From 1962 to 1966, Philip Guston went from celebrating his first one man show at the Guggenheim Museum to self-imposed exile in Woodstock, New York to contemplate his place in an art world transfixed by Pop art and an unfortunate "obsession with novelty." (Sam Hunter, introduction to Philip Guston: Recent Paintings and Drawings, Jewish Museum, New York, 1966). When he emerged in 1970 with a show at the Marlborough Gallery, viewers were confronted by fleshy pink, red, gray, and black canvases more akin to the offbeat surrealism of comics such as Krazy Kat or Mutt and Jeff than work by a titan of Abstract Expressionism. His new style of painting wrapped brutishly rendered figures and objects in a harsh linearity, which friends and supporters believed to be a ham-fisted adoption of Pop imagery and an act of betrayal. Initial reviews were not kind, but some like critic Robert Hughes would later admit, "Every critic has his or embarrassments, judgements flatly wrong ..." (Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, New York, p. 397). Undeterred by the poor reception to his radically changed art, Guston continued his exploration of a personal visual syntax that refused to ignore the social and political turmoil of the time.
Untitled, in particular, makes clear that the years had not dampened his enthusiasm for painterly tradition and classical visual structures. Guston's approach to the canvas and dynamic brushstrokes stood in stark contrast to the Warholian desire for mechanistic production. The careful symmetry and repetition of triangular motifs refuted criticism, most famously, that he was a "mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum" and reflected his long-held preoccupation in the arrangement of figures in space. Moreover, his cartoonish figures had none of the readily identifiable corporate branding that had become synonymous with the Pop movement.
The testicular head of the central figure signals its relation to Guston's drawing series of the same year, Poor Richard, which unambiguously caricatured then President Nixon with jowls of testicles and an erect penis as a nose. Poor Richard satirized Nixon's life and his interactions with Mitchell, Agnew and Kissinger. In Untitled, Guston has anonymized the figures and transmogrified Nixon's lieutenants into klan-like figures where the hoods have become flesh. Through this ambiguity, Guston is able to strengthen the metaphorical weight of the work; the suited "Nixon" is now a scrotal powerbroker in conference with repression and bigotry personified.
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