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July/August 2019
  The Smithsonian’s Big Vietnam War Art Exhibit: An Uneasy Feeling

Earlier this year an unprecedented, extensive exhibit on Vietnam War art opened at one of the nation’s most important art museums. On March 15 the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., opened its doors to Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975. This marked the first time the august Smithsonian had mounted an exhibition of Vietnam War art, and also—as one reviewer put it—the first time the Vietnam War “has been addressed on this scale by any museum.”

The day after it opened, I took in the entire exhibit in the company of two Millennials and a Baby Boomer (my daughter, Cara, her friend Kyle, and my wife Janna). Our reactions were starkly different. The others were positively impressed with the art and the exhibition. I found much to admire in some of the individual works, but the exhibit as a whole left me with a disturbing, uneasy feeling.

It had to do with the cumulative effect of the scores of paintings, sculptures, collages, filmed performance pieces, and photographs created by artists during the war. It won’t be a shock to any Vietnam War veteran that the art world’s response to the fighting in Vietnam was decidedly antiwar.

Peter Saul, Saigon

I knew that going in, and that’s not what bothered me about the exhibit. What did disturb me was coming face to face with the way the artists on display expressed their opposition to the war. The message was abundantly clear: Too many members of the antiwar movement (including artists) blamed the warrior for the war. Yes, some of the works here demonize and castigate the civilian and military leaders who planned and prosecuted the war. Fair enough. But far too many pieces in this exhibit depict the war as one giant atrocity committed by the American military.

Take Peter Saul’s 1967 painting “Saigon” (above)—please. A hallucinatory mass of violence and depravity done in bright colors, the painting includes the words “WHITE BOYS TORTURING AND RAPING THE PEOPLE OF SAIGON” in Chinese-styled letters. There’s more to the piece, but I’ll leave it at that.

Martha Rosler

Then there’s a small room of photomontages (above) by the artist Martha Rosler called House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home. Each contains a magazine photograph of a Norman Rockwell-ish interior of an American home, along with images of various forms of not-good things American troops did to the South Vietnamese people and their country. The message is very clear.

Then there’s the statement by artist Judy Bernstein that her goal was to “make the ugliest paintings I could.” Why, I thought, go to an art museum to see ugly paintings? I saw them, and I can report that Bernstein succeeded in her mission, especially in a mixed-media piece called A Soldier’s Christmas (below). The message and words are so ugly I will not describe or repeat them here.

Judy Bernstein, A Soldier’s Christmas


Melissa Ho, a curator of twentieth-century art at SAAM, put this extensive exhibit together. I interviewed her about the show shortly after I saw it. To her credit, she directly answered my questions about the exhibit, including one about the “ugliest paintings” quote, helping me understand more about the show’s purpose.

She explained that one of the objectives of the show was to examine “the impact of the Vietnam War on art and artists of that time.” As Ho put the exhibit together, she said, she discovered that the war, indeed, did have a big impact on monumental changes in the art world. By the early seventies, she said, “art in America looks very different. You had many more artists openly engaging with their present moment and with public issues, along with new kinds of art being invented, including performance and body art.”

The war’s impact was “powerful and pervasive in American culture,” she said. “It pushed modern artists of all kinds to reconsider how to engage with the real world in their work, rather than approaching art as something separate and elevated from life.”

To that extent, the exhibition succeeded. It clearly shows artists working in new and creative and wildly unconventional media.

Ho also spoke about the reactions Vietnam War veterans have had to the show’s collection of highly politically charged avant-garde work. While she was putting the show together, Ho said, she spoke to some Vietnam veterans. Their “reactions were mixed,” she said. “They could see the purpose of exploring this historical moment through the responses of artists. Others felt frustrated or upset that the show would necessarily bring up how painful, divisive, and controversial the war was.”

The exhibit “is a sobering thing,” she said. “For people who lost comrades, family, or homeland in this war, looking at its impact on American art may seem small and beside the point. And art is small in comparison to the direct effects of war. But art can be a meaningful way to foster reflections on challenging topics like war, and to examine our own history.”

Also to her credit, Ho included the work of two Vietnam War veterans in the show: the painter Jesse Treviño and the performance artist Kim Jones. Treviño’s Mi Vida, a huge (eight foot by fourteen foot) painting, is a kind of self-portrait centering on the image of the head of young man surrounded by wartime and everyday objects, including a Purple Heart and a pack of cigarettes. It’s painterly and almost gentle, especially compared to the in-your-face art that dominates the show.

jessie Trevino, Mi Vida

Mi Vida (above) was the first work Treviño created after coming home from Vietnam. A rising artist before the war, he lost half of his right arm—his painting arm—after being seriously wounded. Remarkably, he learned to paint with his left hand after a long recovery at his childhood home in San Antonio. (See our review of Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Treviño)

Former Marine Kim Jones’ contribution (below) is an installation of the sticks, mud, rope, foam rubber, and combat boots he wore on two 1976 walks he took from downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean. He titled that performance piece Wilshire Boulevard Walk, calling it “a walking sculpture that’s eighteen miles long.” It later became known as “Mudman.” The installation also includes black-and-white and color photos of the walks.

Kim Jones, Mudman

I thought Jesse Treviño’s work was beautifully done and meaningful, and among the best in the show. Mudman, on the other hand, was too off-the-charts for me to appreciate.

If you can’t make it to Washington to see the exhibit before its scheduled closing on August 18 and want to see the work up close, the museum and Princeton University Press have produced a mammoth, 416-page hardcover catalogue with high-quality images of the works. The book also contains profiles of many of the artists, along with essays by Melissa Ho, Thomas Crow, Erica Levin, Katherine Markoski, Mignon Nixon, and Martha Rosler on art, film, and feminist politics and the war. The book’s title is the same as the exhibition’s: Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975.





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