You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party at Galerie St. Etienne
October 18, 2016- February 11, 2017, 24 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, firstname.lastname@example.org
George Grosz: Politics and His Influence at David Nolan
September 8- October 22, 2016, 527 West 29th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, email@example.com
Sometimes merely to depict the world is to make a political statement. When Sue Coe draws Homeless Woman Dressed in Garbage Bags (1992) and Louis Lozowick’s lithograph depicts Hooverville (1932), both at St. Etienne, those images in themselves reveal injustice, and so should inspire responsive action. And, at David Nolan, the implication of the visual rhetoric of Nancy Spero’s F111- Victims in River of Blood (1967) is transparently clear. But sometimes the relationship between visual art and political ideals is more elusive, as with A. R. Penck’s Ubergang (1968/70), an ink drawing, and Marina Abramovic’s The Hero II (2001/2008), a silver print, both also at Nolan. Penck’s German title describes a ‘transition’, presumably towards a more just society—and Abramovic ironically shows herself as a hero with a white flag on a white horse. And Gerhard Richter’s print 14 Feb 45 (2001), so you can discover by Googling that date, is an aerial view of Dresden made right after the World War Two firebombing.
Galerie St. Etienne presents sixty-five drawings, lithographs, paintings and posters made by American artists associated with (or supportive of) the American communist party. Coe has an illustration NY Soup Kitchen—a Week Before Xmas (1992), George Grosz two works on paper, and Alice Neel a painting Longshoremen Returning from Work (1936). These figurative artists depicted poverty, racism and unemployment. One room at David Nolan shows a group of George Grosz’s iconic works from the 1920s through the 1940s. The rest of this exhibition, in three galleries on two floors, shows a marvelous variety of political artists. You see Leon Golub’s Mercenaries II (1975), Ian Hamilton Finlay’s installation The Revolution is Frozen—All Principles are Weakened. There Remain only Red Bonnets Worn by Intrigue (1991), and Martha Rosler’s photomontage Empty Boys (1967-72). And also Faith Ringgold’s narrative composition, Hate is a Sin Flag (2007); Jorg Immendorff’s painting Only when the rocks are flying we will be appeased (1978), and Robert Rauschenberg’s remarkable collage Untitled (Huey P. Newton, Arts Magazine, Nov. 1970) (1970).
These two exhibitions present a most instructive history of twentieth century political art. In a lengthy essay, which is on-line, St. Etienne traces the career of Grosz, who immigrated to this country when Hitler came to power in his native Germany, and the response of various American 1930s leftists to the Great Depression. And, after noting that the rise of Abstract Expressionism led to the marginalization of political art, it plausibly argues that now we have as much need for socially engaged art as in the 1930s. “Although the American establishment rejected political art in the latter part of the twentieth century,” it claims, “some collectors and dealers remained devoted to the genre.” In fact, for two generations the very influential critics associated with October, have argued that contemporary art should critique our social institutions. And a number of artists extolled in their pages are in the Nolan exhibition. What has changed, and this is an important development, is that the dominant style of political art has been radically transformed. The activist commentary of Jenny Holzer’s cold water (2013) and Glenn Ligon’s Introduction (5) (2004) needs to be being teased out. As also is true of Ciprian Muresan’s Communism Never Happened (2006), a vinyl label reproducing those words. The claims of Coe’s images are as direct as those of the drawings by Grosz, the one artist who appears in both exhibitions. But nowadays the statements made by fashionable political art are mostly elliptical.