Philip Guston’s Poor Richard

September 4, 2008

I recently had the pleasure of corresponding with the great, sabres-drawn critic Domingos Isabelinho, who has written for TCJ and John A. Lent’s International Journal of Comic Art, among others.  Our brief chat sent me back to his singular list of the greatest comics.

Plate 13 from Philip Guston’s Poor Richard

One in particular caught me again: Philip Guston’s Poor Richard. In 72 drawings, Guston charts the life of a bigfoot Nixon and his pals Kissinger (a pair of glasses) and Spiro (a triangle).  They go to China, change history, wallow in self-pity.  For thirty years this book, a curio in an equally odd ouevre, remained unpublished until a 2001 edition from University of Chicago Press.

Comics readers should find it welcoming.  Thanks to Art Spiegelman’s praise, Guston’s already well-known in that circle.  Yet I don’t see his paintings as cartoons.  The forms may recall E. C. Segar and Bud Fisher, but they’re built from an abstract expressionist’s paints. A comic accrues in a succession of images; a single Guston painting can glow like a Rothko, if with putrid colors.  One favorite hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s attic gallery, where a nearby Kiefer landscrape [sic] can’t drain its warmth.

Poor Richard, though, works just like a comic.  Setting aside the humor, its loose narrative holds together with buoyant cartooning.  Poor Richard’s phallic, punny head carries both hope and woe.  Guston’s signature bric-a-brac clutters the landscape, undermining democracy’s pomp. Critic Debra Bricker Balken compares it favorably to Philip Roth’s anti-Nixon farce Our Gang.  Guston’s neighbor, Roth felt Guston was joining him in satire.  But Poor Richard transcends political cartooning.  Instead of ridiculing Nixon, it reveals him.

Another writer, also Guston’s friend, became his greatest critic.  The poet, novelist, and critic Ross Feld befriended the painter by writing a positive review at a time when the New York art world had written Guston off as an aesthetic suicide.  He and Feld, who lived for years in Cincinnati, corresponded until Guston’s death.  Their letters, as well as eight luminous essays, make up Feld’s book Guston in Time.

Any of Feld’s pages yields a half-dozen quotes in waiting; many sing.  Just one to finish, then, that fits Poor Richard:

Painting after painting offers us plain things with the deadpan capacity to hold history.

Plate 2 from Philip Guston’s Poor Richard

(happy republican national convention)

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