Political Prints

UIMA@IMU Visual Classroom
Iowa Memorial Union, third floor, 125 N. Madison St., Iowa City

The presidential election is still a few months away, but it has pervaded the media for more than the past year. The UIMA has many prints in its collection that relate to politics, from those commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s to more-recent protest art. It seems timely to exhibit a selection of this artwork in the UIMA@IMU Visual Classroom this fall.

In the 1960s and ’70s, protests and riots challenged the status quo, while artists debated what the American dream looked like and who could participate in it. The prints in this exhibition explore the fissures that threatened to rend the nation half a century ago and continue to affect our lives now. The period began auspiciously with the election of the young, charismatic John F. Kennedy, who promised an era of hope and progress, but he inherited challenges that included the Vietnam War and the Cold War. The Civil Rights Movement, which gained strength throughout the 1960s, elicited savage responses from police and from civilians. Many of the inspiring events of the decade were quickly followed by tragedy. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963 was followed three months later by President Kennedy’s assassination, only the first of many violent acts against political leaders.

The artists included in Political Prints confronted issues of racism, nuclear war, and patriotism in their work. In Poster for CORE (1965) Robert Rauschenberg captured the hope placed in the apparent progress on multiple fronts, including the election of JFK, the establishment of the Congress for Racial Equality, and technological advances. The flip side of hope is disappointment, examined by other artists in the exhibition. Elizabeth Catlett memorialized Malcolm X in Malcolm X Speaks for Us (1969/2004), and Glen Ligon and Charles White explored the experience of African-Americans, focusing on what it means to be black in a largely white United States. Jasper Johns’s Two Flags (1970–72) questioned the values symbolized by the American flag. Andy Warhol and June Wayne considered specific byproducts of the Cold War: Warhol’s Electric Chair #78, 1971, is based on a 1953 photograph of the electric chair used to execute convicted Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; and Wayne’s 1965 At Last a Thousand series of lithographs depicted atomic mushroom clouds and the cratered surface of the moon to suggest the technological discoveries of the era.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Political Prints confronts the viewer with the reality of our divisions. By presenting us with instances of promise and peril in recent America history, the artists who produced the works in this exhibition sought to secure the possibility of a unified future.

Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925–2008)

Poster for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality)

, 1965
Screenprint with varnish overlay, 35 7/8 x 23 7/8 in. (9.11 x 60.6 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Ross, 1971.260, ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation