Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975
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How can you go about your everyday business when it feels like the world is collapsing around you? When Richard Nixon started dragging America through a swamp of war, death and corruption in the 1970s, Philip Guston couldn’t just keep painting in the same old way. It felt fake, a betrayal. So he abandoned abstraction, largely abandoned paint, and turned to satire.
The 70-odd drawings here cobble together a rough narrative of Nixon’s life and time in office. Guston traces Nixon as he delivers TV addresses, lambasts his advisors, swims in the sea and lies in bed. And Nixon’s face is ripe for lampooning; a great heaving mound of bulbous, rolling flesh, sashaying away into all sorts of burbling pink hillocks. Guston shows him as a living cock ’n’ balls, a literal dickhead, his big cheeks rendered as inflated hairy testes, his nose a long drooping knob.
They’re all rough, quick sketches; the anguished outpourings of a furious man. The drawings are neat, but the three paintings show Guston in something approaching full force, especially the one of Nixon weeping over his giant swollen foot.
Guston isn’t a great satirist, he’s too indirect, too artfully minded to get his point across succinctly. But as the obsessive reactions of a man trying to deal with the pain and shame of a dumb, corrupt, violent president, these drawings feel prescient, powerful and necessary.
Guston shows you that if you can’t cry, you have to laugh, and if you can’t laugh, then you’ve got to mock. Let’s hope someone picks up that baton.