Laughing at the President: Philip Guston Draws Richard Nixon

As the US presidential inauguration approaches, provoking revulsion and celebration in various quarters, an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s New York gallery is reminding visitors of a Cold War precedent for the current political turmoil. Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 is devoted to the American artist’s satirical images of Richard Nixon, whose controversial presidency was brought to a premature end in 1974 following the infamous Watergate scandal.

Philip Guston’s art had always been influenced by contemporary politics. Early in his career, as a mural artist, Guston created works in support of the falsely imprisoned Scottsboro Boys and travelled to Mexico to learn from revolutionary Communist artists including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In the 1930s, Guston worked for the New Deal art programmes, before joining many of his contemporaries in the late 1940s to pioneer Abstract Expressionism, typified in the painting of his high school friend, Jackson Pollock.

Guston began his Nixon drawings soon after he had returned to New York from a prolonged stay in Italy. He had fled to Europe in 1970 following a savage response by the New York art world to his abandonment of abstraction in favour of a dystopian and comically vulgar figurative style. This imagery, for which Guston is now best known, was prompted by the divisive atmosphere in the United States as the country faced up to its failure in the Vietnam War, social unrest raged in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and neoconservatism began to  permeate government organisations. Guston later recalled, “What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? … I am weary of all this purity”.

As Guston adjusted to life after abstraction, he turned to drawing to express his anger at the Nixon administration, just as the ‘Pentagon Papers’ scandal was uncovering the lies told to the American public about the military campaign in Vietnam. Guston took inspiration from his conversations with the writer Philip Roth, whose own aversion to Nixon simultaneously resulted in the satirical novel Our Gang.

The 180 pen-and-ink drawings on display at Hauser & Wirth are surreal, cartoonish and at times juvenile. Guston’s highly unflattering portrayal of Nixon sees the president depicted as a monstrous phallic figure, that in turn morphs into other ridiculous characters including a cat, a cookie, a lost astronaut, and a stone monument. The display includes both the Poor Richard series of 1971 and the Phlebitis series of 1975. These series respectively pour scorn on Nixon’s self-mythologisation through exaggerated tales of his youth and use the physical ailments of the by-then-resigned president to allegorise his moral decay. [Watch the ‘Poor Richard’ series on YouTube.] The exhibition also features several paintings on a similar theme, such as San Clemente, as well as more contemplative self portraits of the artist, lying alone in bed, unable to sleep.

There is still a month left to see the exhibition that Hyperallergic describes as “a tool kit for satirizing loathsome presidents”. Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 continues at Hauser & Wirth until 28 January 2017.

All images by Philip Guston. Untitled from the series Poor Richard, 1971, ink on paper; San Clemente, 1975, oil on canvas; Alone, 1971, oil on canvas. © Estate of Philip Guston/Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

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Painting the Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive was a defining moment in the Vietnam War. The series of surprise attacks were launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army against South Vietnam and their allies on 30 January 1968. During one of the largest military campaigns of the war, more than 80,000 soldiers attacked targets in over 100 towns and cities across Vietnam. Although the operation eventually resulted in defeat for the North Vietnamese, it is remembered as the moment when the United States government and public belatedly realised the power of their enemy.

The response to the Tet Offensive was depicted in a series of paintings and drawings by Ken McFadyen. In August 1967 he had been posted to Vietnam for 7 months as an official war artist recording Australia’s involvement in the conflict. McFadyen had undergone jungle warfare training in Queensland before his departure, as he was expected to wield weapons as well as paintbrushes should it be required.

The life of a war artist in Vietnam was both emotionally and physically demanding. In stifling heat, humidity and torrential rain, McFadyen had to carry full combat equipment on top of his art materials while risking his life alongside his fellow soldiers. He recalls at one point feeling “very tired, wet and muddy, covered in small black leeches competing with thousands of amber coloured ants for a place on my body”.

Despite these challenges McFadyen was able to produce vivid oil paintings and technically accurate drawings depicting troops heading into battle, search and destroy missions, daily life on the bases, and military vehicles. The artworks are now held in the Australian War Memorial near Canberra. In 2010, a selections was published under the title Vietnam on Canvas. You can watch a slideshow of the images here:

Images: Ken McFadyen. Top – Disembarking from Chinook helicopter, 1967. Oil on canvas on hardboard, 45.2 x 39.2 cm; Bottom – Blindfolding a Viet Cong, 1968. Oil on canvas on hardboard, 96.4 x 81.5 cm. Courtesy Australian War Memorial

Exhibition of the Month: Involuntary Memories

Former US President and devoted Cold Warrior Richard Nixon is the inspiration behind a current exhibition in his home town of Yorba Linda, California.

Involuntary Memories is a collection of large-scale pen and ink drawings by American artist Deborah Aschheim, woven together with text drawn from a series of oral interviews. Deborah Aschheim conducted the interviews and produced the illustrations during a 7-month residency at the studios of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, CA. The park was formerly the site of El Toro, a Marine Corps airbase which Nixon used as an airport when travelling between Washington, DC and his ‘Western White House’ in San Clemente.

As part of her wider project to develop a “sprawling bi-partisan tapestry of community memories of that era”, Aschheim gathered personal recollections from visitors to the park of the 37th President and the Vietnam War. This project in collective memory provides a novel insight into a far-reaching moment in Cold War history.

The exhibition continues at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, CA until 28 September 2014. You can see further examples of Aschheim’s illustrations on her website, along with installation shots of the exhibition.

Images: Deborah Aschheim. Top – November 20, 1964 (UC Berkeley), 2013; Bottom – April 30, 1970 (Washington), 2012. Courtesy the Artist

Conspiracy: The Artist as Witness

The sensational trial of the Chicago Seven, which lasted almost a year from 1969 to 1970, became a focal point for campaigns against American involvement in the Vietnam War. The seven defendants were charged with conspiracy to incite violence and riots relating to the countercultural protests that took place outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention from 26 to 29 August.

For five days and nights, anti-war groups united to stage a series of demonstrations, rallies and marches declaiming President Johnson’s policies in Vietnam. In response police used tear gas and batons to deter the campaigners. In the aftermath of these confrontations politicians and judges were divided as to whether protesters or police were primarily to blame for the violence.

During a colourful trial, the seven protesters accused of spearheading the dissent used the courtroom to mock the United States government and the prejudiced legal system. Ultimately all defendants were acquitted of conspiracy, but five of the group were sentenced to five years each imprisonment for inciting the riots.

In 1971 prominent anti-war artists campaigned against the convictions with the publication of a portfolio of 12 lithographs and screenprints under the title Conspiracy: The Artist as Witness. Contributors included Alexander Calder, Leon Golub, Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenberg, Frank Stella and Peter Saul. Eventually in November 1972 the imprisoned members of the Chicago Seven were released after an appeal found evidence of cultural and racial bias throughout the trial.

Images: Top – Romare Howard Bearden, Mother and Child; Bottom – Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, They Will Torture You, My Friend. From Conspiracy: The Artist as Witness, 1971. Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago.

What & Where: Death of Rubén Salazar

What: Death of Rubén Salazar, oil painting by Frank Romero, 1986
Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

The killing of Los Angeles Times journalist Rubén Salazar on 29 August 1970 highlighted the impact that Cold War politics had on all sections of American society. On the day of his death, Salazar was reporting on a march organised by the Chicano Moratorium, a group protesting against the Vietnam War and the disproportionate number of Mexican-Americans who were serving or had been killed.

As the police staged an aggressive response to break up the peaceful rally, Salazar was shot in the head with a tear gas projectile by a sheriff’s deputy. As Salazar was a vocal critic of police brutality against Los Angeles’ Latino community many believed his death was premeditated. Yet although the inquest ruled a homicide, his killer was never prosecuted.

16 years later the tragic tale of Rubén Salazar was the inspiration behind a large canvas by LA painter Frank Romero. In the 1960s and ’70s, Romero had been part of the artistic circle Los Four, producing emotionally-charged murals that recorded political events affecting the Latino community. In Death of Rubén Salazar he combined this Mexican revolutionary tradition with the bold colours popular in the East LA barrio. In the painting, as police storm the Silver Dollar Bar where Salazar was shot, the movie theatre on the right announces its feature: La Muerte de Rubén Salazar.

You can read more about the painting on the Smithsonian American Art Museum website and listen to an interview with the artist here.

Image: Frank Romero, Death of Rubén Salazar, 1986. Oil on canvas, 183.5 x 305.8 cm. Smithsonian American Art Museum

The United States Air Force Art Collection

ESPIONART has previously reported on the art collections of some unlikely American institutions, including the NASA Art Program, the Navy Art Collection and the DIA Military Art Collection.

Another to add to that list is the United States Air Force Art Collection, which was created in 1950, just as the Cold War was beginning to heat up. Soon afterwards the USAF Art Program was also founded, arranging for selected artists to travel with the Air Force to locations around the world and record its activities. The artists were chosen from professional groups across the country and in particular the Society of Illustrators.

Today the collection, held in the Pentagon, contains nearly 9,000 works. While the majority of the paintings and drawings are aviation art, with detailed depictions of everything from bombers and missiles to gunships and cargo planes, there is also a large number of more general military scenes, portraits of noted Air Force personnel, images of civilians affected by warfare and original artwork for Air Force recruitment posters. Key events from the Cold War include the Berlin Airlift and the Fall of Saigon.

The United States Air Force Art Collection has been digitised and is now available to view online.

Images: Top – Emilio Arias, The Collapse of Viet Cong, n.d. (1975); Bottom – Gil Cohen, Berlin Airlift / Staying Power – Berlin, 1948–49. Courtesy United States Air Force Art Collection.

Featured Artist: Alexander Calder

Perhaps the most celebrated American sculptor of the 20th century, Alexander Calder is especially well-known for his abstract and seemingly innocuous mobiles. These would become a common feature in official American exhibitions at world fairs and international art festivals during the 1950s – including at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. In this context they were presented as examples of ‘free’ art produced within a democratic society and devoid of political meaning. Yet the use of Calder’s work as state propaganda would increasingly run into conflict with the artist’s own politics.

As the recent article ‘Unstable Motives: Propaganda, Politics, and the Late Work of Alexander Calder‘ explores in detail, in the 1960s and ’70s Calder become increasingly activist and critical of US foreign policy, with his new-found radicalism reflected in his artwork.

In later life Calder began to produce prints, posters and even badges in support of presidential candidates, anti-war protests and refugee relief operations. Calder was also one of a group of artists who publicly refused to take part in the White House Arts Festival of 1965, in a show of opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet against the artist’s wishes his work Whale II was placed centre stage at the event, having been lent by MoMA. This story perfectly sums up the often difficult relationship between American artists and the US government as the changing politics of the Cold War challenged their ability to work together.

Images: Top – Senator J. William Fulbright and President Lyndon B. Johnson examine Calder’s Whale II at the White House Festival of the Arts, 1965. Photo: Yoichi Okamoto; Bottom – Alexander Calder, Mankind Must Put an End to War or War Will Put an End to Mankind, 1975. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Art © 2012 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.