1968: Art and Politics in Chicago

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1968: Art and Politics in Chicago

DePaul University Art Museum Chicago

September 18 to November 23

Barnett Newman's politically charged Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, 1968, is the focal point for '1968: Art and Politics in Chicago', which explores a neglected history with major resonances for contemporary debates. How can artists in a presidential election year (whether 1968 or 2008) express opposition to a brutal war, an unpopular administration, and regimes of domestic order and containment?

In its detailed exploration of one year in Chicago, the exhibition at DePaul University Art Museum presents rarely seen artworks and documents accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue containing interviews and an excellent essay by Patricia Kelly. These elements encourage historical and methodological self-reflexivity in analyses of '1968' as a highly contested signifier.

Chicago in 1968 was alive with activities by artists against the war in Vietnam, and characterised by exhibitions that reveal concerns with the causes and prevention of escalating violence, both military and domestic. During 1968 television viewers recoiled in horror at the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jnr on April 4 and Bobby Kennedy on June 5, and the beating of thousands of demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago in late August by police and the National Guard under the direction of Mayor Daley. He condemned the demonstrators as 'terrorists'.

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The exhibition reconstructs reactions by artists and galleries to Daley's violent imposition of state control. Specifically, these are 'Richard J Daley' at the Richard Feigen Gallery from October 23 to November 23, 1968, and a one-day special that took place on November 2, 1968, when ten Chicago galleries exhibited works under a collective title: 'Response to Violence in Our Society'. These quickly organised events coincided with 'Violence in Recent American Art', at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago, which opened on November 8, 1968, and entered into dialogue with the visual culture of street protests. These included artists' designs for anti-war banners, skulls and butcher's aprons painted with skeletons, which contributed to a discourse on the body in contemporary America. Concepts of Eros, liberation and counterculture constituted aspects of signification incomplete without recognition of a powerful death drive, characterised by atrocities in Vietnam: bodies butchered, maimed and plundered for parts such as the severed ears of Vietnamese used as 'trophy' necklaces adorning American GIs. For explorations of masculinity in the US in the 60s that address the role of the Vietnam War, relevant images at DePaul include: prints by William Wegee from the portfolio Peace is Patriotic, 1967; Ed Paschke, My Pal Trigger, 1968; Peter Saul, Ching Chong (LBJ), 1968; and Jim Dine, Drag: Johnson and Mao, 1967.

There are, too, issues of masculinity in works by Claes Oldenburg, not least his Study for a Colossal Monument to Mayor Daley #2, 1968, and relationships between gender, class and ethnicity in Newman's Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley. This was the centrepiece of the exhibition at the Feigen Gallery in 1968, which attracted 10,000 visitors and was publicised by James Rosenquist's poster, See-Saw, Class Systems, 1968. Newman's work consists of a deep, window-size, 6x4ft steel frame with barbed wire, splattered with red paint, stretched to form a regular six-inch square lattice pattern. Barbed wire was strung around the DNC hall to keep dissenters out, while blood was shed on the streets. The title of Newman's work also evoked the phrase 'Lace Curtain Irish', which was often used to describe the social pretensions of upwardly mobile Irish immigrant families, such as Mayor Daley's. Newman's 'barbed' political reference indicates a history, too, of ethnic tension between Jewish immigrants--Newman's parents came from Russian Poland in 1900--and those from Ireland. …