Philip Guston

In 1878, Henry James reported in these pages the outcome of Whistler v. Ruskin, the buzz of the London art scene that year. Whistler, Ruskin had written, was "a coxcomb," demanding "200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." The painter sued for libel, and was awarded nominal damages consisting of one farthing. The trial was a Gilbert & Sullivan farce brought to life, since the language of litigation in its nature is comically unsuited to aesthetic determination. Ruskin's critical and Whistler's artistic reputation were left largely unaltered by the verdict, but there is little question that it was an immense personal defeat for Ruskin. The vehemence of his critical prose registered the urgency he attributed to aesthetic matters–so to call his language into question was to call into question his vision of the world. Whistler probably was a coxcomb, whatever that Edwardian epithet means. But Ruskin was a figure of tragic stature, and the episode helped precipitate his final emotional breakdown.

The unhappy confrontation between Whistler and Ruskin is the subject of a brooding introspective aria in the second act of Modern Painters, the 1995 opera by David Lang and Manuela Hoelterhoff, based on Ruskin's life. It was an inspiration to see in Ruskin a subject suitable for operatic representation, and it recently occurred to me of how few art critics this might be true. Ruskin's tragedy was internally connected with his stature as a prophet of aesthetic redemption. If good art is as integral as he believed to a good society, art criticism is an instrument of social change. Ruskin could hardly have agreed with James that it was at most an agreeable luxury–like printed talk. And Ruskin's assessment of it has continued to inflect the art criticism of writers who might not fully subscribe to his particular social vision. How are we to explain the often punitive edge of critical invective if critics supposed themselves engaged in mere agreeable discourse–like reviewing restaurants, say, or fashion shows? The lives of art critics may not be the stuff of grand opera–but face-offs between critics and artists have at times risen to operatic heights because the art under contest was viewed by both as possessed of the greatest moral weight.

I am thinking about opera just now because the art I want to discuss here–Philip Guston's seventy-five caricatures of Richard Nixon, loosely organized to tell a story–has its subject and something of its tone in common with the 1987 opera Nixon in China, by John Adams and Alice Goodman. If someone were inspired to compose an opera Guston in Woodstock–the upstate New York village to which Guston withdrew after a critical debacle in 1970–the climactic moment of it would be an agon between the artist and the Ruskinian critic Hilton Kramer. Kramer was by no means alone in deploring the turn Guston's art had taken in a wildly controversial exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery. But the language of his review in the New York Times, of which he was then chief art critic, was worthy of Ruskin in acid indignation, and a librettist would have no difficulty in composing a fierce duet between the opposed protagonists. The contest, however, was far deeper than that which pitted Ruskin against Whistler. It was deeper not just because Guston was deeper as an artist and a man than Whistler ever aspired to be, but because nothing less than the future of art history was at stake. Kramer understood that the kind of art Guston was now making–to which the Nixon drawings belong–was radically inconsistent with the art to which he as a critic was dedicated in every fiber of his being. The contest was, in my view, a surface reflection of a deep turn in art history. Kramer saw in Guston the betrayer of a shared faith. What he could not acknowledge was that Guston was helping consolidate a new artistic order.

The review's headline, quoted now whenever Guston is written about, was "A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum." Not only are the words demeaning, but together they condense Guston's career into an unedifying tale of artistic opportunism. Guston had in fact been regarded as the most lyrical of the Abstract Expressionists, and in the spirit of full disclosure I admit to having adored Guston's abstractions at the time. I adore them still: I cannot look at one of those dense, shimmering works without feeling the exaltation of pure beauty. In the way in which they crowd the center of their canvases, they put me in mind of how Morandi's boxes and bottles endeavor to occupy one another's spaces in the middle of his compositions. The late critic David Sylvester, who admired them, wrote in 1963 that Guston is "committed to luxury. His paint is exceedingly rich, even luscious–in its texture, in its implications of high virtuosity." Sylvester compared them with Monet's late paintings of waterlilies, and described the paintings as intensely withdrawn and private. The 1970 paintings, by total contrast, were huge pictures of Ku Klux Klan figures in patched hoods, executed in a kind of classical comic-strip style that was being reinvented at the time by Robert Crumb in Zap Comix. It owed something to Krazy Kat, something to Mutt and Jeff, something to Moon Mullins. I greatly admire Guston's raw Klanscapes, but it would be an aesthetic category mistake to speak of adoring them. They were not designed to gratify the eye but to injure the viewer's sensibility. Kramer had no better way of characterizing him than as pretending to a na vet Guston did not honestly possess. So he was a false lyricist now masquerading as an artistic lowlife–a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum. Kramer probably did not write the headline, but I'll co-opt whoever did for my libretto. And I'll use Guston's own words from the time to give me my duet: "I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories."

Artistic purity was much in the air at the beginning of the 1960s. In his profoundly influential Modernist Painting of 1960, Clement Greenberg described Modernism as a set of purgations, in which each of the arts seeks to identify what is essential to its defining medium, and eliminate everything else. "Thus would each art be rendered 'pure,' and in its 'purity' find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as its independence." For Greenberg, illusion was an impurity in painting, which properly should be abstract. Using their own words, we can imagine another duet, early in Guston in Woodstock, between Greenberg and Guston. For Guston must have had Greenberg's thesis precisely in mind when, sitting on a panel that took place around that same time, he said, "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is 'impure.' It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden." The confrontation could hardly be more stark. But it sounds as if it refers to the dilemma that defined artistic consciousness from the onset of abstraction and became acute in America in the 1940s–whether to paint the figure or go abstract. There was certainly a dramatic moment in the lives of each of the Abstract Expressionists, with the exception perhaps of Motherwell, when they left the figure behind and discovered the style through which each became a master. Guston himself had gone through the crisis. But his painting of 1970 marked a crisis of an entirely different order. Guston did not merely do the figure, as de Kooning had done in 1953 with his famous Women. For de Kooning had discovered a way of having his cake and eating it too–painting the figure using the same gestures that were so effective in his great abstractions. But Guston did the figure in a way that repudiated his entire philosophy of painting. It was, Guston later wrote, "as though I had left the Church: I was excommunicated for a while." The shift was precisely as dramatic as that from mandarin to stumblebum. It really was like leaving the Church. But the decision was not merely artistic. It was a moral decision that took an artistic form.

The question for Guston was how one could go on painting beautiful pictures when the world was falling apart. The pursuit of aesthetic purity was not an acceptable option. For Kramer, to abandon aesthetics was to forsake art. Obviously this was not Guston's view. He needed to find an art that was consistent with his moral disquiet. "The Vietnam War was what was happening in America, the brutality of the world." And here his language really does take on a lyrical intonation:

 

What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything–and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was waiting. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.

 

I assume this soliloquy refers to the time of his retrospective exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966. The abstractions of those years, one can now see, had a crude, inchoate quality. But that was not the road Guston was seeking. "There is nothing to do now," he went on, "but to paint my life…. Keep destroying any attempt to paint pictures, or think about art. If someone bursts out laughing in front of my painting, that is exactly what I want and expect."

Guston began to work in two ways in the months ahead. "I remember days of doing 'pure' drawings immediately followed by days of doing the other, drawings of objects…. Books, shoes, buildings, hands–feeling a relief and strong need to cope with tangible things." It is this return to the commonplace objects of daily life, away from the exalted forms of Abstract Expressionism, that became the central truth of 1960s art–in Fluxus particularly, but also in Pop and even in Minimalism. The impulse came from Zen, which had become so strong a spiritual current in New York intellectual life. With John Cage, Guston attended Dr. Suzuki's seminar in Zen at Columbia University, and he often alluded to Zen ideas in his discourse. On the other hand, he was conflicted about Pop. With several other Abstract Expressionists, he left the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1962 in protest because it had organized an exhibition of Pop. But by 1967 he saw, through the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, the power of vernacular illustration. Unlike Lichtenstein, who used the vocabulary of the comics to ironize high art, Guston was able to make it his own. He was not pretending–he became a Zen stumblebum. The drawings were and are brilliant. This may have solved his artistic quandaries, but not his moral ones. For this he made use of the Klan.

The Klansmen, drawn in his new comic-strip style, were depicted in the Marlborough paintings wearing tattered hoods, with slotted eyeholes, riding through empty urban streets in stubby roadsters like Mutt and Jeff, holding smoking cigar stumps between two extended gloved fingers, or moving hither and thither in desolate symbolic landscapes, filled with coarsely painted clocks, severed limbs, shoes, boards studded with bent nails and a sun rising–or setting–behind the horizon. In one, titled The Studio, a Klansman, holding the omnipresent cigar, is shown painting a self-portrait under a bare light bulb. In later years, Guston acknowledged that Studio was a kind of self-portrait–that the hooded figures were all self-portraits in a way. "I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan and plot." He was painting the evil in each of us in a style every one of us knew. When he was a mandarin in 1957, he did an exquisite abstraction called The Mirror. When he became a stumblebum in 1970 he painted the kind of moral mirror in which Hamlet meant to catch the conscience of the king.

The Nixon drawings belong to the last great phase of Guston's career, and they constitute a kind of comic intermezzo. All seventy-five of them were done in Woodstock in the late summer of 1971, and they appear to have been conceived as frames in a kind of comic-strip book, narrating the self-mythologizing life of our scariest politician. Guston titled the book Poor Richard and made unsuccessful efforts to get it published. The book's version of Nixon's story was in any case overtaken by history. It was overtaken in the first instance by triumph–Nixon actually went to China in February 1972, whereas that event is treated with a fictive indefiniteness in Poor Richard (the drawings having been completed the previous year). And of course it was overtaken by Nixon's disgrace–by Watergate and resignation–in the years that immediately followed. So the drawings remained almost unknown to any but specialists in Guston's work until now, when, thanks to the initiative of Debra Bricker Balken, they have been reproduced in their entirety in the new book Poor Richard (University of Chicago), together with a spirited explanatory essay by her, telling how they came about. Moreover, the originals can be seen at the David McKee Gallery, 645 Fifth Avenue, New York City, September 7-October 6, and enjoyed for their sharp humor and graphic brilliance. I can think of no historical parallel in which a great artist has shown himself to be a cartoonist of genius while engaging himself directly in the political reality of his moment–though Picasso used a comic-strip format in the two etchings of the Dreams and Lies of Franco.

Who knows what impact they might have had? Caricature has at times succeeded in putting certain public figures in a light so unflattering that their power has been damaged and even destroyed. It became almost impossible for the French to take Louis Philippe seriously once they saw him through Daumier's drawings as having the form of a pear–the term connotes stupidity. Thomas Nast found such damaging ways of drawing Boss Tweed and his corrupt Tammany cohorts that they were graphically and then politically discredited. Nixon's nose and stubbled jowls were a ready-made cartoon, with an irresistible resemblance to a cock and balls, which is the way Guston shows him. Poor Richard is perhaps too playful–too funny really–to have inflamed public indignation beyond the point it had already reached at the time. But who can really say? What would we think had Daumier's lithographs remained hidden until today, and all we knew were his marvelous paintings of Don Quixote and peasant women in a railway wagon? Or if Thomas Nast did not have the outlet of Harper's Weekly, and the fierce caricatures of Boss Tweed were discovered in an attic years after his death? The powers that images can release are unpredictable, which is why censorship exists. Even at their brilliant best, of course, there would have been a moral disproportion between the ludic preposterousness of Nixon and his cronies–Spiro Agnew, John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger, as they are depicted in Poor Richard–and the actual evils of Vietnam and Cambodia. Still, Nixon's soiled image has been so cleaned and polished since his fall that the historically unaware might think him a candidate for Mount Rushmore. So Guston's drawings might after all do some real good in reminding us of the abject truth of a personage whose unique character so combined evil and absurdity.

Nixon is first shown as a college football player, with shoulder pads and a varsity letter. His features had not yet evolved into their genital configuration, though the nose shows phallic promise. He is given Little Orphan Annie eyes to emblematize his sham innocence. We next see the politically obligatory poverty of his childhood home–a log-cabin-style interior with wood stove and log pile, and a volume titled LINCOLN prominently displayed on a bare table. In the next frame Nixon is hitting the books hard, under a bare light bulb (note the volume titled WILSON). Soon he is standing in his patched and ragged garments with his faithful dog Checkers (in an inspired touch, Guston shows the latter with checkerboard markings). Suddenly we are at Key Biscayne, Nixon's favorite hang-out, soon to be kept company by Kissinger (always represented as a pair of walking horn-rimmed glasses); Agnew, in Hawaiian shirt and inseparable from his bag of golf clubs; and Mitchell, never without his pipe. This is the cast of characters. Pat–who plays an important role in Nixon in China–is not to be seen.

I'll let the rights to Guston in Woodstock go–well–for a song. But it has some wonderful theatrical possibilities I have not mentioned, like a scene at the Marlborough opening, where a chorus of Tenth Street painters sing "This isn't painting, Phil." Guston and de Kooning throw their arms around each other, caroling together "It's all about freedom" (Chorus: "This isn't painting, Bill"). Then a scene back at Woodstock, where Guston and his neighbor, Philip Roth, entertain each other with their hilarious Nixon imitations (Roth's satire Our Gang was, like Poor Richard, an artistic product of those sessions). History gives us a better ending than Guston dared dream of: Nixon bidding farewell to his presidency as Kissinger's glasses mist with tears–and a pilgrim chorus of Neo-Expressionist painters singing Guston's triumph as the curtain falls.