Kudzanai Chiurai. Vote at Own Risk. 2009. Lithograph, composition: 23 1/4 × 16 5/8" (59.1 × 42.2 cm); sheet: 25 1/4 × 17 3/4" (64.1 × 45.1 cm). Printer: Lucas Kutu, Johannesburg. Publisher: the artist, Johannesburg. Edition: approx. 250. Committee on Prints and Illustrated Books Fund, 2010

On Election Day each year, the most popular accessory seen on social media, subway pillars, water bottles, and jackets is the “I Voted” sticker. It has become as much a symbol of pride and recognition of civic duty as a fun memento. While the stickers haven’t changed this year, Election Day will be unlike any other in US history. As our country continues to grapple with COVID-19, there are new obstacles related to voting in person and absentee balloting. Yet, like many, I’ve been moved to see great enthusiasm and recognition around the significance of voting. Spreading quietly from neighbor to neighbor in local communities and more visibly through celebrities and large organizations, the “get out and vote” campaigns are loud and clear—many led by artist projects and posters. This prompted me to think about art’s enduring involvement in getting out the vote. I’ve chosen five works from MoMA’s Drawings and Prints collection, created over the last 70 years, that celebrate this fundamental democratic right.

Ben Shahn. Break Reaction’s Grip, Register, Vote. 1944

Like many of the 2020 voter registration campaigns, this poster’s strength lies in its striking, clear composition. Break Reaction’s Grip, Register, Vote is one of many political posters Ben Shahn created in the 1940s to encourage the public to vote. As an avid supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was running for re-election, Shahn illustrates how Roosevelt’s campaign promises extended to both Black and white voters regardless of whether they lived in the North or the South. The poster focuses on two brown hands—a smaller one grasping a crumpled map of the US, and a second, larger hand forcefully gripping the smaller, thrusting it upwards. The abrupt gesture exudes a sense of urgency and is a passionate instruction to register to vote. In many of his posters from this period, Shahn, a social activist, showed Black and white union members together, fighting for union rights and better terms.

Andy Warhol. Vote McGovern. 1972

Published to raise money for George McGovern’s campaign for presidency in 1972, this screenprint shows one of the most recognizable faces of the 1970s: Richard Nixon. Rather than displaying his preferred candidate, the Democrat McGovern, Andy Warhol lets the image of the Republican candidate do the convincing. Nixon’s burning orange eyes and sneering blue face, combined with the framing shades of red and orange, give the impression that he is about to ignite into flames. The message is clear: Nixon’s temperament is not presidential. This print is an example of Warhol’s fascination with the cultural visibility of political leaders as he also made silkscreen portraits of Mao Zedong, Alexander the Great, and Vladimir Lenin.

Sherrie Levine. President Collage: 1. 1979

In this collage from 1979, one year before the 1980 election, Sherrie Levine reminds us of familiar issues regarding gender roles, sexuality, and equality—subjects that remain at the forefront of the 2020 election. She calls for participation, asks us to look critically at the imbalance between women and men, and urges the public to engage in the fight for women’s rights. In this series, Levine appropriates the profiles of three iconic American presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy. Within these traditional silhouettes she pastes printed images of glamorous women from magazines or modeling shots. Drawing attention to the dynamic between women’s traditional roles in society (looking beautiful while remaining in the background) and the patriarchal structure of modern politics, Levine implores us to ask: How can women be brought from the background to the foreground and given a seat at the political table? Although she doesn’t use language, her imagery speaks volumes.

Kudzanai Chiurai. Vote at Own Risk. 2009

The Zimbabwean artist and activist Kudzanai Chiurai printed a series of lithographs in 2008–09, around the time of the country’s 2008 presidential elections. In one of the posters Chiurai shows the backs of police in riot gear; in another, the president, Robert Mugabe, running for re-election. In this print, he depicts an image of men brandishing batons above their heads with the bold lettering “Vote at Own Risk.” These four words remind us of the complexities some citizens encounter when trying to fulfill their civic duty. Alluding to the violence and corruption within his country during the 2008 election, Chiurai demonstrates that casting our vote is a privilege. He illustrates the high stakes and value of each individual vote, and the often heated reactions voting can bring. As we approach Election Day in the US, we reflect upon how much is at stake.

Mark Bradford. Untitled. 2012

Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Mark Bradford spent hours in his mother’s Leimert Park hair salon, a space where he engaged with people from his community and explored the neighborhood’s many bold and brightly colored posters, advertisements, and billboards. This print, from a portfolio of 14, was inspired by such ads. Bradford employed the backs of used etching plates from print workshops, one of many examples of his use of found materials, to create a worn effect that draws the eye to a central words. The text “Vote Now For Later,” arresting for its directness and poignancy, grabs the attention of passersby and is one of many phrases Bradford collected from the street posters around his LA neighborhood. This compelling call to action is ever timely.