The timing could not be better for “Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971.”
That was the year the highly respected Abstract Expressionist painter (1913-80) fled New York for Rome, after the establishment art world crashed down on his head. Guston had the audacity to set aside pure abstraction, the putative “triumph of American art,” and dared to show new figurative paintings in a gallery show the prior October. Friends became moralizing enemies.
At Hauser & Wirth, 48 mostly small paintings and three drawings show him feeling his way through the ordeal. (Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, organized the exhibition.) According to the gallery, this is the first Guston show in L.A. in more than half a century.
It’s not the paintings that stand out though. Yes, there are some enlightening examples — Guston depicting an artist jamming stubby fingers at a resistant canvas, showing civilization’s ruins being rebuilt in plain but lovingly rendered bricks, pondering fragments of lost ancient grandeur and more.
Perhaps the most important are the hooded figures. Images that derive from conservative Catholic penitents — a person who confesses sins and seeks absolution — merges with a marauding Ku Klux Klansman, a cruel villain of American history. The paintings, many of them on paper, set a significantly contradictory tone about the complexities of power, faith and humility.
The big reason to see the show, however, is the suite of 146 pen and ink drawings made that summer when the artist came back to the United States. Guston’s searingly funny caricatures of Richard M. Nixon and his corrupt White House cronies, drawn mostly in short, crabbed lines, have been exhibited only twice before — once in Manhattan (2016) and once in London (2017). Today, in 2019, as presidential scandals erupt and an impeachment inquiry unfolds, be prepared for flashbacks.
There is Vice President (emphasis on “vice”) Spiro Agnew, his head a KKK lump. Henry Kissinger is but a chunky pair of hovering black eyeglasses, sometimes recalling a bat and sometimes bobbing on a choppy sea. Attorney General (and soon to be convict) John Mitchell is a flaccid, pendulous blob of pipe-smoking goo.
But it’s Nixon who astounds.
Guston grew up near Whittier, the 37th president’s birthplace, and he had watched the Vietnam-era goings-on with mounting disgust. He has the White House crew cavort on the beach at Key Biscayne, Fla., home of Nixon’s winter retreat and residence of his infamous pal Charles “Bebe” Rebozo. Elsewhere Guston displays the president toying with symbols of his racism, scaling a mountain of cruel religiosity (Billy Graham fares poorly) and propounding law-and-order fraudulence.
Unsurprisingly, Guston draws Nixon with beady, shifty eyes. But they lurk above a sloping nose that is morphing into a penis and jowls that swell as a bulbous scrotum. In the juxtaposition, the nickname “Tricky Dick” takes pointed, devastating form.
But it’s seldom crude. The suavity characteristic of Guston’s otherwise different abstract paintings remains stylistically intact, and it carries these caricatures through.
In 1971, Guston went to Rome, site of one ancient crashed empire, then returned home to find a modern one teetering on the brink. The journey gives one pause. You’ll find yourself wondering what he might have done today, with another White House on the skids.