Visual Culture
The Artist Painting Trump’s Most Incendiary Words
Excerpt from Hate Is What We Need by Ward Schumaker, published by Chronicle Books 2018.

Excerpt from Hate Is What We Need by Ward Schumaker, published by Chronicle Books 2018.

“I’m not a political person, especially,” says San Francisco-based artist Ward Schumaker. But, like for many people, the start of the Trump administration pushed him to confront some hard truths. A painter and maker of unique art books, Schumaker has long used words in his work; Trump’s own statements, however inflammatory or incendiary, suddenly seemed like the foundation of an uncomfortable new project.

The result is Hate Is What We Need, a book of text-based paintings made during the summer of 2017 that incorporate the President’s own controversial comments. (A trade version is published by Chronicle Books; the original, one-of-a-kind book is on offer from Jack Fischer Gallery, with the aim of placing it with an institution).

The artist, 75, started bookmaking after taking a class in 2003 at the San Francisco Center for the Book, where he was turned on to the use of methylcellulose as a medium to mix with acrylic pigment. Before that, he had given up artmaking for decades, following an unexpected controversy in 1960s Nebraska: A 22-year-old Schumaker won a state-sponsored painting prize after submitting a jokey, figurative painting of God creating Adam. Government officials saw all sorts of sexual innuendo in the composition, none of which Schumaker intended. A strange debacle ensued.

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A few decades later, and the artist’s latest work could again ruffle the feathers of right-wing lawmakers. Schumaker might not think of himself as political, but his allegiances are certainly progressive. He moved to San Francisco in the mid-1960s (“half a block from Haight Street, thinking, Oh God, we’re free, at last!”) and was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. It was a more personal incident that pushed him toward Hate Is What We Need: His grandson came to him and said he didn’t want to grow up to be a bully, like Donald Trump.

The artist’s previous pieces had included snippets of esoteric text like “I Am Big Heaven” or “Mr. Nobody Will Come As A Flood Upon You.” But suddenly he found himself painting equally strange sentiments that were not his own, but rather said by Donald Trump—things like “I Alone Can Fix It” and “I Like People Who Weren’t Captured.”

Did it feel odd, I asked him, to take Trump’s most controversial words and aestheticize them? “It not only felt strange, it was very depressing,” Schumaker admitted. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this.’ My wife said, ‘Get it out of your system. Complete the thing. Go back and work on it.’ I would. But it’s depressing to think about Trump all the time, and it’s hard not to.”

Excerpt from Hate Is What We Need by Ward Schumaker, published by Chronicle Books 2018.

Excerpt from Hate Is What We Need by Ward Schumaker, published by Chronicle Books 2018.

The Trumpian quotes that Schumaker painted range from the snide and sexual (the Access Hollywood grab them by the pussy” moment) to the bizarrely honest (“I love the poorly educated,” 2016). They capture the President pontificating about the border wall, boasting of his love for Hispanics, exhorting those at his rallies toward violence, denying the validity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, extolling his own handsomeness, and celebrating Frederick Douglass as if he were still alive. Occasionally, Schumaker samples in voices adjacent to Trump, like senior advisor Stephen Miller (“...the powers of the President will not be questioned”) or the swift-tenured Press Secretary Anthony Scaramucci (whose anatomical quote about Steve Bannon is not fit to reprint here). The book’s title comes from a 1989 interview in which Trump railed against five teenagers falsely accused of a gang rape in Central Park.

Trump’s words throughout are rendered in gloriously raw, ragged fashion. Schumaker’s process involves blocking out his text in Photoshop, then printing it as a guide to make hand-cut stencils with an X-acto knife. “The paper is flimsy, so it never makes a nice print,” the artist said. “I like that messiness. When I pull the paper off it sticks or tears or falls apart. I fell in love with paint in the 1950s and ’60s, and my aesthetic is still anchored in that: the viscosity of paint, the way it bleeds or drips.” While the results may recall text-fond artists like Mel Bochner or Christopher Wool, Schumaker traces his fascination with painted words back to an earlier generation—that of Larry Rivers or Robert Rauschenberg.

Schumaker finished his work on Hate Is What We Need in August just before the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that ended with an apparent vehicular homicide. The artist, at the last minute, tucked “On Many Sides” into the final page of the book—a remnant of Trump’s infamous response to the events, including stating that there was “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” (Meanwhile, Trump certainly hasn’t stopped talking, and Schumaker is in the midst of a follow-up to Hate Is What We Need.)

Excerpt from Hate Is What We Need by Ward Schumaker, published by Chronicle Books 2018.

Excerpt from Hate Is What We Need by Ward Schumaker, published by Chronicle Books 2018.

“We couldn’t even digest what had happened,” he told me, referring to the march in Charlottesville. “My wife is Jewish, my son is half-black, we have Hispanic people in our family—gay, straight, like a typical American, especially Californian, family. That they would be be marching in the streets saying ‘Jews Will Not Replace Us’—we were in disbelief.”

I asked him what those who support the President would make of his project. “I have relatives who are super Christian, and who voted for him,” Schumaker explained. “I think they’re proud of what he says. Some of these words they wouldn’t think are bad.”

And what about the man himself? Would Trump view Hate Is What We Need as a leftist attack, or merely as a celebration of his own bon mots and non sequiturs? “I think he’d be so proud,” Schumaker told me. “I do! Or if he wasn’t—we’d never get to know it.”

Scott Indrisek is Artsy’s Deputy Editor.