This unique exhibition, entitled The Art of Engagement, not only showcases celebrated artists and their political views, but launches Peter Selz’ much anticipated book The Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond, which serves as the educational force behind the theme of the show. Though the book primarily focuses on California’s response to art and artists in politics and culture, the gallery includes an impressive representation of nearly eighty pieces of both European and American works that spans much of the modern and contemporary canons. Featured in the show are such modernists as Pablo Picasso, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz and Hans Burkhardt. More recent artists range from Ed Kienholz, Leon Golub, and Richard Serra to Terry Allen and Jerome Witkin.
Interestingly, each piece of art vividly represents how artists reacted to political issues of their respective historical periods, yet we can still relate to these same messages today. When I asked Selz and Rutberg which artist in particular has been a key figure in political art, both unhesitatingly responded, “Hans Burkhardt.” Burkhardt’s work has always communicated his strong political views on war. His Desert Storm paintings, sparked by U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War, still rersonate as war continues in Iraq.
Peter Selz has become an icon in the art world through his inspirational view of art’s role in society and politics. As a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and founding director of the Berkeley Museum, the art historian traces artistic political expression from the Free Speech Movement through women’s and gay rights activism, to environmental issues and events surrounding 9/11.
“Great art that endures originates from a humanist response; not merely pattern making or design for design’s sake,” says Jack Rutberg, gallery owner. “While I don’t think that good art has to be political...in fact people shouldn’t confuse art with propaganda...it is that humanist response that makes great art enduring. This exhibition and Peter’s book address that.”
Yes, art is responsive. And when politics so fervently influences a work of art, the experience can be unsettling. This is the feeling that manifests and remains within us for years to come.