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Protest Art at The Whitney and Beyond

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday September 20, 2017

Could it be that President Donald J. Trump has done society a favor by offering so many reasons to mount protest rallies? “Dump Trump.” “I am a PERSON, not a PUSSY.” “Make America Queer Again.” “Impeach Hate Speech.” In the weeks leading up to the Women’s March on Washington this year, for example,  Chicago’s Newberry Library issued a call for Pussy Hats and protest sign submissions for its permanent collection. Art supply stores began to run out of foamcore board and giant markers. Meetups for making protest signs began cropping up everywhere. Tweeting has become tainted, and with Trump’s embarrassing debut at the United Nations yesterday—not to mention the ongoing probes into his activities—there’s bound to be more to come.



Entrance area, with film by Josephine Meckseper: March on Washington to End the War on Iraq, 9/24/05, and Dread Scott's flag art. 

So the timing couldn’t be better for the Whitney Museum’s new exhibition on protest art that opened this week, and continues indefinitely. At the media preview yesterday, curator David Breslin led a walk-through of the exhibition, which occupies the entire sixth floor as well as the adjoining terrace. Drawn from the museum’s collections, An Incomplete History of Protest, 1940-2017 takes an institutional approach to the subject, which is necessarily defined by the nature of the source materials.

The show is divided into sections, each of which presents the collection in light of the times and impulses of each grouping of materials. With “Strike, Boycott, Advocate The Whitney Archives,” the museum itself is the subject of a variety of protests from the 1960s and ‘70s, when Second Wave Feminism and Anti-War protests provoked artist-led engagement, as well as opposition, to cultural trends at large and within the Whitney. The result of the meetings that ensued are presented in a library-like setting complete with documentation of the interactions that took place. The representation in the art world of women and people of color was—and continues to be—a vital subject in this section and following, where handbills by the Guerrilla Grrls demonstrate how artists have changed the mediums as well as the messages of protest. Posters are out; wheat past is in; honey vs vinegar [sometimes] works.


Curator David Breslin leads tour of exhibition, with work by Edward Keinholz, front

The center gallery opposite the elevators houses a view of anti-war protest from the Vietnam War era, when posters were the primary medium of dissent. The museum’s Daniel Wolf Collection of Protest Posters includes seminal sheets, from the anonymous “no more war” fist/logo to the Lennon/Ono “War Is Over” poster. On the floor are groups of “body bags,” sand-filled military uniforms that constitute Edward Keinholz’s Non-War Memorial; on the wall opposite, Nancy Spero’s haunting Hours of the Night  shows how the ongoing conflict colored every aspect of her life. On the wall outside, a recent piece by Dread Scott, a black flag emblazoned with the text, “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday,” evokes historic texts of the Civil Rights Movement as well as ongoing protest against racialized violence in America together with today’s Black Lives Matter. Artists represented in the section “Abuse of Power” include Edgar Heap of Birds [who will give a talk on October 18], Mel Chin, and Carl Pope, to name a few.


Epigraph, Damascus, 2016, by Julie Mehretu

With “Mourning & Militancy,” artists including Sue Coe, AA Bronson, Barbara Kruger, Glenn Ligon, Keith Haring and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, confront the AIDS epidemic with work that covers the spectrum of art production, from bus placards to posters to gallery art. The section titled “Usable Past,” picks up on themes of Divine Violence [Daniel Joseph Martinez; An Ecstatic Experience [Ja’Tovia Gary]; Epigraph, Damascus [Julie Mehretu]; demonstrating ways in which impossibly inhuman acts by rogue groups and governments invade the thought and production of studio artists and the resulting art produced.

The exhibition couldn’t be more timely. The subjects, as well as the institutional conditions that generated the show, however, require knowledge beyond the visual to appreciate the extent to which the artists represented have responded to situations demanding civil protest. With that in mind, the museum has included statements by artists and curators online, here.

An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collections, 1940-2017 continues indefinitely at the Whitney Museum of American Art. 99 Gansevoort Street, NY, NY Info

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