Two Philips And A President
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Two Philips And A President

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

In the height of election season, Hauser & Wirth reminds viewers of an earlier era of presidential politics.

“Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975” includes 180 works, some never exhibited before. The subject: Richard M. Nixon, 37th president of the United States.

The pieces grew out of the friendship between abstract painter Philip Guston and novelist Philip Roth, who were both living in Woodstock, New York in the early 1970s. The two men would share their dismay over the political situation and their creative efforts: Roth wrote a political satire of the Nixon administration, “Our Gang,” and Guston did an extensive series of caricatures.

Some of the drawings were eventually published in “Poor Richard,” but most, from Guston’s sketchbooks, have never been shown before. This show, curated by Guston’s daughter Musa Mayer and Sally Radic of The Guston Foundation and inaugurating Hauser & Wirth’s new space, is the first time all of the pieces have been exhibited together.

“It was through lightheartedness that we connected,” Philip Roth told Mayer, who describes their admiring friendship and shared political sensibilities in “Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston” (Sieveking Verlag/Hauser & Worth). Guston, who died in 1980, wrote about their friendship in a story called “The Appointment,” about Philip the Painter and Philip the Writer, the only piece of its kind that Mayer knows about.

At a press opening for the show, Mayer said that at the time, her father wasn’t politically active in any conventional sense, but that Roth got him engaged.

Guston’s sense of line is powerful and his humor is fierce. He captures Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, jowls, long nose and expressions, and also his close allies Spiro Agnew, John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger, who is depicted as a pair of eyeglasses. The trio appear with the President in many scenes, whether on the beach at Key Biscayne, golf clubs behind them, or in scenes related to Nixon’s trip to China, with Chinese bowls and scrolls alongside.

A final drawing includes many of the elements found in the previous pieces – missiles, banners from Duke and Whittier, the signature glasses of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s swollen foot, Reverend Billy Graham — and may have been a study for a larger painting (it has markings for color and size), but, according to his daughter, he got involved in other projects and never went back to this one.

What would Guston think of the current presidential race, I ask his daughter. “He’d be in depressing despair. I’m glad he’s not here to see it.”

“Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975” is on view at Hauser & Wirth, 548 West 22nd Street, through January 14, 2016.

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