Happy New Year! Happy New Decade! Welcome to the Roaring '20's! I'm excited. I have all sorts of stories to tell, but for the first one of this new calendar year, I have to tell you about the exceptional exhibit happening at the Minneapolis Art Institute that is ending THIS SUNDAY. Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 and Artists Reflect: Contemporary Views of the American War are both real pieces of work that will stay with you for a good minute after you leave. It's HEAVY. And as it's looking like we're playing war games all over again (Iran today, North Korea always looming, Russia just getting away with everything ... ), this show is more important than ever ... so that we might THINK - and avoid such war horror all over again.
The show opens with a typewriter printing out current news constantly, filling the entire atrium at the entrance. News, 1969 (reconstructed 2019) by Hans Haacke emphasizes the challenge of sifting through mass amounts of reporting, as well as conflicting perspectives from various news outlets (think MSNBC v. Fox News - a whole different universe!). It sets the ominous tone from the moment you purchase your ticket.
I don't have any personal memories about the Vietnam era, as I was too young, but this show creates the feelings that all parties were having. The Eleventh Hour Final, 1968 by Edward Kienholz asks "What can one man's death, so remote and far away, mean to most people in the familiar safety of their middle-class homes?" and recreates the 70's living room that most sat around their black and white t.v.s and got their news of the war. The title refers to the last news hour of the day, and also gives more of that ominous feel.
Vietnam, 1967 by Phillip Jone Griffiths was one of twelve of his gelatin silver prints, all of which show the actual humanity among the people living in the war theater. Incredibly touching, all of them made you feel that the soldiers and the Vietnamese citizens got along and seemed to like each other - and, as always, they were following orders from old, white, dangerous men that would never be personally affected by it. So sad. So disgusting. SO evil.
We all know the famous poster War Is Over! If You Want It, 1969 by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, but this was its origin. Ono and Lennon were not having the Vietnam War, and this poster release followed their infamous "Bed In" to protest the war. I wonder what Lennon would think of these modern times? We could sure use him now .... Imagine.
Carol Summers contributed Kill For Peace, 1967 (from the portfolio Artists and Writers Protest against the War in Vietnam), showing families dealing with this tragic war.
Next to it was one of the heaviest ones for me, that made me physically nauseous. The Art Workers' Coalition. Active 1969-71 asked the horrific question Q. And Babies? A. And Babies., 1970. UGH. THIS is what those evil, old, white men don't seem to care about when concocting their wars for profit. War is Hell.
Equally rough was Untitled (The New York Times, Sunday, September 13, 1970), 1970 by Liliana Porter. It's especially moving as it takes the viewer from the macro to the micro, from the generic to the personal. She is You. She is Me. She is US - and that's what makes war so hard to understand. It takes the humanity away ... but Ms. Porter brings it back.
Big Daddy Paper Doll, 1970 by May Stevens shows yet another depiction of the bald, white, old cigar-wielding nemesis to society that creates war. Taking up an entire wall of the room, her point is clearly made.
Corita Kent had a wall of six screenprints, all Day-Glo bright, in what the Catholic nun called "advertisements for the common good." yellow submarine, handle with care, right, phil and dan, stop the bombing, and news of the week (all 1967) take the look of commercial packaging to pack their punches.
Political posters really took off during the Vietnam War, and Eat, 1967 by Tomi Ungerer is one of the very memorable ones. Force feeding the Statue of Liberty down a Vietnamese person's throat doesn't leave much room for ambiguity ... and the U.S. government doesn't seem to have learned much in the decades since.
This next one is hard for me to even type out, but Flag For The Moon: Die Nigger, 1969 by Faith Ringgold. She makes visual commentary (and the title is there in the work) on the fact that African Americans were fighting our war, while being the victims of racism at home. The country was spending massively on space exploration, while ignoring our black citizens. Oof. I told you it was heavy. And TRUE.
1A, 1972 by Timothy Washington was a statement on the destruction of the draft. "1A" meant you were available for war ... and the defaced draft card embedded in this piece says "John Doe" and the 1A status is listed as "forever". UGH. I'll just never understand war, ever.
Untitled, 1967 by William Copley asks us all to THINK. Please.
Yoko Ono was represented again in a film being played on a t.v. called Cut Piece, 1964/5, where Ono invited audience members to approach her and cut off a piece of her clothing. People had to choose how to respond ... stop, interfere with, or escalate the action ... much like what was happening in the country with the war. The piece was performed just weeks after Marines arrived in Vietnam, and raised those above questions that needed to be asked. Ono has always been provocative - and smart.
Reading Position for Second Degree Burn, 1970 by Dennis Oppenheim is a photograph showing the artist in the before/after five hours in the sun with a big volume of military field tactics covering half his torso. This was to comment on the U.S. soldiers shown basking in the tropical sun while Vietnamese citizens were being burned by napalm. Oh my gosh. It's really hard to be a proud American at show like this. Seriously.
Jim Nutt offered Summer Salt, 1970 is a play on words for "Some assault". Civil unrest and media accounts of the human toll informed this work, and though it's bright and cheery looking - the content is quite the opposite.
Now, if I thought this show was incredibly heavy and tough to take in, I can only imagine what veterans of this awful war feel like. There was an elderly man in the gallery, sitting alone, seemingly in reflection. He got up to take a closer look at Target Practice, 1968 by Peter Saul (who meant it to be a "cold shower of bad conscience"!), and I got a lump in my throat thinking about what he must be thinking. I don't know if he was a veteran himself or not, but he was visibly moved - as was I. The museum had a room set aside for silent reflection if people needed it ... and I think it probably gets a lot of use.
A huge piece taking up another entire wall was Vietnam II, 1973 by Leon Golub. He was a vocal activist before using the war as a theme in his work, and intended the large scale of his work to equal the "grotesqueness" of the U.S. military might. That was a great word for it - and still is. Maybe even more so. WILL WE EVER LEARN?!?!?!?
Judith Bernstein created A Soldier's Christmas, 1967 to protest the war, mimicking the graffiti she saw from soldiers. It depicts a woman's spread legs, adorned with Christmas lights, graphic in both word and image. Bernstein said of the work, "I wanted to make the ugliest paintings I could. I wanted them to be as ugly and horrifying as the war was." She sure succeeded.
Chicago was a key hot spot during the war, producing many artists and activists against the invasion. A whole room is pretty much dedicated to trashing LBJ, from LBJ, 1967 by Dominick Di Meo (a Chicago organizer and artist). LBJ is depicted atop a mountain of human skulls, in a none too subtle pointing of the finger.
LBJ Butcher, 1967, also by Di Meo, was even rougher, and were printed on actual aprons meant to be worn in street actions and public protests. Think about all of the Trump merch out there these days ... again, we haven't come very far in this area at all.
Another Chicago artist, Ralph Arnold addresses bigotry, social injustice, and the Vietnam war in his collage titled Above the Earth, Games, Games, 1968 portrays football players against U.S. soldier in Vietnam, to show how the media would attempt to normalize violence. Oh, Men ... you sure have wrecked a lot of lives.
Tet Inoffensive, 1968 by Ed Paschke looks like a photo collage, but was hand-painted. Butch Cassidy and John Wayne are alongside the famous Eddie Adams photo of a Vietnamese general shooting a Vietcong guerilla in the head and Ho Chi Minh smoking. All the tough guys. Ruining lives and the world. I was getting madder and madder the more I saw.
At first glance, Madame Nhu's BarBQs, 1963 by Wally Hedrick seems like a folk art sign for a deep south restaurant. Until you realize that it's about Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk that set himself on fire to protest the Vietnamese government's oppression of Buddhists. Madame Nhu was a member of the South Vietnamese ruling family, and at the time publicly said that she was "willing to provide the gasoline for the next barbeque". Can you imagine being such a repulsive human being? Does she even get to be called a human being? No. She doesn't. Do not rest in peace, Madame.
Edward Kienholz was back with The Non-War Memorial, 1970/1972, an imagining of the thousands of soldiers killed in the war ... that he wanted to place in a chemically destroyed field in Idaho to portray the same destruction that had been done to Vietnam. It was an unrealized plan, but still cool.
Kim Jones created his "Mudman" persona after serving in Vietnam. He walked Wilshire Boulevard for 18 miles from sunrise to sunset, and back again, wearing his structure of sticks covered in mud, to evoke the red dust of Vietnam. He confronted passersby with the reminder of the just-ended war, that for many like himself was still going on in their minds. His Mudman Structure (large), 1974 is there at MIA, bringing us all right back - to the future.
Humanscape 43, 1968 was by Mel (Melesio) Casas, a leading member of the Chicano art group, Con Safo. He had served and been injured in the Korean War (we never learn), and had learned that lesson himself. "The skills of war are killing," said Casas, and he also rightly believed that the war was financially motivated - like it almost always is. Gross.
The war ultimately ended, but its consequences resonate still. The show finishes with depictions of Southeast Asia today, addressing the exodus of its citizens, and the seemingly tranquil country of Vietnam today. Sixteen panels by Cy Thao represent the Hmong Migration, 1993-2001. The bright, cheery panels trace the history of Hmong people from their origin story to their immigration to Minnesota.
While in refugee camps, Thao saw others making "story cloth" tapestries, he saw the power of pictures to tell stories without words. Once you know your history, you can understand the world and your place in it a whole lot better, and Thao was hoping to give some closure to the generations that lived through the war.
Pipo Nguyen-duy ends the show with his modern photographs of life in Vietnam. Icarus, Father and Son, My Brother, and Bubbles, 2005-11. The photographs look happy and fresh and now, but upon closer examination, his brother is missing an arm from the war. Life goes on, but scars of war remain.
This show is very extensive, and though I know this story is long and seemingly comprehensive, it isn't. Hardly. There is so much more important art to see than what I have included here, made even more important by the storm clouds of war gathering again today in the news. This is the last weekend to see this gut-punch of a show curated by the Smithsonian American Art. There were slips of paper to write what this exhibit made you feel, and then hang with the others on the wall. So many of them said something like I have here ... Will we never learn? Have we not figured out that no one wins in war? The inclusion of so many female artists and Southeast Asian artists responding to this nightmare of American History make this an even more impressive - and inclusive - undertaking. I have a feeling it's going to stay with me a long, long time. Please go if you are able.
Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 ends this Sunday, January 5th.
2400 3rd Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55404
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