Magazine article Art Monthly

1968: Art and Politics in Chicago

Magazine article Art Monthly

1968: Art and Politics in Chicago

Article excerpt

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'.


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. Specifically, he was reacting to Daley's highly public anti-Semitic yell at Senator Abraham Ribicoff on the floor of the DNC when Ribicoff described the mayor's violent tactics as Gestapo-like.

In contrast to Newman's sculptural piece designed for gallery installation, Dominick Di Meo's Landscape Beautification Johnson Style, undated, is an instance of culture critique that echoes artists' strategies in other American cities in protest against the war in Vietnam. The photomontage of President Johnson's head puking multiple skulls (taken from a Mexican postcard), which evokes images of Holocaust death camps, was handed out as leaflets by the artist at the student entrance at the rear of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then to visitors at the main museum entrance. Di Meo's act was one of many examples that cut across the grain of dominant agendas separating categories of 'art', 'mass/popular culture' and the politics of institutional critique.

In 2008, as in 1968, Americans vote for a new president while the incumbent administration perpetrates a war. In a new phase in the process of primitive accumulation (the use of earth-shaking force to create or restore the social conditions of profitability) the Bush/Cheney 'war on terror' is not only present in Iraq and Afghanistan but also across the borders of sovereign states with deathly US strikes in Pakistan and Syria. In Chicago, analyses of and parallels between situations in 1968 and in 2008 are enriched by the possibility of considering ways in which '1968: Art and Politics in Chicago' relates to the exhibition at the MCA: 'Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT'.

With her roots in art and activism from the 70s onwards--one legacy of the 60s--Holzer's exhibition is a spectacular critique of the language and representations of recent and present events, especially the invasion of Iraq. She mostly draws on US government declassified documents as source material. The physical scale of the works in Holzer's exhibition and the financial resources required to produce them are inseparable from one agenda of institutional critique where concepts of 'truth' and 'power' wrestle on similar terms to the audacity of contemporary image-saturated culture that rely on technological awe. In contrast, the relatively smaller scale of, and resources for, artists responding to similar concepts in 1968 are vividly conveyed by the contingent characteristics of the art works and their sources at the DePaul show: from alternative press publications such as the Chicago Seed and ad hoc flyers for interventions by the Yippies at the DNC to irreverent transformations of the iconography of presidential power and appropriations of popular culture.

A further display, at the Art Institute of Chicago, contributes to historical and methodological awareness enriched by the DePaul exhibition and Holzer's works at the MCA: an edition of all 21 photomontages by Martha Rosler in her series 'Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful', 1967-72 (see interview with Martha Rosler in AM314). Rosler's critiques of the US as permanently geared up for commodity, war and spectacle were originally produced as interventions outside of museums, regarded by many anti-war activists as the cultural face of those trustees, patrons and art lovers who made their financial fortunes from the war industries. Rosler has recently returned to photomontage, indexed to her earlier examples, to address the 'war on terror' and the invasion of Iraq. In doing so she evokes the analysis offered by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, 2007, which argues that the enormous profits made by US corporations already geared up for the re-engineering of societies still reeling from shock (as in Iraq) did not begin with September 11, 2001. The financial interests and methods of such corporations go back to the early Cold War of the 1950s. Since then, military and corporate interests developed in tandem.


'1968: Art and Politics in Chicago' represents the depth of a history previously consigned to archives and the memories of participants. Even Newman's sculpture, donated to the Art Institute of Chicago by Annalee Newman, has remained in store, only shown twice by other institutions. This important exhibition and its catalogue uncover and reveal, enabling debate about the politics of historical and contemporary representations.

Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT is at the MCA, Chicago October 25 to February 1.

FRANCIS FRASCINA is the author of Modern Art Culture: A Reader to be published by Routledge in December 2008.

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