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Art of Engagement

Art of Engagement by Peter Selz

Art of Engagement takes the first comprehensive look at the key role of California's art and artists in politics and culture since 1945. Tracing the remarkably fertile confluence of political agitation and passionately engaged art, Peter Selz leads readers on a journey that begins with the Nazi death camps and moves through the Bay Area's Free Speech Movement of 1964, the birth of Beat and hippie countercultures, the Chicano labor movement in the San Joaquin Valley, the beginning of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and some of the most radical manifestations of the women's movement, gay liberation, Red Power, and environmental activism. It also deals with artists' responses to critical issues such as censorship and capital punishment. Selz follows California's outpouring of political art into the present with responses to September 11 and the war in Iraq. In the process,

Selz considers the work of artists such as Robert Arneson, Hans Burkhardt, Jerome (Caja), Enrique Chagoya, Judy Chicago, Llyn Foulkes, Rupert García, Helen and Newton Harrison, Wally Hedrick, Suzanne Lacy, Hung Liu, Peter Saul, Miriam Schapiro, Allan Sekula, Mark di Suvero, Masami Teraoka, and Carrie Mae Weems. Abundantly illustrated and beautifully produced, Art of Engagement showcases many types of media, including photographs, found objects, drawings and prints, murals, painting, sculpture, ceramics, installations, performance art, and collage. Readers will come away from the book with a historical sense of the significant role California has played in generating political art and also how the state has stimulated politically engaged art throughout the world.

Copub: San Jose Museum of Art

Against War and Violence

Like Forkscrew Graphics, Clinton Fein (b. 1964) has used the iconic image of the hooded prisoner, multiplying it fifty times to stand in for the stars in the American flag in his print Like Apple Fucking Pie (2004). The flag’s stripes are replaced with the official text of the Abu Ghraib report, in red ink between white intervals. This image, along with another by Fein, was shredded and destroyed by a high-tech Sil- icon Valley printing firm, which claimed the work violated company policy against depicting torture and disparaging religion. Fein is no stranger to censorship. Earlier, he established a provocative website, www, in response to the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which made it illegal to send “indecent” communications over the Internet. He went so far as to sue Attorney General Janet Reno over the law, winning a partial victory in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999.

Who Would Jesus Torture?Born in Johannesburg, where he witnessed the effects of apartheid, Fein studied industrial psychology before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and later settling in San Francisco. His art ranges over a variety of political issues, from urban blight to the masochistic and homoerotic implications of life in the military to the ongoing “war on terror” and erosion of American civil liberties. A 2004 exhibit in San Francisco was explicitly intended to make viewers aware of the “nightmarish rollbacks of the Constitution by an Administration that has done more to kill civil liberties than Osama bin Laden could ever have wished for in his wettest dreams.”4”

Typical of Fein’s ongoing attack on the Bush administration’s policies is a 2001 photocollage titled Blood-Spangled Banner. Here bin Laden’s head replaces that of Miss Liberty, while the right arm of the statue holds Bush’s dismembered head aloft, instead of the great torch of freedom. The work is accompanied by a verse that begins:

Oh, say can you feel

by the dusk’s fading light

How so sadly we mourn

our constitution is screaming?

In another image, titled Better Be the Last (2004) and modeled on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, Fein shows the president and his cronies seated around a table with almost no food left on it. Continuing the religious theme, the digital print Who Would Jesus Torture? (2004) depicts Bush on the cross in place of the Savior. (The original version of this image was also destroyed by the printer.) A phallic missile, equipped with the American flag, emerges from Bush’s loin- cloth. Bin Laden sits above. From one arm of the cross hangs the icon of the hooded man, while below the other arm, on an electric chair, sits Private Lindy English, the soldier photographed “taming” naked prisoners with a dog leash. Below English, we see John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld strapping Saddam Hussein to a chair, while Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz (the chief architect of the Iraq invasion) appear on the lower right. Several of these figures dangle toy elephants-alluding not only to the Republican Party logo but also to Thomas Edison’s demonstration of the strength of the electric chair (his own invention, though this fact is rarely mentioned) by shocking an elephant to death. Who invented this torture? we might also ask.

Peter Selz, an Art Museum Force on Two Coasts, Dies at 100 (New York Times)

Peter Selz, who as a leading curator at the Museum of Modern Art staged wide-ranging exhibitions of Mark Rothko’s paintings and Auguste Rodin’s sculptures before leaving to become the founding director of the University Art Museum, Berkeley, died on June 21 in AlbanyCalif. He was 100.

His daughter Gabrielle Selz confirmed the death, at an assisted living facility. He had lived in a Modernist house in Berkeley for more than 50 years before recently moving to nearby Albany.

Mr. Selz, a German-born bon vivant whose guests at his Manhattan apartment often included the artists Franz KlineHelen Frankenthaler and her husband, Robert Motherwell, as well as Rothko, joined MoMA in 1958 as its curator of painting and sculpture exhibitions, one of the most prestigious positions in the art world.

“New Images of Man” (1959), Mr. Selz’s first major show at MoMA, was a haunting, largely despairing survey of the human image through paintings and sculptures by 23 American and European artists, including Francis BaconJackson PollockJean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti.

When he announced the show, Mr. Selz described its 104 postwar works as “effigies of the disquiet man.”

The reviews were mixed, which Mr. Selz attributed largely to the exhibition’s devotion to figurative works and not to Abstract Expressionism, the popular movement of the era. But in her review in The New York Times, the critic Aline B. Saarinen wrote that many of the paintings and sculptures were “powerful mirrors of some of the significant aspects of the human condition in our time.”

Read full article here.

By Richard Sandomir
June 28, 2019

Buy the Art of Engagement

Art of Engagement
Visual Politics in California and Beyond
by Peter Selz (Author), Susan Landauer (Contributor)
January 2006
First Edition

University of California Press