A detail of Leon Golub’s “Vietnam II” (1973), at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“Whatever happened to ‘protest art’ — issue-specific, say-no-to-power-and-say-it-loud art? Here we are, embroiled, as a nation, in what many in the art world regard as a pretty desperate political situation. Yet with the exception for actions by a few collectives — Decolonize This Place at the Whitney Museum, and Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN, at the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — there’s scant visual evidence of pushback. Has the product glut demanded by endless art fairs distracted from the protest impulse? Has the flood of news about turmoil in Washington put out the fires of resistance among artists? Has protest art simply become unfashionable? Such questions came to mind on a visit to ‘Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975,’ a big, inspiriting survey at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here. Everything in it dates from a time in the past when the nation was in danger of losing its soul, and American artists — some, anyway — were trying to save theirs by denouncing what they viewed as a racist war. Of the ’60s shows I’ve seen in the past few years, this one is the best, evocative of its time, and in sync with the present. And, importantly, it comes with a second, smaller show that’s far more than a mere add-on. Titled ‘Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past Is Prologue,”’ it’s a view of the Vietnam War era through Vietnamese eyes, the eyes of people on the receiving end of aggression. In the 1960s — before identity politics, before postcolonial studies — few museums would have thought to do such a show, but it absolutely needed doing. The American involvement in Vietnam was an old and self-serving one, dating back to just after World War II, when the United States began using the Southeast Asian country, under French control since the 1880s, as a buffer, first against Japan, then against global communism. It wasn’t until 1965, though, when Lyndon Johnson sent combat troops s to Southeast Asia, that most Americans, and most American artists, tuned in. There were some early responders and the exhibition, organized by Melissa Ho, a curator of 20th-century art at the museum, acknowledges them. In New York, Leon Golub was on the case, marching, arguing, painting battle scenes in which flesh looks like ground meat. So was Wally Hedrick in San Francisco. A Korean War veteran turned Bay Area beatnik, as early as 1957 he began a series of all-black abstract paintings which he titled ‘Vietnam’ and conceived, he said, to ‘mirror the American soul.’ …”
NY Times (Video)
Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 (Video)
Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past Is Prologue (Video)
Whitney: Sinister Pop: Peter Saul, Saigon, 1967 (Video)
American Art and the Vietnam War (Video)
YouTube: This Is Saigon (1967)