, kissing his nose. Objects surround him including a hat, sherifs' star, small TV, baseball bat, food items and some of his pipe-smoking cronies. In another drawing (all are untitled, 1971) Nixon is bodyless— just a long nosed head vacationing in Key Biscayne along with golf club carrying and pipe-smoking figures. Kissinger is depicted as a pair of thick black eye glasses. Agnew is a shown as a triangular shaped head. Guston was a facile satirist who indulged in pushing the boundaries of caricature. He was informed about Nixon's missteps and was able to create exaggerated depictions of his trials and tribulations. With Poor Richard, Guston shares affinities with Tiepolo, Goya, Daumier and Picasso— other artists who created in-depth series devoted to political and social causes.

The show concludes with five large paintings, grouped together as "Next Forms." Perhaps the 1971 painting, Alone sheds light on Guston's struggles with his practice and his place in a changing world. This large painting illustrates, in his pictographic style, a man alone in his bed, his head resting sideways on a pillow. Out the window is the city. The painting depicts sadness and despair, as if the subject can't face the day and connect to the things around him. While how we view Guston's work now does take into consideration how it was received when first presented, the wrath of criticism took its toll. It is only through the lens of history that we can understand how and why Guston created these works that are rightly celebrated today.