How Artists Portrayed Conflict and Morality During the Vietnam War

BY ROGER CATLIN

Vietnam II by Leon Golub, 1973 (Tate Collection © 2018 The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, NY, image © Tate, London, 2018)

In 1965, as the Vietnam War escalated overseas amid civil unrest at home, abstract artists as accomplished as Philip Guston wondered whether they were doing the right thing. “What kind of man am I,” he wondered, “sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”

Vietnam pushed him into a more direct commentary on the world—and a sudden shift toward representational, though often cartoonish, satirical attacks on hate groups and elected officials.

One of them, San Clemente, a vivid painting targeting Richard Nixon in 1975, is part of a major survey titled “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975” and now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The show brings together 115 objects by 58 artists working in the decade between Lyndon Johnson’s decision to deploy U.S. ground troops to South Vietnam in 1965 and the fall of Saigon ten years later.

San Clemente by Philip Guston, 1975 (Glenstone Museum, ©The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth, photo by Christopher Burke

With devastating loss of life—nearly 60,000 U.S. casualties and an estimated three million soldier and civilian losses in Vietnam—the war produced some of the most significant ruptures in social and political life across the country and stoked a divisiveness that is still being felt today. Just as it changed America, the war changed art itself, shaking artists into activism and often into creating works quite different from any they had done before. The exhibition, organized by Melissa Ho, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art, is chock full of such examples.

Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1865-1975,” curated by Melissa Ho, continues through August 18, 2019 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. It will be exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art September 28, 2019 to January 5, 2020.

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