It seems hard to imagine now, but there was a brief period in the mid-20th century when the US government recruited artists to join in their ideological warfare against fascism. One of these artists, Bernard Perlin, achieved worldwide recognition for his painting “Orthodox Boys” (1948). Two Jewish kids stand at the Canal Street subway station in Manhattan, near a wall covered with random names, Stars of David, hearts, and swastikas. By the late 1940s, the CIA had already begun employing disgraced Nazi generals to consult on Soviet affairs, thus weaving Nazism into the fabric of postwar American culture, and making Perlin a bit of a visionary.
Antifascism is now broadly denounced by the federal government — the term brandished by conservative media and conflated with “violent mobs” to terrify swing voters. Symbols of hate still occupy our public spaces, complicating notions of equality written in the nation’s founding documents. This discrepancy is a familiar one to Jewish artist and curator Jonathan Horowitz, whose latest exhibition at the Jewish Museum ties American anti-Semitism to broader issues of institutional racism and settler-colonialism.
The paintings, sculptures, photographs, and video installations in We Fight to Build a Free World connect diasporic struggles in the US to popular art movements of the last century. Its title comes from a 1942 propaganda poster by Ben Shahn, who details the “enemy method” in scenes of slavery, torture, starvation, and murder. The exhibition posits that World War II was a turning point for American artists, when national pride fractured to expose the same kinds of oppression at home.
Where does protest art fit in the “canon” of contemporary art? Certainly it can illuminate the past, as Horowitz’s curation shows. Malaquías Montoya’s portrait of “Cristobal Colón” (1992) commemorates the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage in a macabre lithograph that reveals parts of the colonizer’s skull. Robert Colescott’s “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware” (1975) picks on the kinds of revisionism recently exemplified by Hamilton, reframing Emanuel Leutze’s famed painting using racist stereotypes from minstrel shows.
Across one gallery wall, Horowitz embeds a blown-up reproduction of Thomas Hart Benton’s “Invasion” (1942) — a pro-war propaganda painting of Japanese soldiers attacking unarmed white victims — as a backdrop for scenes of racialized violence. Henry Sugimoto’s “Nisei Babies in Concentration Camp” (1943) appears alongside a Klan lynching painted by Philip Evergood and Gordon Parks’s iconic “American Gothic” (1942) portrait. Nearby, a hulking black sculpture by Horowitz takes the form of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee monument, which was briefly wrapped in a black tarp following the fatal Unite the Right rally in 2017.
On another wall, Horowitz displays 36 prints commissioned from contemporary artists like Marilyn Minter, Baseera Khan, Rico Gatson, and Kim Gordon. Christine Sun Kim, who is deaf, contributed a minimalist yellow design that reads, “Using Sign Language Will Make You a Better Person.” Hương Ngô overlays the phrases “You Are Here” and “We Were There” to juxtapose tourism with colonial displacement. Arranged in a pristine grid across exposed brick, these sleek and colorful protest posters seem ready-made for sharing online and show how mainstream the medium has become.
This exhibition was originally scheduled for late March, and the wall text acknowledges we must view these works in a new light. After the wave of protests this summer, the show’s commercial message does seem to fall a little short. Despite the inclusion of Indigenous artists and an homage to the Black Panthers, decolonization and abolition are still only minor themes compared to a broader liberal thesis of art as resistance. As such, the question remains whether political artworks can truly convey their own radicalism within the halls of an Upper East Side museum.
We Fight to Build a Free World continues through January 24, 2021 at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave at 92nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Jonathan Horowitz.