One doesn’t need to purchase the Dialectical Materialists’ Quote of the Day Calendar for 2017 to have grown accustomed to hearing Marx’s famous dictum that history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. In a year of wholesale political and social upheavals, the question that has been on my mind as much as any other is that if history repeats itself as farce, what does farce repeat itself as? One is inclined to simply answer “the 21st Century” and have done with it, but to do so is to take a reductive view of farcicality. The farce is almost always present in the tragedy. A relevant example can be found in one of the enduring illustrations of the absurdity and brutality of the Vietnam war, a quotation from an American officer that his soldiers “had to destroy” a Vietnamese village “in order to save it”. With this sense of the interpenetration of farce and tragedy in mind, Philip Guston’s drawings and paintings of Richard Nixon and his cohorts in the years preceding the Watergate scandal, collected in Hauser and Wirth’s Laughter in the Dark, remind the viewer that in the midst of a war in which three countries in Southeast Asia were driven into depths of misery unknown in the modern era, absurdity was as present as malevolence in what, even now, remains perhaps the darkest chapter in post-war American history.
Guston’s images present Nixon as a modern-day Tom Rakewell, the anti-hero of Hogarth’s famous Rake’s Progress, in the exhibition’s Poor Richard works, detailing the rise of Nixon from a Californian upbringing as a member of the Society of Friends to one of the most friendless men to every occupy the White House. Guston’s works retain the searing irony of Hogarth but, in an age grown weary of sex scandals, the scatological character of the images are notable, not least as Nixon was always understood to be a more prim and prudish figures than other equally impeachable occupants of the Oval Office. Nixon’s may have dragged the country’s institutions into the gutter, but he refused to see the filth in which he was immured. Guston puts the muck front and centre. In terms of the artist’s personal trajectory, the show’s press materials note that Guston created the works during a period of uncertainty in his career. Having just received excoriating reviews for an exhibition of a show of works influenced by the aesthetics of pop art at Marlborough Gallery in 1970—dismissed as false gesturing toward populism—Guston apparently decided to embrace the grotesque, and the drawings and canvas works at Hauser and Wirth bespeak an appalled artist gazing with open eyes on a country spiralling toward the political abyss. If the works speak to the 21st century, beyond facile personal parallels between Trump and Nixon, it is in large part because Guston is determined to see the farce that steers the tragedy. Then, as now, the world must hope somehow the situation can be righted before it is too late. Guston himself pondered what the role of art was in a political climate like that of the early 1970s. Art may not be the engine of political change, but if Guston’s artistic response is a guide, then perhaps it demonstrates that one of art’s most important capacities is as relevant socially as it is aesthetically: the capacity to see and to make visible.