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WASHINGTON, DC — The country was vehemently split. Families fractured over diverging aims of governance. People desperately objected to dominant political policy that military onslaughts were necessary to halt the spread of Communism; they took to the streets, where enforcers of the status quo awaited. The United States’ military draft, which continued until 1973, conscripted a broad swath of men not deferred by college enrollment or disqualified by medical conditions. This more personally and profoundly tore apart the home turf of the general population than any war since.
Artists Respond: American Art and Vietnam War, 1965–1975 takes us back to that civic trauma propelling artists’ dissent. Less than a mile from the White House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) boldly surveys how artists who were not used to mixing art and politics wrestled with showing how their government had gone wrong.
With 115 works by 58 artists or art groups, SAAM curator Melissa Ho has rounded up some icons of political commitment — for instance, Leon Golub, represented by an impassioned 10-foot mural on loan from the Tate, “Vietnam II”; Faith Ringgold, with her 1969 “Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger”; and Martha Rosler, with her stinging House Beautiful photomontages from 1967–1972. But Ho has also gathered a panoply of lesser-known and little-seen artworks across styles, media, and artists’ identities.
Among the work that this sweeping survey exhibition brings to light is Judith Bernstein’s “Vietnam Garden” (1967). Erect penises with military tombstones flying US flags — steel wool serving as both botanical and pubic “bush” — hybridize antiwar sentiments by ridiculing testosterone-fueled aggression. Without a forum to publicly show this drawing and another in the show, “Fucked by Numbers” (1966), during the period they were made, they are shown here and in the large accompanying catalogue, among copious illustrations and substantial essays.
Another revelation is Barnett Newman’s “Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley” (1968), made for a Chicago gallery exhibition denouncing police aggression against protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in that city. The Color Field painter’s sculptural mutation of the modernist grid into a ferocious six-foot, steel-framed rectangle of barbed wire, resembling that fronting military jeeps herding crowds, demonstrates how abstraction can speak to power.
Many of the works on view showcase artists applying their characteristic artistic language to the topical subject matter called up by the Vietnam War. David Hammons’s self-portrait series, ironically titled America the Beautiful, in which he records his image by flattening himself against the paper to accentuate his features, renders an acerbic commentary. Here he utilized a common weapon against overwhelming militarism — satire — to fuse identity politics and patriotism. Wrapping his gray-toned body print in a vibrantly colored US flag, he caricatures those who zealously “wrap themselves in the flag” in nationalistic fervor. But it also covers his head as if a comforting blanket, and as if a prayer shawl worn during mourning. His resistance to patriotism and the antiwar sentiment implied by that stance converge with an assertion of his African American identity. The image reminds us that during the Vietnam era — and otherwise — it wasn’t just Southeast Asians overseas who were mistreated.
Curator Ho provides relief from the show’s plethora of modest-sized pictures — posters and documentary photographs from Vietnam; performances on and off the street by such artists as Yoko Ono and Kim Jones; and photographs of public sculptures — with installations that viscerally evoke the ultimate experience of war: death. In Edward Kienholz’s “Eleventh Hour Final,” a vintage TV in a cozy living room chillingly announces the war’s daily body count. Dan Flavin’s mess of pugnaciously projecting red fluorescent spears, “monument 4 those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death),” suffuses its long room in a red glow, immersing those strolling within it in something like a luminous blood bath. The tall, roughly textured black walls of “War Room” (1967–68/2002) by Wally Hedrick, a San Franciscan who had served in the Korean War, creates an oppressive sense of confinement, powerfully capturing the gloom of loss.
Smartly grouped and augmented by psychologically perceptive wall texts, the display of political work by such a diverse array of both mainstream and avowedly engaged artists in Artists Respond inflects SAAM’s curatorial ambitions with an awareness of contemporary art. Notably lacking a commanding antiwar encapsulation, this Vietnam-era aggregation evinces the period’s splintering of a dominant artistic schema. But there are distinct examples of protest, particularly the Art Workers’ Coalition’s widely seen “Q. And Babies? A. And Babies,” a photograph poster depicting a corpse-strewn country road.
Also familiar is Hans Haacke’s “MOMA Poll,” two Plexiglas receptacles to vote on the question, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be reason for you not to vote for him in November?” cast by visitors during the Museum of Modern Art’s 1970 exhibition Information. In the opening day symposium, Haacke recounted how he subversively did not provide MoMA with the placard question that visitors would weigh in on until just before the start of the reception opening the show. With it, Haacke began his disruptions of museums’ self-image as cultural sanctuaries set apart from public dissent and brought them into spheres of politics and tainted patronage still being brought to light today.
Yet the exhibition’s title is a bit disingenuous. More accurate than Artists Respond would be Artists Reject, as no work in the exhibition promoting involvement in Vietnam is on view. So it was interesting to hear symposium speaker Rupert García, revered as a founder of San Francisco’s Galería de la Raza, recount that as a young Air Force recruit he had volunteered to serve in Southeast Asia and from there requested to shoot traitors of war. Following his honorable discharge, study at San Francisco State College, and participation in the Chicano Art Movement, García designed the striking poster in this show to support the National Chicano Moratorium. Addressing the disproportionate number of Mexican Americans serving in the war, the exclamation on it, and its title, “¡Fuera de Indochina!,” literally urges “get out.” Above it, the Chicano’s facial expression shifts between pain and provocation, stirringly coalescing historical sources of antagonistic social and political discord now again familiar.
Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965–1975 continues at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets NW, Washington D.C.) through August 18. The exhibition was organized by Melissa Ho.