This year marks the 40th anniversary of 1968, the year that saw so many political and social upheavals in our country as the war in Vietnam progressed. Four decades later, we are closer to 1968 than ever before: we are in the midst of one of the most heated political elections ever, civil rights are being curtailed as never before with certain groups openly being persecuted, racial hatred is simmering and boiling over. Oh, and did I mention that President Bush has got America once again involved in an imperialistic overseas military escapade? Clearly some of the children have not been taught well. All the issues and tension that we would have hoped to leave in the sixities are still clearly with us today which is one reason why "1968: Art and Politics in Chicago" at the DePaul University Museum of Art exhibition feels scarily topical and contemporary rather than removed and historical.
Taking on art and politics in equal amounts, this exhibition focuses on the Chicago riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC). In one gallery the DePaul exhibition gathers ephemera relating to the protests. From flyers and handbills, an impressive amount of material has been assembled for the viewer to examine, complemented by enlarged archival photographs. In the gallery across the hall is the main bulk of the art (though there are some far-out and groovy posters in with the ephemera) which is what I will focus on.
The decision by an artist about how, or if, to respond to the Vietnam War or the brutality surrounding the Chicago DNC, is what motivated the work on view and what brings the work together again in the 21st century. However, then, as now, artists were divided on how to respond to war. Although most artists were against the Vietnam War, there was a deep divide about what to do about it. Some felt art should be a domain unto itself, separate from the political domain, and anti-war activities then confined to the individual as a citizen. If artists were participating as artists their activities and art would be false and tread a dangerous line of becoming propaganda. A submission by Ad Reinhardt to the 1967 portfolio Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam exemplified this concern and division amongst artists about the proper response. A far cry from Reinhardt's typically dark, non-objective paintings, this untitled work parenthentically called Postcard to War Chief is a postcard with with a long list. Beginning with "no war", "no imperialism" and "no propaganda", it goes on to "no art of war", "no art in war", and "no art about war", expressly clarifying his, and others, mixed feelings about creating art responding or protesting the war while being staunchly opposed to it. Of course as a list, however nice Reinhardt's handwriting maybe, it's not close to the aesthetic experience of his painting, but that does not make it any less important-- or poignant.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a work by another abstract artist, Barnett Newman and his Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley (1968). Formally related to the artist's other work which emphasizes vertical lines, the Lace Curtain uses for its model actual barb-wire grills that were attached to the jeeps of the National Guard to control protesters. The exacting, spare and threatening nature of the piece has an aesthetic seemingly derived from a Nazi death camp, a grim comment on the state of democracy and the city of Chicago.
Hans Breder, Homage to Chicago. 1968. Aluminum, 3 x 3 x 3 ½ in. Collection of the artist, image courtesy DePaul Museum and the artist.
Neatly addressing both the detachment of minimalism from politics and also creating a compelling visual statement is Hans Breder's Homage to Chicago (1968). In this work a shining metal cube, so beloved by conceptualists and minimalists, has been shot through with a rifle bullet, entry and exit points clearly visible.
"1968: Art and Politics in Chicago" is a timely exhibit not just for the anniversary of that tumultuous year but for our own moment. Suburbly selected and presented historically, I wish this exhibition had felt like it was a journey back in time, but it did not. Leon Golub's image of a man urinating on the face of another man recalls shameful images from Abu Ghraib. The questions of involving politics in art is one that is still being asked, though currently the question usually seems to be how much to sell for. These artists, their work and their issues are still very much with us, even if they are not still alive and actively protesting our current military debacle as Mark di Suvero laudably continues to do (he is represented in this show by a poem). Exhibitions like this make painfully clear how little has changed over the last forty years and how much further America has to go.
(Top image: Ralph Arnold, Who You/Yeah Baby. 1968. Oil and collage on canvas, 30 1/8 x 24 1/4" © Collection of DePaul University Art Museum, Art Acquisition Endowment Photograph by Tom van Eynde)