One hundred and eighty five years ago, a drawing of a pear made a Frenchman art-history-famous. It was published by lithographer, caricaturist and journalist Charles Philipon (1800-1862) in Paris in 1832. It is instructive, in a Bob Ross kind of way — it depicts how, in four easy steps, the head of the king, Louis-Philippe I, could be magically transformed into a piece of fruit. For this, and other transgressions, Philipon was imprisoned, heavily fined, and had his newspaper seized by the state.1Kerr, David S. Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848: Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Oxford University Press. 2000. 65-85. Kerr gives a wonderful and detailed account of the various political points sharply made by these pear-king caricatures.

Charles Philipon. The Pears. 1832

This royal crackdown had the unintended consequence of popularizing the whole affair — its victim owned a satirical newspaper, after all — and the image of the pear became wildly popular. Soon after Philipon’s caricature was published, Paris was awash with pear-king cartoons. The works created by these caricaturists are generally held to be examples of artistic integrity, of the power of art and artists to speak truth to power, and of a certain, specifically Gallic, satiric charm. These caricatures provide the starting point for an art historical thread that follows rabidly secular social critique, which lives on, though severely wounded, today.

Auguste Bouquet. Favorites (Whiskers) of the Pear. (Les favoris de la poire.) La Caricature. 1833.

Honoré Daumier. Une énorme poire pendue par des hommes du peuple. 1832.

Charles-Joseph Traviès de Villers. Voici Messieurs, ce que nous avons l’honneur d’exposer journellement. 1834.

Honoré Daumier. Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare). 1832.

Charles Philipon. Projet d’un monument Expia-poire à élever sur la place de la révolution, précisément à la place où fut guillotiné Louis XVI inventé par Ch. Philipon et dessiné par M… C’est “une poire colossale sur un piédestal bien simple, bien bourgeois” et sur ce piédestal, l’inscription : 27, 28 et 29 juillet 1830. 1832.

Charles-Joseph Traviès de Villers. Ah ! scélérate de poire pourquoi n’es-tu pas une vérité ! ou M. Mahieux poiricide : il s’apprête à couper la poire qui n’a pas tenu ses promesses. 1832.

With this shopworn bit of legerdemain — the old switcheroo — the artists magically shift the object of popular imagination from the king’s still-sacred and legally protected image to that of a piece of fruit, and offers a comically thin veil of deniability. The pear suffers the tender mercies of public rage, as one historian writes: “Philipon’s artists were able to inflict an extraordinary variety of symbolic tortures on the king. Louis-Philippe was hanged, drawn, and quartered […] When accused of incitement to regicide in court, Philipon was able to reply, with some justification, that he could at most be accused of incitement to make jam.”2Kerr. 85.

In this magical world of caricature, the pear shifts in scale and meaning. It first stands in for the king’s disembodied head, then it  grows to represent his entire body, and then grows even larger to represent the body of the entire state. It grows to monumental proportions — the colossal pear is imagined atop a column placed at the precise location of the last royal beheading. And, suddenly, in a strange image, the pear shrinks back to its natural size, to be picked up by a monstrous hunchbacked dwarf, grimacing as he looks heavenward, and prepares to slice the pear in half — an act of pomological beheading. But here the fruit resembles not a head, but a scrotum — in an act of satirical overdetermination, the artist has transfigured the pear into a pair. The royal pear-beheading becomes a double insult — at once an act of decapitation and an act of castration. In Paris, in 1832, the image caused a sensation.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. Like Philipon, Guston show us a step-by-step transfiguration; the president’s head  grows and transforms, not into a pear, but into a full set of tackle.

In October, 1970, Hilton Kramer, art critic for the New York Times, decided to take Philip Guston (1913-1980) down a notch or two. In a notorious review entitled A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum, Kramer describes Guston as “something of a sacred figure,” and then proceeds to systematically disabuse his readers of this ridiculous notion. Guston, Kramer asserts, is a stylistic carpetbagger, a “latecomer,” a “colonizer rather than a pioneer.” With his new figurative paintings, Kramer tells us, Guston once again misses the Zeitgeist-boat with his reactionary, anti-intellectual and out-of-touch return to content after making a name for himself as a kind of sham abstractionist.3Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, responded to Kramer’s hit piece with an inspired letter to the Times. The letter should be required reading for every art historian and art critic as it serves as a reminder for the proper place of art writing in general. A taste: “And as long as I’m on the subject of the ethics of art criticism, when did it happen that so many critics forgot the simple truth that art precedes art criticism, not only in time, but in importance? At what point did the parasites begin to consume the host; at what point, I would ask Kramer, did critics set themselves up as manipulators and politicians and lose touch with what art is really all about?”

Guston was stung. He went to Italy to teach and visit his beloved Renaissance paintings. When he returned, he relocated to Woodstock, New York, and withdrew from the New York City art scene. There he met Philip Roth, who also went up the river to escape critical fallout — in his case caused by his recently published novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth was writing Our Gang, a satirical Nixon-novel, and he encouraged Guston to join the cause. Guston’s project, culminating in a narrative series of 73 drawings entitled Poor Richard, was not published until 2001, some thirty years after its creation, and some twenty years after Guston’s premature death. The Poor Richard drawings, scores of preliminary sketches and awesome, obscene culls, were recently on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. From left to right: Kissinger, Agnew, Nixon and Mitchell.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. Compare to this B. Kliban gem.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. The original “baskets of deplorables.”

Guston invites us to read images that describe a spare, mute, alternative-universe narrative of Nixon’s life. From childhood damp-dreams of grandeur, Nixon rises to political power, assembles a crony cabinet, then panders, bullies, and sets sail to China. By the end of the story we all know the fall is inevitable. The severed head of Nixon, now castrate, lies next to Agnew’s and Kissinger’s amid rubble in a desolate, lonesome landscape. In the next image, our antihero and his companions are deposited into the dustbin of history. Then, in a wonderfully bizarre coda, each one rises, zombie-like, from their ashcan grave. Our antiheroes board a boat in the form of a comic-book toilet and set sail, one more time, into the sunset, off to their beachy Xanadu, Key Biscayne. There, they become pastries — Nixon a cookie, Agnew a sponge cake, and Kissinger, a pot pie. The gang is transformed into their own just desserts, and Poor Richard’s saga is baked into our American history, whether we like it or not.

Philip Guston. San Clemente. 1975.

The show leads us in the end to a painting, San Clemente, made after the Watergate scandal. It depicts Nixon as a sad creature. He walks the beach shod in just one of his ex-presidential oxfords, working against the wind, his once-turgid nose droops flaccid and ponderous, a single tear from a bloodshot eye stains his testicle-cheek. He drags an enormous, necrotic, monstrously swollen left leg. Nixon’s corruption was not some mythical Achilles’ heel, but a very real, very loathsome anchor that pulled him, and us, down into the abyss.

Nixon on the beach.

Philip Guston. Poor Richard. Plate 70. 1971.

After his death, Guston would find himself critically and art historically rehabilitated. Peter Schjeldahl, for example, wrote that he was one of the many who hated Guston’s new paintings back in 1970. The paintings scared him.4See Schjeldahl’s 2003 essay on Guston, The Junkman’s Son in The New Yorker. Looking back, however, Schjeldahl now tells us that Guston’s late works are “the most important American painting of its time.” The paintings do indeed speak, Schjeldahl now thinks, with perfect pitch, of their time and their Zeitgeist, although he and the critics didn’t understand that at the time. Guston’s late work would augur the next decade of American painting — so-called Neo-Expressionism and the return to figuration in the 1980s — a period that has also eluded critics and art historians, and is just now emerging from institutional exile.5See Schjeldahl’s 2017 review, The Joy of Eighties Art in The New Yorker.

A few blocks south of the Guston exhibition, at Hauser & Wirth’s soon-to-be-demolished ex-Roxy space, another contemporary exile is busily scaring away most of the New York artworld. Paul McCarthy’s (b. 1945) current exhibition, Raw Spinoffs Continuations, has somehow eluded critical attention. It appears that critics’ tactics have changed over time. The outrage unleashed toward Guston almost a half a century ago has been replaced with something far safer, far more spineless, and just as wrong-headed — radio silence, broken only by feigned yawns and intermittent yelps of annoyance.6I’m thinking here, not just about the critical psuedo-silence regarding this show, but of the abbreviated Artforum review of McCarthy’s spectacular invasion of New York in 2013– which involved some 70 truckloads of art installed all over the city — that can be paraphrased with a few hysterical words accompanied by melodramatic hand-waving: “Eeew! Gross! Stop iiiii-it!” ¶McCarthy’s academic reception is not much better. I recall interviewing for a spot in an art history graduate program, and speaking with a professor who has become well-known for her writing on small-d democracy and “participatory art.” When I mentioned my enthusiasm for McCarthy’s work, she puckered her face up into a grimace, as if I had just broken some foul wind in her tiny office, and declaimed: “Who could be interested in that old modernist!?!” This sort of art-hating art history professor used to shock me, but they are so common and I run into them so frequently that now I can only gin up some mild disgust and a bit of pity.

Paul McCarthy. Raw Spinoffs Continuations. Installation view.

Paul McCarthy. White Snow Dwarf, Dopey #1. Bronze. 2016.

Paul McCarthy. White Snow Dwarf, Grumpy. Bronze. 2016. In background, White Snow Dwarf, Sleepy #1. Bronze. 2016.

Paul McCarthy. White Snow Dwarf, Bashful. Bronze. 2016.

Anyone who might harbor the secret desire to grab a king-sized double-headed dildo and use it to beat the living bejeezus out of the nearest troll might find some solace in McCarthy’s current exhibition. The work is not overtly political, at first glance, but then again, it is. After stepping through the multiple crime-scenes of dwarfish calamity, continuing on to the back of Hauser & Wirth’s cavernous space, one finds George W. Bush rendered basking in the sweet afterglow of a good pig-schtupping — with metal rods shoved through his forehead. These are tableaux that one comes to expect from McCarthy, but the trick is to see through shock (or schlock, if you insist) in order to see what else might possibly be going on. McCarthy asked this of his audience long ago, and it is a critical skill, at this particular moment in our political history, that seems more necessary than ever.

Paul McCarthy. Paula Jones. 2005-2008. Detail.

Paul McCarthy. Puppet (Original). 2005-2008. Detail.

The abuse McCarthy’s dwarves have suffered dwarfs the pear-torture of Philipon’s artists, and Guston’s comic castrations; these dwarves have suffered the tribulations of the damned. Dopey’s eyes have been gouged out, Grumpy’s face has been bashed in, and the back of Bashful’s skull is missing. There is nothing left of Sneezy but armature and innards, two enormous feet, and a nose that emerges out of his block-head like an engorged pecker, which appears to be draped with a wet tube sock. As I consider poor Sneezy’s terrible fate, his pecker-nose and clown-feet bring back to mind one of Guston’s Poor Richard drawings.

Paul McCarthy. Sneezy. Bronze. 2016.

One of McCarthy’s preoccupations, and there are many, is facture, the process of wrenching something out of our quotidian world and making it into art. This is a difficult undertaking. While the dwarf-sculptures seem like they are meditations on the varieties of destruction, they are masterworks of construction as well. McCarthy spells out for us how creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin, or simply and paradoxically the same — like the two sides of a Möbius strip. The cast-bronze sculptures are lined up facing their original clay, foam and steel models so that they stand like mirrors to each other. But the mirror images are not quite exactly right, something seems fishy, as in Groucho and Harpo’s famous gag.

Paul McCarthy. Raw Spinoffs Continuations. Installation view. On the right side are the bronze dwarf sculptures, on the left, Nine Dwarves (Affected Originals) 2009-2016. A pallet (get it?) of the artist’s tools and materials sits in the far left foreground.

That sort of fissured Duck Soup repetition repeats once more. Two works, Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation (Affected) and Amputation (AMP), Blue, echo like a tragicomic call and response between the quote-unquote-real-world and the art-world. The warm fleshy real world of wood and foam and plastic dildos and fake severed heads and and captain’s chairs is chopped up like salad and re-cast as something else — an echo amped, or amplified — a repeated, fiberglass feed-back art-world cleaned up and painted a jaunty, uniform Kleinish blue.

Paul McCarthy. Raw Spinoffs Continuations. Installation view. Nine Dwarves (Affected) in foreground, Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation (Affected) in middle ground, Amputation (AMP), Blue in background.

Paul McCarthy. Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation (Affected) 2013-2016.

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016.

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016. Detail.

Body parts, vessels, and tools litter the post-apocalyptic world of Amputation (AMP), Blue. The sculpture is like a Pompeii for the future, a relic of catastrophe that magically preserves an ancient, foreign and primitive culture in situ. The joke is on us — the primitive culture that is preserved is ours.

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016. Detail.

Scattered amongst the rubble are countless dildo-parts. Mutilated penises are everywhere, some are chopped and served in a bowl — a strange fruit salad. Like Philipon and Guston before him, McCarthy offers us the cutting satire of castration, but the laughs are of a different sort. Gone are the knowing chuckles of Philipon’s continental drolleries, or the cartoonish barbs of Guston’s Poor Richard. It’s not a king or a president that is the target of McCarthy’s castratory excess — it’s every dick, everyman’s dick, dickishness itself  —  the table turns and McCarthy presents a democratic castration of the polis. Gazing at McCarthy’s funhouse mirror offers us the bleakest laughs of all — at ourselves and our perverse, congenital hubris and cultural fixation on destruction, violence, and (global) mayhem. We are all complicit. Surrounded by the blasted and mutilated detritus of a Disneyfied, suburbanized, Americanized armageddon it just might be that this didn’t just happen, like some Vesuvian natural disaster; we did this to ourselves — we are doing this to ourselves.

— Michael Westfall

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016. Detail.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Kerr, David S. Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848: Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Oxford University Press. 2000. 65-85. Kerr gives a wonderful and detailed account of the various political points sharply made by these pear-king caricatures.
2. Kerr. 85.
3. Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, responded to Kramer’s hit piece with an inspired letter to the Times. The letter should be required reading for every art historian and art critic as it serves as a reminder for the proper place of art writing in general. A taste: “And as long as I’m on the subject of the ethics of art criticism, when did it happen that so many critics forgot the simple truth that art precedes art criticism, not only in time, but in importance? At what point did the parasites begin to consume the host; at what point, I would ask Kramer, did critics set themselves up as manipulators and politicians and lose touch with what art is really all about?”
4. See Schjeldahl’s 2003 essay on Guston, The Junkman’s Son in The New Yorker.
5. See Schjeldahl’s 2017 review, The Joy of Eighties Art in The New Yorker.
6. I’m thinking here, not just about the critical psuedo-silence regarding this show, but of the abbreviated Artforum review of McCarthy’s spectacular invasion of New York in 2013– which involved some 70 truckloads of art installed all over the city — that can be paraphrased with a few hysterical words accompanied by melodramatic hand-waving: “Eeew! Gross! Stop iiiii-it!” ¶McCarthy’s academic reception is not much better. I recall interviewing for a spot in an art history graduate program, and speaking with a professor who has become well-known for her writing on small-d democracy and “participatory art.” When I mentioned my enthusiasm for McCarthy’s work, she puckered her face up into a grimace, as if I had just broken some foul wind in her tiny office, and declaimed: “Who could be interested in that old modernist!?!” This sort of art-hating art history professor used to shock me, but they are so common and I run into them so frequently that now I can only gin up some mild disgust and a bit of pity.