A cartoonist, a pop-art icon, an American president, and the leader of China’s Communist Party walk into a bar. What time is it, one asks. 19:72. Time is up.
An ongoing exhibition out of Fort Lauderdale broaches the lethal subject one should avoid at the dinner table and ignites a debate on the 50th anniversary of the Watergate scandal.
More than religion. More than money. Politics is exquisitely fair game for artists and galleries. As of late, it’s everywhere and it stinks. Then again, the intrusion of politics into daily life is nothing new.
History in the Making: Andy Warhol’s Mao Prints and William Gropper’s Watergate Series reminds us of the looping effect of events dating back to 1972 and that art is rarely apolitical.
Running through Nov. 6 at NSU Art Museum, the exhibition links the unlikely figures of Richard M. Nixon, Chairman Mao Zedong, political cartoonist William Gropper, and American pop-artist Andy Warhol through two specific events.
In February 1972, Nixon ended the dry diplomatic spell between two nations by becoming the first United States president to visit the People’s Republic of China. A few months later, he became the center of a cover-up linked to the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C., Watergate office building.
There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on in a series of 10 lithographs starring members Congress exchanging sinister looks, heated arguments, and dramatic gestures. The protagonists suffer from a severe case of paranoia and our presence in the room seems to elevate their suspicions. In one image, a weary bald figure turns away from his listener toward the viewer to ensure nobody is listening in. Not far from them, in the background, two men in suits are caught in a lively discussion and a third one has fallen asleep.
In another scene, the occupants barely notice our presence amid the emotional plea of the main character at the center of the frame, who is caught mid sentence with arms up in the air. Judging by his dramatic performance, the papers thrown all over the floor and the varying expressions of dissatisfaction and boredom in the room, the calls for unity have been futile.
Gropper sums up the recalcitrant expressions, the whispering, and the secrecy characteristic of this special male club in a cartoon depicting rows of seats occupied by frowning glass-wearing bald white men armed with ties and dark suits. If somebody dares you to find a sign of empathy or kindness (or female representation) in this picture, don’t play.
A student of urban realists Robert Henri and George Bellows, Gropper covered Congress for Vanity Fair in 1930. It remained one of his favorite subject matters. These congressional illustrations seem tailor-made for the infamous event of 1972 and the Senate hearings and resignation that followed, which is why it’s surprising to learn he made them before news of the break-in scandal broke. This turns the fitting cartoons into premonitions of a sort. Some refused to believe the true sequence of events.
“When the prints were seen people said, ‘Look! That’s Watergate!’… so that’s what he called them,” Gropper’s window, Sophie, told The New York Times in a 1979 interview. “People looked for specific portraits in these works, but I have a theory that, over the years, the senators came to look like Bill’s pictures rather than the other way around.”
The satirical pictures declare it’s business-as-usual, but that’s not why they look familiar. The theatrics on display here play distant echo to the break-in story of our time, except in our story the culprits were caught on camera and the president never resigned for his role in it.
Warhol had long been presumed to be apolitical. That changed in 1972 with Nixon’s landmark visit to China and Life Magazine’s endorsement of Chairman Mao as the world’s most famous man in its March issue that year. The 10 screenprints on display give Mao the same vibrant saturated-color treatment prescribed to Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor a decade before.
Depending on which of Warhol’s 10 variations we look at, China’s top dog might appear clownish, feminine, heroic, sadistic, omnipresent, or benevolent. The bold hues in which he is dispatched are merely psychological tools to which we react instantly before historical context comes into play.
Mao and Warhol shared a keen understanding of the power of mass media and photography to advance one’s brand, reputation, and cult following. Both men knew their impact went beyond entertainment. This explains why Mao’s so-called Little Red Book — widely distributed in China to urge a collective rejection of capitalism in favor of Communist ideology — contained his portrait in addition to his writings and speeches. It is this photograph that Warhol appropriated for the Mao screenprints on view, which downgrade a man with a god complex to pools of color.
For all the power of his signature style, it is Gropper’s dark humor that rises to the top and injects relevance into History in the Making, in which the few good men included are not the ones portrayed.
History in the Making: Andy Warhol’s Mao Prints and William Gropper’s Watergate Series runs through Nov. 6 at the NSU Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, 1 Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Admission: $12, $8 seniors and military, $5 students (with valid ID). Call 954-525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.