Let’s start with the leg. It is bandaged and horribly swollen. Red arteries, blue veins and yellow pus circle the limb. A shoeless foot sports bulbous toes and a puffy heel bursting through a sock. The leg is attached to the body of Richard M. Nixon, 37th President of the United States, who (one year after resigning the Presidency in disgrace) suffered a debilitating attack of phlebitis, allegedly swelling his leg to twice the normal size.
The painting was completed in 1975, two years after Nixon’s resignation and a year after the phlebitis episode. It is called, “San Clemente,” after the small California town that was the site of Nixon’s “Western White House” and the home where the President retreated after his resignation. “San Clemente,” rarely exhibited, has been written about as a political painting, especially because of its close connection to Guston’s 1971 series of ink-on-paper caricatures of the President. Nevertheless as memories of Nixon’s treachery fade into the historical record, “San Clemente” interests me less as a portrait of a former President, and more as a piece about aging and self-disgust.
Back to the bandages. The image of them has been stuck in my head for years. Like the leg itself, the bandages are painted in red, white and blue and suggestive of a shredded flag, or old bunting. (This color choice is especially significant since blue appears so rarely in work by Guston.) And then, oh my, there’s the nose! Richard M. Nixon did indeed have a very unusual nose, beloved by cartoonists. As he aged and his jowls became prominent and his nose grew, (literally and metaphorically) his face could seem obscene. Guston surely thought so. This presidential portrait is essentially a pair of eyes above a large, flaccid penis and sagging, hairy balls.
No matter what he was depicting, the quality of Guston’s painted mark was fleshy. Like Van Gogh and Soutine before him, we cannot help but feel the artist’s presence in his touch. I wonder what it must have been like for him to paint Nixon’s diseased body. Imagine those brushstrokes, so full of vitality, as they wrapped around the hideously swollen leg. How could Guston not have thought of his own aging flesh? Thinking about this painting, reminds me of Guston’s visit when I was a young art student at Harvard. Seeing him enter our classroom was a shock. I was a very young painter, made of baby fat and ambition; Guston was bloated, with swollen, bloodshot eyes, and awkwardly flirtatious with our teacher. It made me horribly uncomfortable and yet I was as much fascinated as I was disgusted.
In the almost 40 years since I have learned a tremendous amount from Guston. He famously said that every artist has to kick their predecessors out of the studio in order to really get to work. For me, it is always Guston that lingers. He accomplished much that I greatly admire. In the tradition of great Jewish humorists, he understood the possibilities of marrying anxiety with self-deprecating humor. Like a proto-feminist he combined the personal and the political, linking disgust over his own self-inflicted violence (too much smoking, drinking and eating) with a desperate urge to respond to the brutality in American culture. It’s what I love about this painting — just below the surface of Nixon’s humiliation is an overflowing ashtray of Guston’s self-mockery.