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How the Vietnam War Reflected on American Art

  • James Gong Fu Dong - Vietnam Scorboard
  • Yoko Ono - Cut Piece
March 10, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

In 1955 the Vietnam war started and the origins of the conflict can be traced in the country’s colonial past under the French siege; it was basically a war between North Vietnam, which was supported by the communist allies, and South Vietnam supported by the United States and other anti-communist countries. The Vietnam war is often interpreted in regards to the Cold War climate and it lasted almost nineteen years with direct involvement from the US.

The anti-Vietnam protests started happening increasingly during the mid-1960s. The young people demanded the US intervention end. Such a reaction was part of a larger social movement including the hippies, African-American civil rights, women’s liberation, and the Chicano movements; by 1967, the majority of the American citizens perceived the US involvement as a mistake.

The new zeitgeist naturally reflected on visual arts as well, so a great number of artists reacted. The upcoming exhibition titled Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965–1975 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum will showcase the critical articulation from the artists’ perspective.

Corita Kent - yellow submarine
Corita Kent – yellow submarine, 1967. Screenprint. Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Arthur Evans

The Exhibition Context

The exhibition will feature one hundred works artworks produced by fifty-eight of the most visionary and provocative artists within the period from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s fateful decision to deploy the U.S. ground troops to South Vietnam in 1965 to the fall of Sài Gòn ten years later.

Carl Andre, Chris Burden, Mel Casas, Judy Chicago, James Gong Fu Dong, Dan Flavin, Edward Kienholz, Yoko Ono, Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, are just a few of the names whose outstanding and critically charged works will be on display.

Martha Rosler - Cleaning the Drapes
Martha Rosler – Cleaning the Drapes, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, ca. 1967-72. Photomontage. Art Institute of Chicago, through prior gift of Adeline Yates. Exhibition copy provided by Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Copyright Martha Rosler. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchel-Innes & Nash New York

The Works

Horrified by the political irresponsibility, these artists used all means possible and expressed themselves equally through painting, printmaking, sculpture, installation, performance, etc. Both iconic and rarely discussed works will be on view in order to underline how deeply the development of American art was influenced by the Vietnam war.

The production made during that period introduced previously unheard and marginalized artists, including women, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. Although the majority of artworks are a direct response to the conflict, they were made as a reaction to a broader context of American civic life.

Mel Casas - Humanscape 43
Mel (Melesio) Casas – Humanscape 43, 1968. Acrylic on canvas. Mel Casas Family Trust. Photo courtesy Mel Casas Family Trust

Artists Respond at The Smithsonian

The curator of twentieth-century art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Melissa Ho, who organized the exhibition, engaged great efforts to analyze and properly present the complexity of the former American society, as well as to connect it to the contemporary moment.

Furthermore, Artists Respond will be presented alongside an installation by internationally acclaimed artist Tiffany Chung titled Vietnam, Past Is Prologue, consisting of documentary materials related to the legacies of the Vietnam War.

Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965–1975 will be on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC from 15 March until 18 August 2019.

Editors’ Tip: Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965–1975

By the late 1960s, the United States was in a pitched conflict in Vietnam, against a foreign enemy, and at home―between Americans for and against the war and the status quo. Artists Respond brings together works by many of the most visionary and provocative artists of the period. It explores how the moral urgency of the Vietnam War galvanized American artists in unprecedented ways, challenging them to reimagine the purpose and uses of art and compelling them to become politically engaged on other fronts, such as feminism and civil rights.

Featured images: James Gong Fu Dong – Vietnam Scorboard, 1969. Embossed etching. San Francisco State College Art Department Collection. @ Jim Dong. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo by Mindy Barrett; Yoko Ono – Cut Piece, 1964. Performance at Carnegie Hall, New York, 1964. Performed March 21, 1965. 16 mm film by Albert and David Maysles transferred to video, black and white, sound, 8:27 minute. Courtesy of the Artist @ Yoko Ono 1965/2019. All images courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum.