The Life and Times Of Richard Nixon
Last winter, I kvetched when Frank Stout lampooned Richard Nixon by including him in one of his signature conventioneer paintings. This fall, I’m kvelling over Philip Guston’s Poor Richard, a series of pen-and-ink drawings from 1971 that chronicle the late President’s life, times, machinations and foibles.
So why the difference? It’s not politics: Guston (1913-1980) and Mr. Stout-and maybe you and me-share a similar disdain for Nixon as private man and public figure. The difference lies in how Nixon is immersed in each painter’s art. For Mr. Stout, Nixon wasn’t immersed at all; he served as a sarcastic appliqué, an acrimonious add-on that stuck out like a sore thumb. In Guston’s case, Nixon’s immersion is thorough and complete, making him as natural an extension of the artist’s universe as the horseshoes, spiders and one-eyed golems that regularly slouch through it.
Guston’s treatment of Nixon is biting and bitter, yet he also believed him a complex character worthy of extended consideration. Consequently, Poor Richard, which is currently on view at the David McKee Gallery, forms its own compelling, coherent and, at times, surprisingly understanding narrative. Don’t get me wrong: Guston’s caricature of Nixon as a cock and balls-lumpy, swollen and stubbly-tells us a lot about what the painter thought of the politician. Yet it doesn’t tell us everything. These drawings may have been motivated by loathing and sustained by it as well, but they also locate improbable moments of poetry and pathos within its trajectory.
Unfortunately, this trajectory is capped by San Clemente, an oil painting from 1975 that’s one-dimensional and ugly the way the drawings are articulate and tough. Couldn’t the folks at McKee have left Poor Richard well enough alone? Poor Richard by Philip Guston is at David McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, until Sept. 29.
Fashion and Biology Are Her Fate
Learning that the painter Christina Ramberg (1946-1995) suffered from Pick’s disease, a neurological disorder similar to Alzheimer’s, is likely to color one’s perception of her work. Suddenly those fetishistic depictions of the female form, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Adam Baumgold Gallery, take on the guise of premonitions. As pictured by Ramberg, the body is foreign and cold, a burdensome container that pulses with an often-treacherous independence. Mortality permeates the paintings (Ramberg’s stylizations, while rooted in Pop culture, evoke the clean contours and heraldic figuration of Egyptian hieroglyphs), as does an aestheticized-that is to say, sickly-strain of sexuality.
Truncated and faceless, the Ramberg woman is bound by fashion and haunted by biology. The images are somewhat reminiscent of those of Richard Lindner, another painter fascinated by the mechanics of eroticism. Ramberg lacks Lindner’s probity and worldliness: With an artistic compass that points dauntingly inward, she’s less of a moralist and more of a loner. Her art won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
If it sounds like the tea of choice for gender theorists and the like, well, that’s how it’s being sold. But one doesn’t have to buy Ramberg’s art as ideology, or view it through the scrim of biography, to appreciate her meticulous dissections of anonymity, fate and desire. Christina Ramberg: Paintings and Drawings is at Adam Baumgold Gallery, 74 East 79th Street, until Oct. 13.