All Good Art is Political: Käthe Kollwitz and Sue Coe at Galerie St. Etienne
October 26, 2017 to March 10, 2018 (extended)
24 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, gseart.com
In this ambitious exhibition, 34 works on paper, most of them small, by Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) are joined by an equal number of works, mostly also on paper but including a couple of paintings, by Sue Coe (b.1951). Kollwitz is well known for her images of the working classes, the unemployed, men killed in action during the Great War, and political activists and demonstrations. Early in her career, she did history scenes, like the etching Outbreak/Charge (1903) from her series showing the German sixteenth-century Peasant War. Then, turning to the present, she depicted victims of World War One. In Killed in Action (First Version) (1919) we see the mother of a soldier who died in the war. And near the end of her long life, her lithograph Seed-Corn Must Not be Ground (1941) responded to the Second World War. Coe, an English emigrant to the United States, has presented subjects as various as English riots, the homeless of New York and slaughterhouses– she is an animal rights activist. Her works often are visually aggressive – as when her War (1991), depicts the endless field of menacing warplanes darting above an array of their victims. Or consider Grenfell Tower (Corporate Murder) (2017) a linocut showing the great spiral of flames about the burning London building. Because Coe works mostly in black and white, her occasional use of reds makes the appearance of that color very powerful. Look, for example, at Abolition: Meat Free Every Day (2014), where marching animals perform musical instruments accompanied by a ferociously red banner with the inscription: “Abolition.”
Kollwitz and Coe developed very different styles of political art, in ways that reflect the broader history of modernism. Set Kollwitz’s lithograph Demonstration (Final Version) (1931) alongside Coe’s drawing Demonstrator–Times Square (1991) and you see both their shared sensibilities and the vast differences in how they express themselves. Usually Kollwitz sets you at some distance from her figures, while Coe typically puts the viewer aggressively close up to her demonstration. Indeed, in Getting the Chop (1989), showing workers arrested as illegal immigrants, the figures are really in your face. But Kollwitz too can be formally imaginative.
Her woodcut Hunger (1922) depicting a starving woman and her dead child anticipates Picasso’s later images of agonized women. And in The Volunteers (1921-22), a woodcut, an abstracted group of human figures presses upward in way that recalls earlier Futurist compositions.
Neither Kollwitz nor Coe has more than a modest place in standard histories of modernism. In the massive Octoberist volume, Art Since 1900, for example, Kollwitz is merely mentioned alongside her better-known Dadaist contemporaries, Hannah Höch and George Grosz. And, as the gallery handout says, Coe “is not of the art world.” In my opinion, this is just a reminder of how limited a place the art world sometimes is. I’m not sure that ‘All Good Art is Political’, but I am convinced that Kollwitz and Coe are both major artists. Coe, who is consistently inventive, deserves to be shown alongside our great senior master of over-the-top political painting, Peter Saul.