Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 is a stunning selection of paintings and drawings of Philip Guston focusing on the artist’s satirical drawings of the 37th President of the United States: Richard Nixon. Co-curated by Sally Radic, of The Guston Foundation and Musa Mayer, the artist’s daughter, the show features over 180 works depicting Nixon and his cronies, including Guston’s infamous Poor Richard series and over 100 additional drawings.
It is a reconfiguration of the presentation first shown at Hauser & Wirth New York in 2016 and reviewed to great critical acclaim – Apollo magazine: ‘a body of work that has both historic specificity and biting, contemporary relevance’. This marks the first time the entire body of work has been presented together in the UK and is also the artist’s first solo show in London since 2010. The exhibition is accompanied by a book from Hauser & Wirth Publishers that expands on the 2001 publication from The University of Chicago Press, and features new texts from Musa Mayer and Debra Bricker Balken.
The presentation opens with ‘Alone’ and ‘In Bed II’, two paintings from 1971 that culminate Guston’s outpouring of satirical Nixon images over the months of July and August that same year. Developed through the language of caricature, these works propose a new pictorial order that conveys both the pathos of a fraught inner terrain and the impossible turmoil of the exterior world. Each painting renders a solitary figure lying awake in bed, caught in an introspective state of contemplation and foreboding.
These pictorial compositions suggest parallels between images of the young Nixon rendered in Guston’s Poor Richard series and the artist’s revealing self-portraits of later years. Noted by Charles McGrath in The New York Times: ‘The Nixon drawings share some of the vocabulary of the late Guston paintings, but have a larksome quality all their own. As the critic Peter Schjeldahl has pointed out, they’re hilarious but also compassionate in their way.’ The lexicon of images that first animated his Nixon drawings, here begins to substantiate the themes and iconography that give such potency to his late work.
The exhibition continues with the Poor Richard narrative from 1971, as well as works from The Phlebitis Series from 1975. Guston shared with Philip Roth great contempt for the newly elected Richard Nixon. This unwavering sentiment would intensify when The New York Times and The Washington Post published the so-called ‘Pentagon Papers’ in June 1971, revealing incalculable lies that had been fed to the American public about the country’s decades-long involvement in the Vietnam War.
Nixon’s attempt to prevent the leaked documents from further disclosure – a decision overruled by the Supreme Court – exposed his character to satire and served to foreshadow the revelations to come with the Watergate break-in and the cover-up that eventually brought Nixon and his administration down. In a witty rebuttal to the president’s posturing, Guston caricatured Nixon’s self-mythologising identity, sly political manoeuvres, and disposable morals into a farcical cartoon canon. Aptly summarised by Juliet Helmke of Modern Painters: ‘the drawings hit you in the gut. They’re so simple and emotionally loaded… They’re worth the time in contemplation, despite, or even because of, the gloom that they might incite’.
Works from Guston’s sketchbooks offer a closer look at the artist’s working process and the development of his imagery. Here Guston’s parodies of the president’s humble upbringings and dirt-poor youth in the drawing of a locomotive engine billowing with black smoke. As the train departs from the ocean waves and exotic palm trees of the California coast, it reminds us of Nixon’s determined path toward early political success. To complete the dramatic scene-setting Guston borrows the phrase, ‘It seems like an impossible dream…’ from Nixon’s 1968 Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech at the Republican National Convention, and memorialises it in clouds. In sketches where Nixon himself is depicted, Guston exaggerates anatomical attributes, notably Nixon’s famous five o’clock shadow, defiant gaze, swollen jowls and ever-growing nose. Nixon’s ‘schnoz’ is rendered as phallic morphology, becoming a visual cue for Guston’s condemnation of the president’s obscene deceits.
LAUGHTER IN THE DARK
HAUSER AND WIRTH GALLERY
ART & DESIGN FAIRS
ARCO MADRID 21 FEB/ 25 FEB
PAD PARIS 21 MAR/ 25 MAR
ART BRUSSELS19 APR/ 22 APR
ART COLOGNE 19 APR/ 22 APR
PHOTO LONDON 17 MAI/ 20 MAY
PHOTO BASEL 12 JUN/ 17 JUN
ART BASEL 14 JUN/ 17 JUN