Artists for Freedom: James Rosenquist, Peter Halley, and Leon Golub among Artists that Tackled ’90s American Politics

Now at Michael Rosenthal Gallery, “Artists for Freedom of Expression” presents work created on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 1992 and 1996 elections, including artists who were then very notable, as well as a few that were emerging and have since become well known. The screenprints, lithographs, and photogravures offer a broad survey of art at the time, giving both a history of what had recently preceded it and a preview of the procession of aesthetic developments that would follow.

James Rosenquist’s Fireworks for President Clinton (1996) shares qualities with his earlier work, but is rather unique in its composition. Three red, white, and yellow starbursts explode over a field of scribbled red and blue marks. Rosenquist’s image refers back to Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, who immediately preceded him, jokingly making splattery, gestural marks with the arcs of colorful bottle rockets. Nancy Chunn’s May 8, 1996 (1996) is a darker Pop Art image of the era, a reproduction of The New York Times’ front page for that date, appended with Chunn’s witty and acidic commentaries. With wry captions placed over topical news stories, Chunn comments on the disparities between the power held by men and women and the Dole campaign’s attempts to attract female voters; and the law-and-order proclamations made by both candidates during a rapid rise in rates of incarceration and cuts to education spending then being threatened by the Republican-controlled Congress. Her work recalls Fred Tomaselli’s newspaper paintings and Sue Williams’s ranting political paintings.

Leon Golub’s 1992 serigraph, Swell Guys, points to Republican intrusions into privacy and autonomy by identifying their efforts to moralize and proscribe sexual and reproductive choices, both by limiting access to abortion and by demonizing the open enjoyment of sex, especially sex outside the bounds of bourgeois social customs. Peter Halley’s Untitled (1996) takes the opposite tack, with a lithograph that is devoid of overt political content and is instead a formal experiment in form and color. The off-center brown, orange, pink, lilac, and gray rectangles are visually stimulating, but are also an indication of the kinds of formal beauty that can be accomplished when art is encouraged by good governance. All of the artists included in the show have benefitted enormously from policies intended to encourage inventiveness and creativity, and their advocacy through art reflects their interest in protecting other Americans’ right to the same freedoms.

—Stephen Dillon

Artists for Freedom” is on view at Michael Rosenthal Gallery through November 1st, 2014. 

Discover more artists at Michael Rosenthal Gallery on Artsy. 

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