In a time when exhibitions about gender, race and politics have become repetitive, one is habituated to seeing political art in museums and galleries. Despite the prevalence of such shows, few offer much depth beyond routine media coverage or reveal substantive significant works of art. The poignant survey titled “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975,” organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum is an exception to political shows not only because of the extraordinary selection of 115 works by 58 visionary artists of the time but also because of the diversity of the art and artists. The inclusion of African-Americans, Asian American, Latinos and many women artists is admirable!
This exhibit organized by Melissa Ho, curator of 20th century art, provides viewers with artists’ genuine responses to that difficult time of civic trauma in the history of the United States. It grapples with numerous issues central to American life without evincing a preachy sensibility. This exhibition vividly demonstrates the impact of the Vietnam War on American contemporary art. SAAM is to be commended for mounting this show since no museum previously has arranged an exhibition of such a comprehensive scale about the Vietnam War.
Each gallery section is astutely assembled and amplified by an insightful wall text. The vast timeline of the Vietnam War is brilliant, illustrating key cultural and political events unfolding over the years represented in the show. A response wall invites viewers to express their reactions to the work and materials in the exhibition and the resulting collection of comments is impressive. The blend of diverse, mainstream and lesser-known artists’ triggers sparks of curiosity for viewers as well as reveals the perceptive knowledge and imagination of its curator, Melissa Ho.
Often, one associates this period of art with Geometric Abstraction, Pop art, slick Minimalism and Conceptual Art. However many artists who traditionally worked in the above genres and who kept politics out of their art, couldn’t help but respond to such a war devoid of meaning. According to SAAM’s Press Office, “Some sought to raise political consciousness about the war and, they hoped, to help end it. Others produced art that was not explicitly activist yet was steeped in the imagery and emotions of the conflict.”
Opposition to the USA’s involvement in the Vietnam War began as early as 1964 with demonstrations against the escalating role of the U.S. military. Over the years they increased, seeping into all aspects of American culture and broader social movements. The draft system that largely drew recruits from minorities and lower middle class whites that couldn’t get college deferments or health exemptions fueled much of the protests after 1965. The mounting hostility to the Vietnam War was also driven by the existence of on the ground reporting being seen regularly on television. According to Allen Guttman, “Some Americans believed that the communist threat was used as a scapegoat to hide imperialistic intentions, and others argued that the American intervention in South Vietnam interfered with the self-determination of the country and felt that the war in Vietnam was a civil war that ought to have determined the fate of the country and that America was wrong to intervene.[i]
The horrors of Vietnam prompted artists to rethink traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture. Its aftershocks enthused an evolution of the imaginable art forms so to reach larger and new audiences. Many turned to video, installation art, earthworks, performance, photography and installations. Included in this display is a vast range of work by such iconic artists known for their political art: Judy Chicago, Han Haacke, Martha Rosler, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Philip Guston, Faith Ringgold, John Lennon/ Yoko Ono and David Hammons. Other surprises include works by Rosemarie Castoro, Edward Kienholz, Corita Kent, Ad Reinhardt, Dennis Oppenheim, Chris Burden, Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Nauman, Barnett Newman, Jim Nutt, Yayoi Kusama, Donald Judd, Douglas Huebler and On Kawara.
There are so many outstanding works in this exhibition. Leon Golub’s fervent 10-foot expressionist mural “Vietnam II” captures the catastrophic sensibility of this war and savage treatment of Vietnamese civilians. Martha Rosler’s iconic series “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, 1967–1972″consists of 20 photomontages conceived in the 1960s and 70s when there was intensified involvement of the USA’s military in Vietnam. She depicts the interiors of wealthy Americans published in House Beautiful in which she incorporates mutilated depictions of Vietnamese citizens taken from Life Magazine. Rosler purposely refers to Vietnam as the “living room war,” since it was the first conflict extensively televised across the nation. One image depicts a smiling Pat Nixon, elegantly dressed in a lush yellow gown standing underneath a tortuous image of a maimed Vietnamese.
Judith Bernstein’s caricature drawings are commanding. She commented about her work about Vietnam: “I wanted to make the ugliest paintings I could.” In her potent drawing “Vietnam Garden” (1967), erect penises become military tombstones ejaculating US flags — steel wool serves as a type of vegetal pubic “bush. ” In another powerful charcoal piece, “Fucked by Numbers” (1966), she draws our attention to the 20,000 American already killed in Vietnam.
Jim Nutt and Peter Saul, members of the Chicago-based group the Hairy Who, congeal the anger against this war in their emotional pieces. Torture and wickedness underlie the paintings that are psychologically brimming with vibrant and violent undertones. Perhaps Saul’s most famous work “Saigon” (1967) embodies the chaos and deformities that typically characterize his imagery however here he delivers a “bonbon” vision of Vietnam. Twisted characters portrayed in this drama include Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Josef Stalin in which each endlessly swirls in a quagmire of Day-Glo shades of gummy pink, toxic green, and burning red around this color ooze.
Philip Guston depicts a dark portrayal of President Richard M. Nixon in his satirical painting “San Clemente” (1975). Nixon is reduced to a helpless caricature with an inflamed leg dripping in strappings. His nose hangs limp and he is rendered with a tearful blood-shot eye. Guston was aware that Nixon was suffering from phlebitis therefore he symbolically renders the massive leg as a weight of his wicked actions. The American Flag on his lapel sparks the irony of this image of a man who craved power!
Addressing her outrage about the atrocities of the Vietnam War, Nancy Spero created her fragile gouache and ink drawings known as the War Series. These fiercely expressionistic works depict war equipment, guns and blood dripping helicopters. A commanding image is “Female Bomb” (1966) where an anthropomorphic mushroom cloud portrays several female heads with protruding tongues spurting out of a phallic looking column.
Kim Jones’s Mudman documentation is moving. After returning home from eight years of active duty in Vietnam he created the persona Mudman for performances in which he became a living sculpture who wore combat boots, a nylon stocking mask and an improvised crown of made of foam rubber and birdcage wire. His body was covered in mud and attached to his back was a weird, fabricated lattice appendage of sticks tied with rope. Dressed in this paraphernalia, Mudman began appearing on city streets, beaches, and galleries in Southern California in the 1970s. Along with photographic documentation of his walking performance, the actual gear is on view.
Several artists deliver a cooler response to the war and its demonstrations. Barnett Newman condemned the police aggression against protestors during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention with his piece “Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley” (1968). While staying true to his minimal abstract aesthetic he created an intense sculpture, a six-foot, steel-framed rectangle of barbed wire, in which a grid of barbed wire is strung together. It resembles a war barricade with red droplets of paint resembling blood.
Hans Haacke’s documentation of his eminent “MoMA Poll”consists of a sign, two transparent boxes, a photoelectric counting device and a set of ballot papers. Viewers to the exhibition were asked to respond to his question: Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?’ If ‘yes’ please cast your ballot into the left box and if ‘no’ into the right box. Haacke was enraged by the USA’s covert bombing of Cambodia. Another powerful installations is Haacke “News”(1969), reconstructed (2019). Resembling Tara Donovan of curling sculpture, a machine similar to ticker tape printer continuously spins out a continuous roll of news filled paper. According to Haacke, he wanted “to break down the barriers between what is presumed to be this secluded and holy sphere that we call art, from the rest of the world, which is dirty.”
As many conceptual an artist of the late1960s and 70, Rosemarie Castoro was disposed to transform mundane activities into art. Castoro’s album A Day in the Life of a Conscientious Objector (1968) was influenced by a term used at the time by opponents to the Vietnam War. On architectural grid-lined paper Castoro wrote a poem each day for one hour, beginning each day an hour later for a duration of 24 days. The text work reveals an artist’s complex response to tense moments in U.S.A history.
Known for infusing his work with Duchampian puns, double meanings and idioms, Bruce Nauman made “Raw War” (1970) at a time when he was living in San Francisco abounding with antiwar sentiments. This is both a powerful yet subtle neon piece that persistently flashes three letters before all three appear in red to spell the word WAR or RAW depending on which way a viewer opts to read the text.
Dan Flavin’s “Monument 4″ (1966) for those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death),” permeates its space with its four eight-foot long red fluorescent tubes. The immersive red glow evokes a sensation of a blood and meant to be a reminder of the lives lost in war.
Presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past Is Prologue,” offers an alternative voice about Vietnam from the perspective of a South Vietnamese artist. Through maps, videos and paintings she highlights the narratives of Vietnamese refugees and brings to light a history about Vietnam that has largely been left out of sanctioned histories of the period and tragedy. The small booklet accompanying Chung’s show is also a worthwhile and informative document!
The exquisite exhibition book “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975,” includes incisive essays by Melissa Ho, Thomas Crow, Erica Levin, Katherine Markoski, Mignon Nixon and Martha Rosler as well as profuse illustrations and perceptive writing about each artist in the exhibition. This exhibit not only is one of the most exceptional displays organized about this turbulent era but also it imparts discerning information about the Vietnam War and the United States. Both the exhibition and accompanying extraordinary catalogue are a major contribution to American History about this traumatic period.
By: Elaine A. King, Contributing Art Critic
“Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975,”
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
[i] Guttmann, Allen. 1969. Protests against the War in Vietnam. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 382. pp. 56–63.