Philip Guston’s Splenetic Drawings of Richard Nixon Arrive Just in Time

In 1970, Guston shocked the art world when he abandoned his refined abstractions in favor of tragicomic cartoon characters influenced equally by “Krazy Kat” and early Renaissance masters


Progressives everywhere were shattered: How was it possible that a demagogic, thin-skinned, petty — and c’mon, the man is a congenital liar! — how was it possible that this charlatan had been elected president of the United States of America?

Welcome to 1968, when Richard M. Nixon won the White House by less than 1 percent of the popular vote. As Nixon’s first term gained steam — at home he championed “states’ rights,” code for lax enforcement of federally ordained civil rights laws, while abroad he instituted massive bombing campaigns against North Vietnam — the painter Philip Guston, like many liberal-minded folk, was becoming agitated. “When the 1960s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic,” he later told an interviewer. “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. 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.”

So, in 1970, Guston shocked (and dismayed) the art world when, after being widely admired for two decades as the most elegant exponent of Abstract Expressionism, he abandoned his refined style in favor of tragicomic cartoon characters influenced equally by comic strips such as “Krazy Kat” and by the paintings of early Renaissance masters, including Piero della Francesca. In July and August of 1971, amid his ongoing crises of confidence and conscience about the waning relevance of abstract art, Guston (1913-80) created a suite of ink drawings savagely skewering Nixon (1913-94) and his band of sycophants. With three large paintings and more than a hundred and seventy drawings, the “Laughter in the Dark” exhibition reveals Guston’s genius for portraying tragedy as farce (and vice versa).

These roughly ten-inch-by-fourteen-inch crosshatched drawings are deeply assured, with only dabs of Wite-Out here and there to cover the rare misstep. They begin with Nixon as a lad, covers pulled up to chin as he lies in bed listening to train whistles in the distance; soon he is seen as a young adult, a pyramid of books stacked chin-high on his lap. (Nixon’s tireless studying earned him the nickname “Iron Butt” from his classmates.) Americans already knew that Nixon had dreamed of a life beyond his hardscrabble youth, in Whittier, California, and that he was a disciplined student. Americans knew this because Nixon often included these autobiographical nuggets in the speeches he gave and the books he wrote throughout his life.

In another drawing we see Nixon, now sporting that perpetual five o’clock shadow, wearing a football uniform. We know — again, from the primary source — that Nixon was a benchwarmer during his college years, but he greatly admired the coach who told his charges, “You must never be satisfied with losing. You must get angry, terribly angry, about losing.” Nixon apparently took this advice to heart. In fact, on August 16, 1971, just as Guston was working on these satirical drawings, a highly secret memo was circulating in the White House. The cover sheet for what later became known as Nixon’s “Enemies List” begins, “This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration. Stated a bit more bluntly — how can we use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” The document goes on to float a few practical ways to “best screw them (e.g., grant availability, federal contracts, litigation, prosecution, etc.).” There was talk of tax audits, but the IRS chief was reluctant to go after the varied politicians, journalists, and celebrities on the list. Paul Newman later summed up Hollywood’s opinion of the president: “My highest single honor is that I was No. 19 on Nixon’s enemies list. All the other actors were so jealous.”

The list would not become public until the Watergate scandal emerged, in 1973. Guston’s caricatures of a brooding, jowly Nixon were instead inspired by the Leader of the Free World’s previous quarter-century of smearing opponents as Communist sympathizers, calling one female rival the “Pink Lady” — though there is debate among historians as to whether the notoriously prudish Nixon was responsible for the attack line that the Democratic candidate was “pink right down to her underwear.” Nixon curses like a drunken sailor on the tapes, but he rarely, if ever, speaks of women as sex objects; he was, by most accounts, devoted to his wife, Pat, and his two daughters. This didn’t stop Guston from creating a pair of drawings featuring Nixon attending orgies — despite his disheveled appearance (in an undershirt with “Key Biscayne” printed on it, a reference to his Florida vacation compound), the president seems not so much aloof from as flummoxed by the surrounding action. In these tableaux we get a sense of the yawning gap between a culture in the throes of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll and the emotionally constipated Quaker leading the nation. Another image, this time of Nixon’s phallic schnozzola poking into wrinkled buttocks labeled “U.S.A.,” implies a hypocrisy that turns its nose up at individuals indulging in fornication but sees nothing wrong with fucking over the entire body politic. Nixon was, after all, known to friend and foe alike as “Tricky Dick.”

Although MAD magazine and underground cartoonists such as R. Crumb were also going hammer ‘n’ tongs at Nixon, Guston was only peripherally aware of such rollicking pop culture, being much more influenced by the comic strips of his youth. His most raunchy imagery, though, was undoubtedly inspired by long conversations with his neighbor in Woodstock, New York, the novelist Philip Roth, who was himself working on a blistering satire of the Nixon administration titled Our Gang. Published in late 1971, the book opens with a quote from Jonathan Swift on the “faculty of lying”: “…he leaves me worse than in Ignorance; for I am led to believe a Thing Black when it is White, and Short when it is Long.” Roth runs with this rhetoric, presciently putting his dialogue in transcript form and having President Trick E. Dixon dismiss those concerned about American troops committing atrocities in Vietnam as “Monday Morning My Lai Quarterbacks.” He also discusses the best way to avoid causing inadvertent abortions among Vietnamese villagers during mass shootings: distributing “American-style maternity clothes for the pregnant women to wear so as to make them more distinguishable to the troops at the massacres.” The novel was, understandably, not well received in the White House. On a November 3, 1971, White House tape, Nixon can be heard asking his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, about Roth’s work.

HALDEMAN: He wrote Goodbye, Columbus, which became a very big movie, which got him some notoriety. But then his big thing is Portnoy’s Complaint, which is the most obscene, pornographic book of all time…

NIXON: Roth is of course a Jew…

HALDEMAN: Everything he’s written has been sick…

NIXON: A lot of this can be turned to our advantage… I think the anti-Semitic thing can be, I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us…

HALDEMAN: There are a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews, and the anti-Semites are with us generally and the Jews sure aren’t.

This is classic Nixon: reducing every individual to a member of a tribe that is either for or against him, and then gushing crocodile tears — “I hate to say it” — when he contemplates destroying some dissident who has dared to disrespect him.

Guston was himself Jewish. He had changed his name from Goldstein in the 1930s, thinking it might be advantageous professionally, a decision he later came to regret as a betrayal of his heritage. He was born in Montreal but, like Nixon, had grown up in Southern California. In the 1970s he often wrote notes to himself on a yellow legal pad while working in the studio. “The KKK has haunted me since I was a boy in L.A.,” he wrote on one page. “In those years, they were there mostly to break strikes, and I drew and painted pictures of conspiracies and floggings, cruelty and evil.” He goes on to wonder, “What do they do afterwards? Or before? Smoke, drink, sit around their rooms (lightbulbs, furniture, wooden floors), patrol empty streets; dumb, melancholy, guilty, fearful, remorseful, reassuring one another?” This is not the banality of evil but the schlubs of evil, and Guston includes rough floorboards, naked bulbs, and worn furniture as backdrops for Nixon and his henchmen. For a series entitled “Poor Richard,” he selected 73 of these drawings; many feature Vice President Spiro Agnew — famous for his natty attire — in loud Hawaiian shirts, with a pointy head that sometimes bears the rough stitching of a Klan hood. Two years later Agnew would resign his office amid a bribery scandal. Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, also has a conehead, and is easily identifiable by his ubiquitous pipe. Mitchell would serve nineteen months for obstruction of justice charges related to the Watergate scandal. (On Roth’s advice, Guston had sought a publisher for the “Poor Richard” series, but ultimately, because his initial exhibition of the cartoon paintings in 1970 had been so reviled, he shied away from making the drawings public, concerned that the critics would have another field day with such blatantly phallic parodies.)

When he made these drawings, Guston didn’t know about Watergate — the burglary that initiated the president’s downfall would not occur for another year. Guston does, however, delve into an earlier Nixon scandal, from 1952, when the then California senator was Eisenhower’s pick for vice president. Caught up in questions concerning a possibly illegal slush fund, Nixon went on television and bared his soul by discussing how much he owed on his mortgage, the old car he drove, and his wife’s inexpensive clothes. During what became known as the “Checkers” speech, he stated that the only thing he had ever accepted from a constituent was a dog sent to his daughters.

The speech was viewed by many citizens as hokum, but just as many were moved by Nixon’s earnestness. Political fixers, however, were simply cynical. According to one Nixon biographer, after the success of the speech, a group of operatives were having celebratory drinks when an Eisenhower aide remarked, “There was just one thing left out of the program.”

“What was that?” another staffer asked.

“It was the portion where Checkers, the Nixon dog, crawled up on Dick’s lap and licked the tears off his face.”

Guston certainly never heard that remark, but his visions of a checkerboard canine crawling all over Nixon deliver a similarly sardonic take on the episode. (A handful of drawings here were done after Nixon resigned; one features Checkers lying flat as a throw-rug under the bed on which Tricky Dick is laid out, one leg grotesquely bloated from phlebitis.)

These pre-Watergate images were inspired by a political career that, through constant pandering to the electorate’s basest instincts and a blatant disregard for facts, foreshadowed what would be one of the most shameful episodes in American history. A few drawings represent Nixon and his cronies as broken statues, shards of a corrupt empire strewn across a barren landscape. In all of these spleen-filled renderings you can almost hear the basso grumbling of the real-life Nixon — not the public pronouncements of an upright Quaker but the profane self-aggrandizing of the boozing backroom deal-cutter one hears on the Oval Office tapes. To anyone who had been paying serious attention, all those “[expletive deleted]”s in the Watergate transcripts came as no surprise, considering the self-pitying, paranoid protagonist whose grandiose idea of recording his every word for posterity brought about his own ruin.

“The American people are suckers,” Nixon says on tape on May 4, 1972. “Gray middle America — they’re suckers.” In a little over two years he would resign in disgrace. That put Guston about three years ahead of history in his portrayals of Nixon as a mendacious megalomaniac who cared more about his personal agenda than his country. Now, as we stare down the barrel of four years of white supremacism, virulent sexism, vilification of dissidents, states’ rights over civil rights, and an escalation of Us against Them strife, we gotta wonder if Guston was actually half a century ahead of the curve.

Philip Guston: ‘Laughter in the Dark, Drawings From 1971 & 1975’
Hauser & Wirth
548 West 22nd Street, 212-790-3900
Through January 14