“Disarming Images”

The purpose of this exhibition, subtitled “Art for Nuclear Disarmament,” is to show that artists as significant and diverse as Laurie Anderson, Robert Arneson, John Baldessari, Janet Cooling, Mary Frank, Red Grooms, Hans Haacke, Robert Longo, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and William Wiley have not only been thinking about the unthinkable, but incorporating that concern into their work. Nina Felshin, the show’s curator, found that several of the artists from whom she offered to commission nuclear- related pieces had already done works they thought would be appropriate, and in her catalogue essay she contends that in all cases, “either directly or indirectly,” the nuclear issue is a part of “the ongoing aesthetic concerns of the artist.” It’s not surprising that this body of work exists—after all, our national leaders are actually talking about nuclear war as though it were a viable military strategy—but it’s interesting to see it emerging in the conservative, buttoned-down ’80s. In 1968, a tumultuous time, a protest show against Chicago mayor Richard Daley was organized at this Cincinnati institution, and none of the artists already had related work available to lend.

Of course, the events at the 1968 Democratic Convention constituted a more specific issue, but not much antiwar or antiviolence material seemed to be sitting around studios either. Most of the participating artists either made objects expressly for the show or sent thematically unrelated examples of the work they were doing at the time. Kenneth Noland, for instance, sent a stripe painting. But despite the cool, abstract, formalistic nature of most of the best art of the period, some artists managed to create powerful works for the occasion, such as Barnett Newman’s Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, 1968, a heavy steel frame filled with a grid of barbed wire and splattered with blood-red paint.

The most disarming thing about the large and impressive collection of “disarming images” here was that it left the viewer feeling only sad and powerless—unable to affect the fate of the world. It didn’t bring a lump to the throat the way the 1959 movie On the Beach does, inspire resistance the way Dr. Helen Caldicott’s speeches do, terrify the way Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun does, or infuriate the way a Presidential press conference can. If the work in this exhibition is central to the artists’ concerns, why doesn’t it have more potency?

The subject of nuclear war may not lend itself to painting or sculpture. For sheer horror, it is difficult to top the news photographs of the victims of Hiroshima, and most of the artists here didn’t even try. (Some did use old pictures of the bombings and tests, but often they chose mushroom clouds, and those familiar shapes are too amorphous, too far away, and sometimes even too beautiful to horrify.) Instead, the artists tended to approach the subject symbolically and at arm’s length. The most provocative work was the most down-to-earth and directly personal one—Mike Smith and Alan Herman’s Government Approved Home Fallout Shelter Snack Bar environment, 1983. Built from federally approved and circulated fallout-shelter plans, the piece forces the viewer to imagine what it would be like to try to survive a nuclear war. Pictures of distorted baby dolls (Sandy Skoglund’s dye transfer print Maybe Babies, 1983) and models of disintegrating mummified fetuses (Michele Oka Doner’s Descending Torsos, 1975–83) are too abstract to terrify. They describe a future far beyond tomorrow, and one in which the viewer is unlikely to be able to feel pain.

Some of the most esthetically intriguing works lose the power to persuade by virtue of their quality and the associations they summon. Robert Morris’ wall-sized untitled drawing from the “Firestone Series,” 1982, fascinates by making a connection with Leonardo’s Deluge drawings, while Longo’s big bronze bonding relief Love Will Tear Us Up (The Sleep), 1982, shows resemblances to Henry Moore’s “Underground” drawings of the ’40s and to early Christian sarcophagi. But once one makes these connections the pieces become more interesting than terrifying, and one tends to think of them as works of art dealing with an iconographic tradition rather than with death itself.

“I don’t think this show is going to change minds,” Felshin admitted in a gallery talk before the opening in Cincinnati. By the same token, it is unlikely to offend, so it just might create some awareness in circles otherwise unsympathetic to the antinuclear cause—if it reaches them. The exhibition, which was organized by the Bread and Roses Cultural Project of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, AFL-CIO, with the Physicians for Social Responsibility, is traveling to 10 other cities. Washington, D.C., is not among them. It is going largely to university galleries in small towns, since most of the major big-city museums refused to take it. “Disarming Images” will, however, be at New York’s Bronx Museum of the Arts in the fall of 1986.

Jayne Merkel