Philip Guston: 'Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975' at Hauser & Wirth, London

Exhibition: Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975

Gallery: Hauser & Wirth London, 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET

Dates: 19 May – 29 July 2017

Website (for images):

Review by William Davie

There is a risk that when an exhibition focuses on specific works from an artist’s extensive career, the exhibition could feel flat and too focused. In Hauser and Wirth’s current London exhibition, Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975, this is the case. Showcasing over 180 satirical drawings and three paintings in response to Richard Nixon’s reign and eventual resignation as the 37th president of the United States of America, the exhibition suffers from a visual amnesia throughout. This is brought on by both an oversaturation of very similar works that, despite at times inducing laughter and passing witty social commentary, dullen their individual magnetism as well as their ham-fisted delivery.

The drawings band around central walls configured into a U shape as well as the outer gallery walls. This procession is daunting to take in, and intensifies to the point of agitating claustrophobia in the cul-de-sac of the U shape, with the only respite being the painting San Clemente (1975) at the far end. Nevertheless, Guston’s penmanship is sharp; his staccato lines are measured and precise. Guston shows an immense talent for caricature and the communication of emotions. This is particularly evident in the drawings from 1971, which exude a jabbing humour coupled with empathetic notes that both knock Nixon to the ground but also show an overt compassion towards his predicament – a trait that can be seen clearly in the two paintings from the same year. But there is a lack of ingenuity and sense of striving forwards in these drawings. One would hate to call them hacky, but for lack of a better term, they fall short and only signify the tone of trepidation building to outrage as seen by Guston’s whizzbang production. What they lack, is the gumption that Guston’s painterly touch and use of colour conduces.

This brings to prominence, a redeeming quality for the exhibition, in the form of three paintings; Alone (1971), In Bed II (1971) and San Clemente (1975). These works are as much reflections of Guston as they are satirical. His use of colour and gestures on the canvases embody the turmoil and defeat in confidence that followed a scathing critical response to an exhibition of new figurative paintings in 1970 at the Marlborough Gallery, New York and show a staggering return to form in the powerful San Clemente (1975).

The two works from 1971, In Bed II, and, Alone, are both foggy works. Both see the majority of the canvases fraught with smudges of very dirtied whites with meanderings of brush work over the top that feels unsure of itself. In In Bed II, Nixon is portrayed in his bed staring up at the ceiling, his reddened face and bulbous jowls are covered in wiry stabs of greys. His Pinocchioed nose stretches vertically up as his black oval eyes retreat with fear and embarrassment. A smattering of green, yellow and orange do little to add anything further to the work. It is easy to see Guston paralleling his public embarrassment to Nixon’s and panicking about what move to make next.

Similarly, in Alone, Guston’s painterly talents seem lamented. Again, he paints Nixon in bed, this time rolled over to face the viewer. Nixon’s face is withdrawn and the thin rounded slivers of black that are his eyes feel packed to the brim with sadness, doubt and self-loathing. There is more colour in this work, but any lasting effect is lost in the brushwork which feels overworked and scrappy. It is impossible to not see Guston, within this image of Nixon, imprisoned like Nixon was, by a situation of his own creation.

But four years later and reeling from the Watergate scandal, any empathy for Nixon had long run its course and, in San Clemente, Guston exquisitely offers a formidable return to form. He portrays a defeated Nixon hobbling along a beach in the Californian city of San Clemente where Nixon had his Western White House and went into retreat following his resignation in August 1974. His left leg and foot are enlarged by phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins which came about in October 1974. His foot is bandaged and bursting through his trouser leg and faces in the opposite direction to where Nixon is going. His brushwork is now nimble, the staccato precision of his drawings has been replaced with a quickness, as if the idea for the work might slip through his fingers if he didn’t paint at that precise moment. The sand is an ochre band the stretches across the lower part of the canvas. On top is a grey sea, choppy as if a storm has just passed, highlighting the chaotic turmoil with which Nixon resigned. Above, the sky is a blend of pinks and dark reds. The reds are key to this work and serve as an injection of energy. Nixon’s face is a dark red; his bloodshot eyes look behind him as a single tear falls. The red viscerally captures Nixon’s embarrassment, further aided by Guston elongating Nixon’s nose and using the iconic image of his 5 o’clock shadow as a tongue-in-cheek gambit which is now all but presenting him as large flaccid penis. This is not so much an overt insult, but can be read as a tut, as if he is asking the viewer, arms splayed out, how did he think he could get away with this?

This marries together a complex alliance of economic brush use and use of colour that seem to echo Guston’s elation that Nixon has finally resigned but also a moment that found him back in control ready for one final burst of brilliance. As the sun sets on Nixon’s political career, we are left to wonder which artist will have their moment in the sun when their body of political satire from today is re-examined through the lens of tomorrow?


William Davie is a writer and curator based in London. He writes art reviews for Aesthetica Magazine, Ambit and This Is Tomorrow. Recent exhibitions he has curated include: Traces, The Workhouse Studios, London (2017) and A Cave With A View, Charlton Gallery, London (2016).