In terms of sheer horror, nothing in modern Western art can surpass Der Krieg (1924), Otto Dix’s portfolio of prints based on his experiences as a soldier in the trenches of World War I.
In her book-length study, Bitter Witness: Otto Dix and the Great War (Peter Lang, 2001), the art historian and critic Linda F. McGreevy describes the suite’s lasting influence:
From the shattered bodies of the wounded and the dying, from the haunted dreams of a fortunate survivor, and through the stark monochrome of the etching process comes a Totentanz for the modern age. In Dix’s masterful cycle, the full impact of the First World War can be re-experienced decades later.
The artwork in Wars, a group exhibition at David Nolan, obviously doesn’t derive from firsthand knowledge of machine guns, mustard gas, and aerial bombardments, but it does share the essence of Dix’s imagery: war’s absurdity, chaos, and waste.
That essence is perfectly encapsulated by Peter Saul’s “Stalin in 1943” (2007) — at first glance the most puzzling painting in the show (as well as one of the most formally impressive, an irresistible combination of hyperkinetic movement, solid drawing, and rich, deep color).
The image comes off as a demented Soviet-era propaganda poster, with Joseph Stalin in his military-style greatcoat and cap, unloading two six-shooters into a column of Nazi soldiers — a monster destroying the armies of a fellow monster.
The title of the painting is evidently a reference to the Battle of Kursk (July – August 1943), which broke the final Axis offensive into the Soviet Union and turned the tide of the war. But as indispensable as that advance was, to depict Stalin in such a heroic light flies in the face of history, not to mention decency.
Saul, whose work will receive its first New York museum survey at the New Museum in February, never makes it easy: his paintings are equal opportunity offenders, with a finely honed sense of irony that undercuts virtually every predetermined notion of a topic. He often addresses hot-button issues, such as racism and violence, from the perspective of the perpetrators, without a nod or a wink to let us in on the joke.
The grotesque, comic-book bloodshed Stalin unleashes on the hapless, swastika-helmeted foot soldiers — who are depicted as lambs led to slaughter — reads as a projection of his megalomania, a self-image that equates the leader with the state, the modus operandi of tyrants.
What could have happened in 2007, the year it was painted, to trigger the image? There were outbreaks of mass violence from Virginia Tech to Iraq and Afghanistan, which might have had something to do with it, but the Soviet connection remains a mystery. Did it arise from a book the artist read, a movie he saw? Or did it come from a flash of pictorial insight into the persistence of despotism even as the world celebrated a decisive victory over oppression?
The human predisposition, or more accurately, the predisposition of the human male toward belligerence across a spectrum of potential conflicts is reflected in the title of the show — not the singular War but the plural Wars; while much of the imagery deals with combat, militarism, and civil strife, it also touches on boxing, sex, and unsettled interior states.
There is a large drawing in charcoal, pencil, ink brush, and opaque white by Antonius Höckelmann, who was born in Oelde, Germany, in 1937 and would have been a young child when the Third Reich collapsed. Titled “Orgie I” (1967-68), it’s a tangle of dark, writhing lines and masses, suggesting a pile of flesh redolent of self-absorption and animal instinct, the disconnect within physical connection.
A similar struggle is occurring in Roberto Matta’s “Les Lits des Vulgivagues” (“The Beds of the Prostitutes,” 1943), a scraggly drawing in graphite and colored crayon, of four naked, intertwined, Picassoid couples in each of the paper’s quadrants, their grinding pelvises joined together, like pipe fittings, by a red, oversized erection. It’s one of the most violent images in the show.
Boxing’s hand-to-hand combat is the focus of a series of collages by Wardell Milan, collectively titled “Battle Royale” (2007), in which the artist shaped, sliced, shifted, and duplicated the opponents’ bodies, as pictured in vintage sports photos, to amplify the impact of their blows.
That the bouts are staged entertainments rather than eruptions of emotional or political violence sets Milan’s collages outside of the realms occupied by the rest of the art in the show. But the disproportionate benefits accrued from these matches by promoters and sports moguls, while the boxers receive all the punishment, call to mind the economic structures of war — who does the fighting and who skims the profits.
If you went to the Neue Galerie in New York over the summer to see George Grosz’s magnificent “Eclipse of the Sun” (1926), a razor-sharp satire of corruption in the Weimar Republic, you will blink twice in front of his “Self-Portrait with Bird of Prey and Rat” (1940), which seems to have sprung from a diametrically opposed aesthetic. Grosz famously reinvented himself when he emigrated from Germany to the US in 1933, leaving his personal artistic history behind and adopting a far more traditional and illustrational style.
But “Self-Portrait with Bird of Prey and Rat” is further confounding in the way Grosz splits his approach between a workmanlike self-portrait, painted in realistic colors, and the swarms of desaturated clouds surrounding the artist at his easel, as the eponymous bird and rat hover above his left shoulder.
The oddness of the imagery prompts questions about the origins of the hunter/hunted symbolism — whether it lies in the existential dread that Grosz felt in Hitler’s Germany, and whether the artist saw himself as the diving bird or the dying rat.
“Military Poster” (2018) is an expressionistic paper-pulp portrait of an army officer by Nicole Eisenman, whose work seems to be taking off in a dozen different directions. With his bristly beard, khaki green uniform, field cap, shoulder stripes, and medals, he could possibly be Fidel Castro, which would make the work a distinct counterpart to Peter Saul’s Stalin on the opposite wall. Any reading is possible since, as with Saul’s painting, there are no interpretive clues sprinkled about.
Steve DiBenedetto’s “Breakup” (2003-04), hanging next to “Military Poster,” also bounces off Saul’s picture, but as a rival for the juiciest color in the show. The paint is applied in just about every way — scraped, scrubbed, daubed, squiggled, swiped, brushed, and heaped — creating a dizzying, kaleidoscopic effect that accentuates the swirling imagery: rotating helicopter blades squaring off against coiling tentacles. These motifs, which were frequently deployed by DiBenedetto in the mid-2000s as the Iraq War was escalating, serve as abstracted, ambiguous metaphors suggesting intractable military quagmires and downward spirals of violence.
Ambiguity, however, disappears to stunning effect in Sue Coe’s “Sharpeville” (1982), a drawing in graphite and gouache commemorating the 1960 massacre of demonstrators by the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, the atrocity that propelled the anti-Apartheid movement onto the world stage.
Coe’s vision of the scene is unremittingly bleak, with uniformed human-animal hybrids firing bullets into the bodies of prostrate protestors. (The sleek hyper-realism of their firearms — cutout magazine photos collaged into their hands — is especially chilling.)
When Coe made the drawing, the Sharpeville Massacre was more than two decades in the past, and the demise of Apartheid was still 10 years off; handwritten red letters on black banners across the top of the sheet read, “Cops fire into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators, killing 70, wounding 200.” Bloodshed would continue throughout the campaign for equality, which had begun with the founding of the African National Congress in 1912.
Wars evokes the trauma of violence as a fact of modern life, but the liberation of South Africa remains a counterweight to the specter of universal conflict, whatever troubles the country is experiencing today. After abandoning the principles of Mahatma Gandhi to take up armed struggle, Nelson Mandela and the ANC ultimately prevailed by embracing nonviolent civil resistance and political negotiations. They had found a way out.
Wars continues at David Nolan Gallery (527 West 29th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 2.