The Vietnam War transformed America. The heavy losses and horrifying images — beamed right into people’s living rooms, via television — caused many U.S. citizens to challenge institutions, politicians and cultural norms like never before. The war also sparked a sea change in American art, says Melissa Ho, curator of “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975,” which opens Friday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“It’s this moment of national reckoning,” Ho says. “And if you’re an artist, maybe you can’t help but think, ‘Is my work supposed to remain separate and elevated from the world I live in as a human being, or should it engage with that?’”
American artists at the time moved away from the dominant movements of the ’50s and early ’60s — especially the ironic distance of pop art, the coolly intellectual tendencies of minimalism and the obsession with pure aesthetics of abstract expressionism, Ho says. Artists became more emotionally and politically engaged — especially minority and female artists.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because we’ve seen this trend repeat in recent years, with a wave of artists addressing political and social issues: “The changes that happened then will still feel very current and present for young artists going to see this show today,” Ho says
“America the Beautiful” by David Hammons (1968)
African-American artist David Hammons created the human part of this piece by pressing his face and arms against paper after rubbing grease on himself and then sprinkling on pigment. The way he rolled his face across the paper created a mirrored profile that meets at the nose. “To me, that suggests the double consciousness of being black in America, of being asked to fight for your country abroad even though you are still fighting for civil rights at home,” Ho says. The painted-on American flag could be seen as a comforting blanket or a funeral shroud, she says.
“Victims on Helicopter Blades” by Nancy Spero (1968)
Part of what’s come to be known as Nancy Spero’s “War Series,” this nightmarish picture was inspired by images she saw on TV and in newsmagazines, Ho says. The fact that absolutely no one wanted to buy this kind of art at the time freed Spero to create exactly what she wanted — and it’s probably why she chose to paint on inexpensive paper rather than canvas. “These are remarkable in that they are so terrifying — and angry, which is a thing that was not so acceptable for a woman to be,” Ho says.
“Wilshire Boulevard Walk” by Kim Jones (1976)
Kim Jones served in Vietnam as a Marine in 1967 and ’68, then went to art school in California. This photo, on display in the exhibit, captures his most famous work, a piece of sculpture and performance art in which Jones — wearing a costume of sticks and mud — walked for 12 hours down a busy street in L.A. The piece, the first to feature Jones’ alter ego “Mudman,” addresses the feeling many service members have of not being able to move on after a war, Ho says. It’s “about that experience of coming home and the disconnect many veterans feel,” she says.
“News” by Hans Haacke (1969)
Ever feel overwhelmed by the massive volume and constant stream of news from all over the world? So did Hans Haacke, a German-born artist who expressed that feeling by hooking up a printer to news feeds from around the globe. Per the artist’s instructions, the American Art Museum’s version of this piece will print current stories pulled at random from a variety of international, English-language news sources. “He’s pointing out that there is no division between what happens in an art museum and what happens in the larger world,” Ho says.