Reviews

Painting Politics: Philip Guston, Kerry James Marshall, and Beverly Buchanan Picture America

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1971, ink on paper, 10⅞" x 13⅞". Hauser & Wirth. GENEVIEVE HANSON/©THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1971, ink on paper, 10⅞” x 13⅞”. Hauser & Wirth.

GENEVIEVE HANSON/©THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

A week before the 2016 presidential election, Hauser & Wirth gallery opened the exhibition “Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975.” Organized by Sally Radic, of the Guston Foundation, and Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, the show included scores of ink drawings—and one remarkable painting—lampooning Richard Nixon.

Guston made the works in two extended bursts of activity: the first in 1971, when Nixon was in his prime and gearing up for reelection, and the second in 1975, the year after his shameful, post-Watergate resignation. In Guston’s hands, Nixon’s jowls become unmistakably testicular, and his nose takes on the shape of a bulging phallus, which he is constantly sticking somewhere he shouldn’t—between two butt cheeks labeled “U.S.A.,” for example, or through the neck and into the hollow head of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resembles a bulbous, lumpy pyramid. Guston’s Nixon dons a spacesuit to lecture a crescent moon, wagging his finger at it, holds a little black girl for a photo op, and goes swimming at Key Biscayne, where he once had the compound dubbed the Winter White House.

Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975, oil on canvas, 68" x 73¼". Hauser & Wirth. GENEVIEVE HANSON/©THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975, oil on canvas, 68″ x 73¼”. Hauser & Wirth.

GENEVIEVE HANSON/©THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

With his inimitable scowl and his penchant for self-pity, Nixon was pretty much a walking caricature, which made satirizing him a tricky business. Guston took the clever tack of humanizing Nixon as he roasted him. One drawing shows a young Dick studying in bed, pennants for Whittier and Duke hanging on his wall. In the stunning painting San Clemente (1975), the disgraced politician is hunched over like a brooding vulture, a single tear frozen midway down his cheek. His bandaged foot—a reference to Nixon’s bout with phlebitis—fills almost half the picture.

Guston titled his 1971 series “Poor Richard” and in work after work goes after the president, not for being a menace to the republic (which, to be sure, he was), but for being a bumbling, self-hating striver. Viewing the drawings, lined up in a long row along the gallery walls, we almost feel sorry for Nixon, even as we snigger. As a substantial segment of the country protests a new president’s policies, Guston’s approach stands as an inspiring model of dissent.

Speaking with a reporter in 1977, Guston said that in the 1960s, “I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in 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?” And so, in 1967, he abandoned the abstract work he had been making, and began painting figures—creepy, cartoonish Klansmen and insomniac Everymen. Those paintings have come to define the social and political upheavals of the time.

Kerry James Marshall, Past Times, 1997, acrylic and collage on canvas, 9' 6" x 13'. Met Breuer. NATHAN KEAY, MCA CHICAGO/©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/METROPOLITAN PIER AND EXHIBITION AUTHORITY, MCCORMICK PLACE ART COLLECTION, CHICAGO

Kerry James Marshall, Past Times, 1997, acrylic and collage on canvas, 9′ 6″ x 13′. Met Breuer.

NATHAN KEAY, MCA CHICAGO/©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/METROPOLITAN PIER AND EXHIBITION AUTHORITY, MCCORMICK PLACE ART COLLECTION, CHICAGO

Kerry James Marshall’s work, in contrast, has always been avowedly political. Now 61, Marshall has spent more than three decades making paintings in one genre after another after another that depict and honor the lives of black people. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” his traveling retrospective, which appeared at the Met Breuer this fall, has established him definitively as America’s greatest living painter in terms of technique, subject matter, and conceptual ambition.

In A Portrait of the Artist As a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), Marshall paints himself grinning, cloaked in darkness, dangerously close to a racist caricature. A year later, that small, potent painting hangs on the wall in another picture, Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum, in which the appliance dominates an otherwise empty room. He was beginning to building out a world that he would expand dramatically in the coming years.

Kerry James Marshall, The Actor Hezekiah Washington as Julian Carlton, Taliesen Murderer of Frank Lloyd Wright Family, 2009, acrylic on PVC panel, 30⅞" x 24⅞" x 1⅞". Met Breuer. ©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/HUDGINS FAMILY, NEW YORK

Kerry James Marshall, The Actor Hezekiah Washington as Julian Carlton, Taliesen Murderer of Frank Lloyd Wright Family, 2009, acrylic on PVC panel, 30⅞” x 24⅞” x 1⅞”. Met Breuer.

©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/HUDGINS FAMILY, NEW YORK

For a stretch in the mid-1990s, Marshall devoted himself to what he called “The Garden Project,” a series of outdoor scenes on unstretched canvas that show people together outdoors, often on the grounds of public-housing complexes. In these works, drab architecture shares space with verdant foliage, luscious flowers, and snippets of text. Men in white shirts and black ties—churchgoers after a service, perhaps—rake leaves and pull weeds, as Cy Twombly– or Pat Steir–like splashes of color bloom around them. Two lovers walk hand in hand, a banner swirling beneath them announcing BETTER HOMES BETTER GARDENS. A nuclear family, all in crisp white outfits, fans out across a park, playing golf, cruising in a speedboat, and relaxing on a red-and-white-checkered cloth as musical notes float out of portable stereos, a recurring motif in Marshall’s paintings. A few of the people in these paintings meet your gaze, deadpan, looking a little surprised to see you here.

Riffing on the pastoral scenes that have appeared in European painting from the Renaissance right up through Fauvism and beyond, Marshall’s garden paintings are bountiful, joyous artworks, oozing light and warmth. At the Met, nine of them were grouped together in a single room, and the effect was resplendent, almost sacred—like the final movement of Charles Ives’s Symphony no. 4, when disparate melodies, voices, and instruments slowly come together.

Marshall also paints sumptuous Rorschach blots, potent text-based work, and history scenes. A single work can shoot off enough painterly references (Holbein, Manet, Ofili, Velázquez, and Raphael, for instance, in his magisterial depiction of a hair salon, School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012) to keep a generation of doctoral students occupied. His portraits are of fictional artists wielding formidable palettes, and outlaws, like the 19th-century slave revolt leader Nat Turner.

In the exhibition’s catalogue, Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, who organized “Mastry” with Ian Alteveer, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Met, convincingly argues that Marshall is engaged in a form of institutional critique, bringing blackness—black bodies, narratives, and aesthetics—into every corner of the history of Western painting.

This is an aesthetic endeavor with intriguing political implications. The political theorist Robert J. Lacey recently postulated that Edmund Burke’s present-day American heirs are moderate Democrats, not Republicans, whose disregard for democratic norms makes them more akin to the radical Jacobins. Coining the term “pragmatic conservatism,” Lacey speaks of a line of thinkers who “uphold time-honored and -tested traditions” while at the same time “welcom[ing] incremental reform.”

That sounds to me like a description of Marshall, who has taken up art’s most elitist medium—figurative oil painting—and gradually, one canvas at a time, bent it to his will. While faithfully observing tradition—the show also included a section of works picked from the Met’s collection by Ingres, de Kooning, and others—he has established an extended or parallel art history, one filled with places and people and stories that Western art history has long ignored.

Beverly Buchanan, Old Colored School (detail), 2010, wood and paint, 20¼" x 14¾" x 18½". ADAM REICH/©ESTATE OF BEVERLY BUCHANAN/COURTESY JANE BRIDGES AND ANDREW EDLIN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Beverly Buchanan, Old Colored School (detail), 2010, wood and paint, 20¼” x 14¾” x 18½”.

ADAM REICH/©ESTATE OF BEVERLY BUCHANAN/COURTESY JANE BRIDGES AND ANDREW EDLIN GALLERY, NEW YORK

‘Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals” was the revelation of the season—a slow-smoldering survey of Buchanan’s work presented at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art by writer and curator Jennifer Burris and artist Park McArthur. Buchanan, who was African American, died in 2015 at the age of 74. Much of Buchanan’s work was made in Georgia, but she got her start in New York, studying at the Art Student’s League in the 1970s with Norman Lewis and befriending Romare Bearden while working as a health educator in New Jersey. In 1977 she decided to make art full-time, and that same year moved to Macon, Georgia. There, she began making concrete casts of crumbling or worn-down stones or blocks. A great deal of Post-Minimal sculpture at the time used readymade materials to suggest degradation or collapse, but Buchanan’s stands apart for the meticulous care she took in channeling such dilapidated materials, like bricks and blocks that she found in abandoned buildings and construction sites. She termed these works frustulas.

Some of Buchanan’s sculptures took the form of public art—permanent ruins commemorating milestones in race relations—in Florida, Georgia, and elsewhere, and the curators presented these through quiet, scenic videos, an approach that more exhibition organizers should use to show out-of-the-way works. Buchanan documented the creation of some of these pieces herself in humorously captioned photos. In a 1981 sequence that follows the casting of a series of concrete stones in a Georgia marsh—a kind of punchline-filled rejoinder to Robert Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic (1967)—she introduces the machines and workers making her art. “Concrete continues downward into wheelbarrow,” reads one caption. “Carl becomes possessive about this rock,” reads another, describing a shot of a man, bent over, giving a large rock a good hard look.

To the degree that Buchanan is known, it is for the shacklike structures that she built out of scraps of wood in the last two decades of her life. She based them on buildings she knew, and exhibited them alongside fictionalized versions of the residents’ stories she called “legends.” Buchanan’s shacks embody and applaud improvisation, which is at the core of just about every element of worthwhile American culture, from music to food to visual art. They are remarkable feats of visual thinking; they are, at the same time, testaments to the social and economic inequalities—which continue to disproportionately affect people of color—that are inexorably intertwined with the nation’s past as well as its present.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 106 under the title “Around New York: On Philip Guston, Kerry James Marshall, and Beverly Buchanan.”

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