Jasper Johns' Flag, 1954-55. Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels, 42 1/4" x 60 5/8". Source: MoMA
A simple image can convey complex emotions and simple truths. It can also depict layered political, social, and economic messages, without saying a word. That’s why art, created in the spirit of protest, has sometimes been able to help spur powerful change in society, when kings, presidents, philosophers, and scientists stood if not idly, at least ineffectually, by.
As hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets across the country to express fury at the death of innocent black Americans George Floyd, Robert Fuller, Malcolm Harsch, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and demand justice in their deaths, and in the day-to-day lives of black Americans, we were inspired to examine the long history of protest art, with a focus on New York, a state that seems to attract more than its share of aesthetic activists. Below, our favorite iconic protest artists.
Dorothea Lange left New York to travel and photograph the world in 1918, with her tough Big Apple grit intact. During the late 1920s and 1930s, her artful photojournalism drew attention to the plight of migrant workers who were desperate to find work on farms, and often starving in the process of seeking it out. Anyone who has seen Migrant Mother can speak to the shocking power of the image. But she didn’t stop at just snapping arresting pictures. She informed authorities of the plight of the workers, and had 20,000 pounds of food sent to the area to feed the hungry, struggling families.
Migrant Mother, 1936. Gelatin silver print, 11 1/8" x 8 9/16". Source: MoMA Learning
While Keith Haring died in 1990, his legacy and message are very much still alive. Keith Haring rose to prominence in the 1980s. His pop art and graffiti first appeared on the streets of New York City. Sometimes apparently simple and cheerful — a radiant baby, three-eyed smiley face, dancers in outline — the message, upon further examination, was more complex and decidedly darker. His earlier statements, “Crack Is Wack,” a mural on 128th street in NYC, in addition to anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid posters, are relatively straight-forward. But as he drew closer to death, from an Aids-related illness, his vernacular grew to include images of violence, war, and death. Broken birds, daggers, nails, nooses, blood. Haring — open, social, and inherently fun — became close friends with another iconic street tagger and artist-turned-collectors-item, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Crack is Wack, 1986, on a handball court at 128th Street and 2nd Avenue, New York City. It was created as a warning and was initially executed independently, without City permission. The mural was immediately put under the protection and jurisdiction of the City Department of Parks and still exists. Source: The Keith Haring Foundation.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life was brief — he died in 1988 at age 27 of a heroin overdose — but his influence and impact on the culture at large is almost impossible to overstate. His entire oeuvre focused on dichotomies that speak to injustice. Wealth, poverty, reality, perception, integration, segregation were all themes explored in his poetry, drawings, and paintings. In 2017, a painting of a black skull with red and black rivulets, Untitled, sold for $110.5 million, a record for American art. But one of his works, Defacement, seems especially timely today. The 1983 painting commemorates the death of a young black artist named Michael Stewart, at the hands of police in New York City. In 2019, the Guggenheim mounted an exhibit with the work as its centerpiece, which explored Basquiat’s explorations of identity and empowerment.
Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983. Acrylic and marker on wood, framed, 25" × 30 1/2". Source: Artsy
Barbara Kruger’s legacy rests on her mission of speaking truth to power...abstractly. While her images of mass media, with textual overlays of aphorisms, questions, and sayings, instantly lodge in a viewer’s psyche like a bullet, you do have to mull it over for a bit to understand what she’s actually saying. She grew up in Newark, New Jersey, then moved to the Big Apple to work as a graphic designer at Mademoiselle. One of her most famous works, created in 1987 — a delicate hand holding a card that reads “I shop therefore I am” — borrows Rene Descartes’ statement, “I think therefore I am.” Kruger gently, but effectively, decries what she sees as Americans’ search for meaning through commerce and bland consumerism. Kruger frequently borrows phrases and messages from postmodern philosophers and intellectuals in her work denouncing unthinking capitalism and gender inequities.
I Shop Therefore I Am, 1990. Photolithograph printed in colors, 17 3/10" × 10 7/10". Source: Artsy
Jasper Johns is a painter, sculptor, and printmaker whose work is almost impossible to pigeonhole stylistically. Is he a pop artist? An abstract expressionist? A new-dadaist? The recipient of the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one thing is clear: he’s an American institution. The work of art he is most known for is his series of the American flag, which he began in the mid-1950s after being discharged from the U.S. army. In 1969, as part of a worldwide protest movement against the Vietnam War called the Moratorium, Johns created yet another flag. And in 2014, Flag (1983) sold for an astounding $36,005,000. While living in New York in the 1950s, he met Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he formed a long-term personal and professional relationship. His lover, unsurprisingly, was heavily invested in the protest art movement himself.
The late Robert Rauschenberg (he died in 2008) was a painter and graphic artist, whose pop art inspired generations of artists after him. Like Johns, he was a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. In 1970, Rauschenberg refused to participate as an American painter at the Venice Biennale, a form of protest against the Vietnam War that not only contributed to the conversation around the war, but likely severely impacted his bottom line. He also produced lithographs and work that were interpreted as critical reactions to Cold War American Culture. In Choke, he shows images of an army helicopter, scouts carrying flags, the Statue of Liberty, and a one-way sign. The confused and chaotic image, colored in strident bright colors, evokes turmoil and violence.
Choke, 1964. Oil and silkscreen on canvas, 60" x 48". Source: Kemper Art Museum
Despite all of the upheavals, drastic changes, and tragedies our country has faced this year, there is a spirit of resilience and strength on the streets, on social media, and in our day-to-day lives. Here’s to all of us creating and communicating the change we want to see, in whatever medium we excel in.