Violence! in Recent American Art



Against a backdrop of social instability caused by the ongoing war in Vietnam, the unprecedented violence of Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC), and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the MCA opened the exhibition Violence! in Recent American Art, which featured works that interrogated the tense sociopolitical atmosphere and the influence of violence in the United States. After reading the heated article “The Effect of American Violence on American Art” by curator of the Illinois Bell Telephone Company’s corporate collection Robert “Robin” Glauber in the local North Side paper Skyline, MCA director Jan van der Marck asked him to curate an exhibition of work addressing the subject. In a radical departure from other exhibitions in the MCA’s early history, which were less politically explicit, this collection of representational art commented on themes of racial violence, imbalances in political power, and the overwhelming influence of mass media. Violence! exhibited a varied collection of photo-assemblages, paintings, print media, and sculptural work by Chicago-based artists, political activists with artistic practices, and now-canonical figures of American contemporary art.

The catalogue for Violence! was produced on newsprint, giving it the appearance of an edition of Skyline, and sold for 10¢ at the exhibition. The front page displayed actual headlines from 1964–69, such as “Armed Negroes Fight the Police in Chicago Riots,” referring to a July 1968 race riot following King’s assassination, and “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police,” which documented the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York. It also included an incendiary essay by Glauber, who wrote, “Most Americans now admit that the United States maintains a level of violence and tolerance of that violence unmatched anywhere in the world.” Organized by Glauber into categories such as war, racial, personal, gun, and psychological violence, the featured works addressed various forms of violence and their influence in a wide array of social, political, and racial contexts.

Violence! presented work from iconic artists from and pre-dating the American pop art movement, such as Andy Warhol’s (American, 1928–87) screen print Elvis II (1964), depicting the musician in a cowboy outfit pointing a revolver at viewers, and the related Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923–97) workPistol, which features a reproduced comic-book image of a hand holding a gun on a red felt banner. While these pieces critique pop culture and its relationship to violence in a more generalized fashion, other pieces at the show dealt with politically charged subject matter. Some works addressed political critique with a sense of light-hearted parody, such as Ellen Lanyon’s (American, 1926–2013) self-explanatory L.B.J. Doll (1967), which envisioned the president as an overly patriotic puppet with movable appendages, and Jim Dine’s (American, b. 1935) Drag: Johnson and Mao (1967), which lambasted the masculinist authority of presidential power by depicting newspaper images of Johnson and Chairman Mao in women’s makeup.

Other works addressed even more charged sociopolitical issues, such as state violence and the racist ideology that fuels it. Hailing from his noted “Death in America” series of screen prints, the two versions of Warhol’s Race Riot (1963) at Violence! consisted of mechanically reproduced news photos of white police officers forcing a German Shepherd on a black civil rights demonstrator during a Birmingham race riot following King’s assassination. This piece, which comments on race relations, abuses of governmental power, and mass media-induced desensitization in the United States, gives “Death in America” a sense of social commentary and immediacy not found in Warhol’s other silk-screen prints. Lesser-known artists in the show also worked to encapsulate the political and social tumult that defined the late 1960s. Ralph Arnold (American, 1928–2006) exhibited a four-piece hanging photomontage work that collaged images of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the social protests their deaths elicited. Painter Peter Holbrook (American) created The Battle of Grant Park (1968), which rendered multiple photos of conflict between police and protesters in Chicago’s Grant Park during the DNC protests in a naturalistic, pop-styled painting.