The political influence on postmodernist art

As the high art is moving away from Greenberg’s optical experiences and aesthetics, some modern artists linked their work closer and closer to the political environment. Starting from the early 1970s, avant-garde artists were addressing a significant number of institutional and political issues that “redrew the map of art’s relation to other signifying practices in the modern world.” (Paul Wood, 2004) The Guerrilla Girls one of the groups that were formed under the strong contemporary political influence, aiming to address issues regarding gender and race. (Peter Kalb, 2013) The drift in subjectivity complied with the shift in political power and agenda; thus, works were produced as “the powerful spurs to emotion and action” during the particular periods. (MFA Museum Description) This paper analyzes how artists treat a specifically social aspect of visual experience and how they draw a tactile relationship between their work and the contemporary political environment.

Works discussed here are: 2 panels of Red Disaster, 1963, 1986 by Andy Warhol (see Picture 1); a selection from Portfolio Compleat, a boxed portfolio of 88 posters and projects created by the Guerrilla Girls between 1985 and 2012 and signed by founding members (see Picture 2); and two Flag brooch, from 1851 and 1917 (see Picture 3).

Warhol is known for using silkscreen technique to reproduce images multiple times on the canvas and by doing that, he wanted to remind the viewers that they spend much of their lives seeing without observing. (Kalb) The 2 panels of Warhol’s Red Disaster are from the same collection that he produced for the Death and Disaster series. (MFA) On the left is the pure red paint on canvas that gives a strong visual attraction as the viewer approaches the work. On contrarily, the right canvas features the repetition of the same picture of the electronic death chair for 12 times. Each replica is placed on the canvas in an order and each was done in a careful way. However, the minor differences between each replica emphasized the repetition for the manual process of silkscreen technique onto the canvas. “Adding pretty colors to a picture as gruesome as this,” Warhol believed, “would change people’s perceptions and acceptance.” (MFA) Originally, the photo that Warhol used was black and white – by putting it onto a red background, the creator raised the question to his audience – does it make a psychological difference if the same picture is duplicated multiple times and were placed right next to each other in order onto the same canvas. He addressed the issue of negligence for his audience as the repetition of the same image might not normally be absorbed by the audience. But by repeating it over and over again on the same canvas, the viewers would eventually start to pay more attention to the image.  

According to the MFA description, “a photograph showing the chamber and electric chair at New York’s Sing Sing prison where the Rosenbergs – convicted of “conspiracy to commit espionage” during the Cold War – would soon be put to death” became the hot news in 1953. (MFA) However, just because it was a famous image, did not mean that the audience understood enough of the image and its background. Ten years after the news, Warhol picked up this old image and silkscreened it against a red background. Red can be read as the color of communism. Thus, linking the historical image with the symbol of the particular event triggered the viewers’ impression and the new understanding of the old image.  

The major social and political problems the Guerrilla girls are dealing with is the gender and race inequality issues. “Changes in family form ... and gender arrangements have occurred in a complex web spanning public and private domains… . In struggles for social change, both reformers and traditionalists know that changes in personal life are intimately linked to changes in public domains.” (Carole S. Vance, 2005) As the change in the family form lead to the social change, the Guerrilla Girls group was founded to combat the issues rises among this dynamic shift. Similar from Warhol, the Guerrilla Girls’ selection was also extracted from a group of work – here it is selected from a boxed portfolio of 88 posters and projects created by the group between 1985 and 2012.

Unlike Warhol that used strong colors to pose the strong first impressions to the viewers, the Guerrilla Girls’ works were unified in terms of using the huge letters fonts to convey its messages in a clean and obvious format. Just by a broad browse of the collection, the viewers can observe a combination and mixture of figures, pictures, phrases, numbers that projected a mixed psychological and visual influence to their audiences. For example, in The Internet Was 84.4% Male and 82.3% White. Until Now, 1996, the data gave a strong perception of the gender and race inequality issues in a simple and direct way. The font size and style used in each work varied from each other and there was no unified colors or compositions that were used to link the individual artists as a group, but the images and literal texts of “Guerrilla girls” repeated multiple times in different work to reinforce the group identity. Those attributed to the coherence and consistency, distinctions and differentiations of the individual work as a group, meanwhile the group identity was formed by individuals.

Different from Warhol’s work where the viewers can grasp some sense of the idea quickly from a distance, the Viewers would have to come close and read the text to understand the messages sent from each individual work. For example, in Missing In Action, 1991, the stamp of “Missing in Action” in red was perceived quickly by the audience; however, to understand what are the things this stamp is referring to, the audience would have to walk closer to the work to read the smaller font descriptions on the painting.

Unlike the previous two work where two-dimensional paintings, the flag brooch from 1851 and 1917 were three-dimensional objects made of iron, platinum, diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. (MFA) Although with no direct contextual connections between the two work, the curator grouped those objects together to draw a clear comparison of a historical object and the contemporary object in terms of subjectivity and the political influence on them. The black-lacquered filigree piece on the left was from 1851 - it symbolized the patriotism for Central Europe, recalling the Napoleonic Wars. The American flag brooch glorified with sparkling materials was a business to customer commercial trade during the World War I. (MFA) Both objects recalled the delicate craftsmanship of its creators and by putting them next to each other with a heavy text on the side explaining the origins of them, the viewers can easily link them with patriotism and the historical context. As mentioned in the museum description, “how would the meaning of the flag changes as the owners of it went through different times of hardships?” After reading the text, the viewers would think about the object and take a more thoughtful look at it while trying to search for the answers from the objects.

The political influence of the high art after the 1970s can be traced back to the production of the work for the creators, as well as the individual understanding of the work by the viewers. The curator arranged Warhol’s work right in front of the entrance of the gallery, providing a visual impulsion to the audience as they enter the gallery. Artists utilize symbols and icons to both convey an idea to differentiate themselves and to associate themselves with a particular political and social idea. As time passes by, new meanings may be given to the art work by the audience, adding more values to them, but what remains unchanged marked art work of the contemporary environment that has been heavily influenced by ongoing political and social events.       


Work Cited

Kalb, Peter. Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary. Pearson HE, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 2013


Wood, Paul. Inside the whale: an introduction to postmodernist art. Themes in Contemporary Art. Yale University Press. 2004. 


Vance, Carole S. Eoya Kocur & Simon Leurg, ed., Therory in Contemporary Art since 1986. The War on Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwall, 2005.




Picture 1:  Andy Warhol. Red Disaster, 1963, 1986. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, two panels

 Red Disaster, 1986

Red Disaster, 1986

 Red Disaster, 1963

Red Disaster, 1963


Picture 2:  Guerrilla Girls

Selection from Portfolio Compleat, a boxed portfolio of 88 posters and projects created by the Guerrilla Girls between 1985 and 2012 and signed by founding members.

1.     Dearest Art Collector, 1986

2.     You’re Seeing Less Than Half The Picture Without the Vision Of Women Artists and Artists of Color, 1989

3.     Women in America Earn Only 2/3 of What Men Do. Women Artists Earn Only 1/3 of What Men Do, 1985

4.     The Internet Was 84.4% Male and 82.3% White. Until Now, 1996

5.     Missing In Action, 1991

6.     Guerrilla Girl’s Pop Quiz, 1990

7.     Election Year Lottery, 1994

8.     Guerrilla Girls Review The Whitney, 1987



Picture 3: Flag brooch (objects), 1917

Platinum, diamonds, rubies, and sapphires