Printed art has served as a means to disseminate beliefs and commentary to wide audiences since its origins some 500 years ago. This exhibition surveys the contemporary American aspect of this artistic tradition, from the 1960s to the present.
Although other mediums have long since replaced prints as major vehicles for mass communication, the tradition of social and political printed art remains vital even today, in an era in which the concept of “art for art’s sake” has played such a prominent role. The horrors of war, corruption in government, and the specter of poverty in the midst of plenty have drawn compelling responses from contemporary artists, just as they elicited masterly artistic statements from such artists as Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, and José Guadelupe Posada in earlier times. Another continuity in evidence in the works presented here is a leftist or liberal point of view, which has prevailed throughout the history of printed art with social and political themes.
During the 1950s and into the 1960s, while Abstract Expressionism and related movements held sway, artists working with political and social subjects were not highly visible. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, a pluralism began to emerge that extended to art with discernible subject matter. The feminist, ethnic, and other cultural movements reemphasized content in works of art, as did conceptual art and its offshoots. The 1980s have seen an increase in the prevalence of art about societal issues. These developments are reflected in the fact that, among the works included here, there are many more examples from the past dozen years than from the years prior.
The printed works included in this exhibition issue from the fine-art tradition of painting and sculpture, as distinguished from the graphic-arts tradition of posters or political caricatures. In order to focus on the major thrust of their imagery, they have been organized not by style, date of execution, or artist, but according to the following categories: Governments and Leaders, Race and Culture, Gender, Nuclear Power and Ecology, War and Revolution; and Economics, Class Struggle, and the American Dream. Prints overlapping several categories or exploring universal themes are presented in an introductory section. Issues arising from abuse of power inform almost all the works under consideration.
Most of the artists represented in the exhibition communicate their concerns in the formal language of modernism. Collage techniques, in which otherwise familiar imagery or text is arranged in startling juxtapositions, are frequently used. Flattened surface areas that push out onto the frontal plane lend immediacy to confrontational works. Isolated images on stark backgrounds set up iconic figure/ground relationships that turn subjects into symbols. In addition, expressionist gesture and distortion of the human figure occur frequently in works addressing the subjects of violence and oppression.
These artistic conventions are employed in conjunction with the most appropriate print mediums: the flatness of silkscreen, the directness of block printing, the bite of etching, and the freedom of lithography. The less traditional mediums of stencil and offset, often used in activist art because they are easy and inexpensive, are also employed.
Organized by Deborah Wye, Associate Curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books.
The exhibition has been sponsored in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.
The publication accompanying the exhibition has been made possible by the Samuel Rubin Foundation.