1968: Art and Politics in Chicago

On the wall outside the DePaul University Art Museum a photograph shows six soldiers walking, and a vehicle carrying many more, silhouetted against an eerie orange background. The image, by Art Shay, is of Grant Park in 1968. The ghostly mist enshrouding the anonymous soldiers is tear gas. Shay’s photograph is uncannily similar to Robert Donley’s (1967) Waiting, a thickly textured oil painting depicting faceless soldiers who look as if they are charred black by the napalm-produced searing red and orange background. These images, two of the around fifty sculptures and photographs on display, capture the tensions of 1968. They illustrate the moments of calm between the cacophony of war and protest, the stillness before the violence. Such themes are reproduced throughout this DePaul exhibition which contains works by renowned figures such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, and local Chicago artists including Ed Paschke, Tom Palazzolo and Dominick Di Meo.
Much of the exhibition’s content is drawn from three exhibitions originally held in Chicago in 1968. The first was at Richard Feigen’s Gallery. Scheduled for a Claes Oldenburg solo show immediately following the August 1968 Democratic Convention, Oldenburg asked for a postponement: “In Chicago… I was tossed to the ground by six swearing troopers who kicked me and choked me and call me a Communist… a gentle one-man show about pleasure seems a bit obscene in the present context.” In place of Oldeburg’s planned show, the Feigen Gallery hosted fifty artists in their Richard J. Daley Exhibition aimed to “respond to a social crisis while maintaining the integrity of a work of art.” From this collection, the current 1968 exhibit includes Hans Breder’s (1968) sculpture Homage to Chicago. One of my favorite pieces on display here, Breder reproduces a minimalist aluminum cube punctured front and back by the entry and exit wounds of a single bullet. [See Chicago Artist Boycott in this issue.]
The second 1968 show from which items at DePaul are displayed was the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Violence in Recent American Art. Lichenstein’s (1964) felt banner Pistol looms over one corner of the gallery, with Warhol’s black and white image of snarling police dogs biting an African American man as police with batons at the ready look on in Birmingham Race Riot (1964) sitting alongside.
The third 1968 exhibition from which the current DePaul collection draws was originally held a day prior to Nixon’s election in 1968 and was titled Response to Violence in Our Society. Representative works include six screen prints from William Weege’s 1967 portfolio Peace is Patriotic including a striking portrait of a lingerie-clad young woman, erotically caressing a phallic rifle with the statement “Sock it to me baby” in bold red type repeated continuously to form the background. I also liked John Miller’s humorous wooden sculpture Beard (1968). An awkward set of solid false muttonchops, complete with a handlebar moustache, Miller’s inspiration was the Chicago Police Department’s recommendation that officers grow long hair and beards to blend in with protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
What is striking is how many of these pieces are echoed in 2008’s political landscape. Themes like patriotism, racism and war are explored in images like Patriot’s Parade (1967) by Red Grooms and the power of political leaders and the police to ride roughshod over civil rights and, in Seymour Rosofsky’s (1968) Daley Machine, over ordinary people, are evident. The language of the Yippie flyers displayed here is still echoed at numerous protests against the Iraq War, but what is perhaps puzzling is that whereas three major art exhibitions protesting against the abuse of police power and the Vietnam war were held in Chicago between September and November 1968 in the run up to the election, today no similar urgency seems to animate Chicago’s galleries.
1968: Art and Politics in Chicago also includes period footage of Chicago, Vietnam and the MC5 in Palazzolo’s short film Campaign: The ‘68 Chicago Convention and numerous items of ephemera including convention press passes, Yippie flyers, Chicago Seed newspapers, and political buttons.  ◊

1968: Art and Politics in Chicago was on view at DePaul University Art Museum, 2350 N. Kenmore, 18 September – 23 November, 2008