ALL GOOD ART IS POLITICAL: Käthe Kollwitz and Sue Coe will present more than 30 drawings and prints by Kollwitz (1867-1945) and more than 30 paintings, drawings, and prints by Coe (b. 1951). The exhibition borrows its title from writer Toni Morrison, who once noted, “All good art is political! The ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’"
The exhibition coincides with the publication of a book of woodcuts by Sue Coe entitled The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto (OR Books, New York and London).
Despite their differences in background – Kollwitz was born in East Prussia in the 19th century and lived in Berlin, Germany; Coe is an American born in the U.K. and living in upstate New York – both artists share a career-defining attraction to social issues, undergirded by the belief that art can inspire constructive change. Each is considered among the most important political artists of her time, unmatched in her fearless approach to profoundly difficult subject matter, unerring humanity and eloquence, and an uncanny ability to disturb the viewer’s complacency.
ALL GOOD ART IS POLITICAL is divided into sections including: Workers, Poverty and Homelessness, Rape and Women’s Issues, Imprisonment, and War. Whether evoking empathy, outrage, or something in between, these images unanimously affirm social justice as a matter of universal concern. The exhibition focuses on Kollwitz’s work from 1897 through 1942 – including her responses to WWI, Weimar Germany, and the beginning of WWII – and continues with Coe’s oeuvre from the mid-1980s to the present. Her most recent works react to headline events such as the residential high-rise fire in London and the presidency of Donald Trump.
Coe acknowledges a profound debt to Kollwitz, in terms of specific pictorial motifs as well as more general subject matter. For example, Kollwitz’s The Widow I, an iconic 1922-23 woodcut from her War series, vividly illustrates a woman’s bereavement in the wake of World War I: the grieving subject’s arms and hands are raised in an empty embrace, as though to encircle a husband who’s no longer there. Though completely different in subject and mood, Coe’s Safe at Last (Rescued), 2016, visually riffs on Kollwitz’s woodcut. Coe here transposes The Widow’s empty hands into a scene of reunion: they cradle a calf saved from the slaughterhouse, and in so doing, reconstitute Kollwitz’s devastation as delight. Coe, who grew up next to a slaughterhouse in Liverpool, is a vocal animal rights activist. “My own strategy,” she has said, “is to use culture to communicate. Art can reach across maps, without the desire for power and control over others. It works both ways, I look at art and can be changed.”
A number of Kollwitz’s highly recognizable images of women and children can be seen in the exhibition. In The Sacrifice, a 1922 woodcut, a mother offers up an infant who is destined to become cannon fodder, and in Poverty, an 1897 print from the cycle Revolt of the Weavers, a mother despairs over the fate of her ailing baby. Still another print by Kollwitz is intensely personal: The Volunteers, 1921-23, depicts her son Peter (who was killed in action in 1914) following the drumbeat of Death into battle.
In a recent interview, Coe noted, “My work is essentially reportage, going places where a camera is not allowed and recording what I see.” She takes us into a slaughterhouse in Lambs to the Slaughter, and reveals the depths of a New York jail in Holding Cells at Back of Courtroom. Her Alternative Facts, 2017, offers the viewer differing interpretations of a handcuffed man: Is he an illegal alien, rapist or drug dealer? Or is he a human being, father and agricultural worker?
In the section on Imprisonment, Kollwitz’s The Prisoners, a 1908 drawing for the series Peasant War, shows a group of anguished men, women and two children (the artist’s own) with their hands bound, awaiting a tragic fate.
Both artists give a voice to the oppressed and the tortured, and question the foundations of their social justice systems. Coe and Kollwitz’s genius lies in how each combines realism with an expressive shorthand to probe deeper truths. Theirs is not “art for art’s sake,” but neither is it propaganda. Their images tell us something about ourselves and compel us to do better.
About Käthe Kollwitz
One of Germany’s most important artists of the early 20th century, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) created unique representations of protest on behalf of the victims of social injustice. Kollwitz is known the world over for her powerful portrayals of war and poverty, and for her pacifism (sparked by the death of her son in WWI). She was appointed the first female member of the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts in 1919 and served as a professor until her expulsion 1933. Her work was deemed “degenerate” art and removed from museums by the Nazis, and the Gestapo threatened her with deportation. In 1942, the year her grandson was killed in action, Kollwitz created her last lithograph, the defiantly anti-war Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground. She died in 1945, shortly before the end of the war. Her work is in numerous major museums around the world, with two institutions, in Berlin and Cologne, dedicated solely to her. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has included her work in World War I and the Visual Arts (July 31, 2017 – January 7, 2018), and in 2017 she is being recognized with more than 15 exhibitions honoring the 150th anniversary of her birth.
About Sue Coe
Sue Coe (American, born 1951, U.K.) is an artist working primarily in drawing and printmaking. She is the author of ten illustrated books. Coe studied at the Royal College of Art in London and moved to New York City, where she lived from 1972 to 2001. Coe first rose to prominence in the New York art world in the 1980s when major collectors such as Elaine Dannheiser, Eli Broad, and Jerry Speyer took notice of her politics and began to collect her work. Coe has had numerous works reproduced in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and countless other publications. In 1994, she was honored with a retrospective at Washington D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, part of the Smithsonian Institution. Her work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Perez Art Museum Miami, among others. Coe was exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York in I, You, We in 2013 and in the inaugural 2015 exhibition in the Whitney’s new building, America Is Hard to See. The Whitney presently features Coe’s work again, in An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940-2017, which opened August 18th. She lives and works in upstate New York.