In Philip Guston’s pictures we see a panorama of scabrousness, of clogged desire, a cloaca of thwarted vigour, a pestilent ague. This is – perhaps surprisingly – a balsam to the nerves and over-active mind.
Did Guston mean to depict Richard Nixon, his subject at Hauser & Wirth in London (until July 29), like this? Perhaps he was drawing from his own state of mind. Guston and Nixon seemed to have various similarities. They were both born in 1913 and grew up in relatively hardscrabble backgrounds in southern California. Both also loathed their critics in the print media (Nixon loved TV). They also went through the biggest change in their lives in 1968: Nixon with his presidential campaign (he assumed office in 1969) and Guston with his abandonment of the Abstract Expressionism of De Kooning and Motherwell and his journey into the style he is known and celebrated for today.
Guston’s Neo-Expressionist, semi-figurative, highly humorous, candy coloured cartoons have a power to display the bog-ugly id, the under-evolved subconscious hiding in the scrub. “I don’t think about beauty, anyway, I don’t know what the word is,” he would say. “But no, I don’t plan the crudeness.”
The New York School, as Guston preferred to call Abstract Expressionism, emerged from a 1930s West Coast school that had looked to Cubism and eschewed the formal “beauty” of the concurrent, parochial Regionalist movement. Guston came from the former side.
Guston had his annus horribilis in 1970, when an exhibition of his new, Neo-Expressionist stuff at Marlborough Gallery in New York, was panned by critics. He was called “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum” by one – in an echo of his new vernacular style. He retreated to Woodstock to lick his wounds, accompanied by the novelist Philip Roth.
Guston, an avid magazine reader, devoured everything about his hated Nixon, reviling what he perceived as false modesty, self-pity, base deviousness and an ability to remorselessly scrape himself out of a jam. Roth, a fellow Nixon-hater, would share dinners with Guston, which would be fuel to two fires – Roth’s novel Our Gang and this, Guston’s series of drawings, completed mostly in July and August 1971.
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