American quartet

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

Politics and art can make for an awkward mix. Much more than with religious subjects it seems to matter whether the viewer shares the artist’s beliefs. But whatever you think of Richard M. Nixon, it would be hard not to enjoy Philip Guston’s satirical drawings of him and his cronies at Hauser & Wirth, Savile Row.

These were the most exuberant, scatological, obsessive and imaginative such works since 1937 when Picasso produced an extraordinary strip-cartoon vilification and lampoon entitled ‘The Dream and Lie of Franco’. Indeed, the two series have a good deal in common. Picasso portrayed the Generalissimo as a sort of obscene, moustachioed set of bagpipes. Similarly, Guston (1913–80) has endless fun with Tricky Dicky’s ski-jump nose, which is transformed into a long, phallic tendril while his equally celebrated jowls sag into a bristly scrotum. Meanwhile, vice-president Spiro Agnew is a shambling cone, attorney general John Mitchell a set of flaccid, pipe-smoking buttocks, and Henry Kissinger a pair of disembodied, heavily black-rimmed glasses.

There is untrammelled fantasy in sheet after sheet of this series, entitled ‘Poor Richard’ (1971), and contempt, but not much anger and even, perhaps, a bit of self-identification. Guston found Nixon’s seediness deplorable but also inspiring (as did the painter’s friend, the writer Philip Roth, in his book on the president and his circle, Our Gang). As we seem doomed to recapitulate the mid-1970s — with impeachment in the air, tied elections in Britain and an unending series of calamities in the news — there is a scrap of comfort in knowing that such dismal times can be artistically fruitful.

The Guston drawings are also a reminder of the sheer variety of American art. The US idioms that made most impact this side of the Atlantic were first abstract expressionism, then pop. There are many other American artists, however, of whom much less has been seen in London — such as Alice Neel (1900–84), some of whose portraits are at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road, N1.

Neel was a marginal figure for much of her career, living in Spanish Harlem and similar low-rent districts of Manhattan. In the 1930s, one of her lovers, a heroin addict, burnt more than 300 of her works; after the war she sometimes subsisted on welfare and shoplifting. Her subject was the people around her — often African-American or Hispanic, and including bohemians, writers and left-wing activists. She was thus PC decades before the term became common.

It is perhaps her vision of a multicultural city that is propelling Neel higher up the art-world agenda at the moment.

Politics apart, though, how good was she? Her work is raw and figurative but also, it seems to me, decidedly erratic; sometimes her drawing is just too awkward and her colour could be brash, especially in the pictures of her old age. But at her peak, in the 1940s and early ’50s, she was able to produce pictures of people, such as ‘Alice Childress’ (1950), ‘Horace Cayton’ (1949), or a wonderful child portrait, ‘Julie and the Doll’ (1943), which, as Van Gogh once wrote, summon up their sitters many years later — like ghosts or phantoms — before our eyes.

Milton Avery (1885–1965), whose paintings are at Victoria Miro, Mayfair, was an approximate contemporary of Neel’s, but had little in common with her except a brusque rough-and-readiness when it came to figure drawing. That doesn’t matter, though, when you are looking at pictures such as ‘Excursion on the Thames’ (1953) — a product of his only visit to Europe —or ‘Morning Sky’ (1962). What counts is the relation of pink to dark blue in the latter or the way slim trapezoids of lime green and pink — apparently boats on the river — balance bands of green buff and lightest blue in the former.

Such matters are almost impossible to discuss. There isn’t a word for those exact shades of pink, for example, in any language. But it’s for such elusive reasons that Avery, beginning rather quietly, distinctly grows on you.

The final painter in this American quartet, Wayne Thiebaud, was born in 1920 — only a little later than the others — but at 96 he is still vigorously with us. He jetted across from California a few weeks ago for the opening of his current exhibition at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, and gave a series of interviews.

Like Neel, Avery and (late) Guston, Thiebaud is difficult to classify. When he first came to prominence he seemed to be a pop artist because his most characteristic subject matter included the cheerfully coloured cakes, sweets, ice creams and sundaes of American commercial cuisine. There are a number of such pictures, both old and new, in this show, as well as landscape and portraits, paintings that look good enough to eat (if a little high-cal).

But the association with Warhol & co. turns out to be a mistake. Thiebaud was not interested in irony or advertising, as the pop artists were. He is a unique kind of West Coast painter with a poetic take on reality, and his own sense of colour and texture — which recalls the delicious-looking pies on the counter of the diner in Twin Peaks.

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