New York

“Representing Vietnam 1965–1973”

One of the problems with representing the Vietnam war is its resistance to the individual point of view. To render it as a stylized horror show is to risk fogging up a set of events of incredible detail. To present a critique of this subject in documentary guise automatically numbs us with the moral sledge hammer of raw brutality. Filmic representations have semi-solved the problem by mildly rewriting a basic likeness of war gleaned from shared sources, mainly TV news coverage. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, 1979, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, 1987, in particular, managed to give Vietnam’s overly familiar surface a readable if idiosyncratic expression. Film, video, and photography are decoys of memory whose transparency better suits this sirenlike task, while drawing, painting, collage, and sculpture are too artful from the outset. If, for instance, Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, has come to represent an entire conflict, it’s far more famous as the most physically imposing example of his esthetic schtick. Mike Bidlo’s recent copy made one thing clear: the original painting was, is, and always will be first of all “a Picasso,” and only secondarily about its ostensible subject.

Vietnam has no Guernica, per se, unless you count the veterans’ memorial in Washington, D.C. The problem is not that America’s most recent “official” war lacks a malleable meaning but that art in the ’80s—and basically since the mid ’70s — has tended to shrink away from any subject that provokes an irrational response. Some exceptions were included in this small, potent show of Vietnam-related art and propaganda, curated by Maurice Berger. Among these, Leon Golub’s Napalm II, 1969, an acrylic painting of corroded figures on unprimed canvas, and Nancy Spero’s three hallucinogenic gouache-and-ink drawings from the late ’60s, seemed the very definition of vital political art. In contrast, Robert Morris’ 1970 ink drawing War Memorial: Infantry Archive, and the photodocumentation of Carolee Schneemann’s 1967 performance SNOWS: Kenetic Theater by C.S., looked curdled and artsy.

Posters dominated this exhibition just as they’d dominated the street actions of the antiwar movement. The best of them, such as Darci’s I’m Min Li, Bomb Me (n.d.), a swipe at the popular, misogynist airline slogan “I’m (female name), fly me,” and Allen Ginsberg/Mark Morris’ No Money, No War, 1969, a plea to Americans to stop paying taxes, were determinedly artless and continue to startle, even as fossils. The worst examples featured “codes” aimed specifically at the counterculture (and its more bourgeois relatives). These included John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s vapid War Is Over! If You Want It, ca. 1969–70, and Ben Shahn’s chic dove-laden McCarthy/Peace, 1968. As a subject, Vietnam caused many artists and designers to produce the quirkiest work of their careers, and only occasionally the most sincere. “Why?” is the obvious question. It will take a more ambitious show to answer it.

Dennis Cooper