Dec 13, 2013
Saving Paul Conrad’s ‘Chain Reaction’
Posted on Aug 27, 2013
Luis Jimenez (1940-2006) was an imaginative public sculptor who performed the same function with his large fiberglass works dealing with Latino and immigration themes. But in one of his early works from 1969, “Man on Fire,” he depicted a burning man who was modeled on the Buddhist monks in Vietnam who burned themselves to death to protest the war in that land. Jimenez’s sculpture got inspiration from the Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc, who was tortured by the Spanish conquistadores.
His 1989 “Border Crossing” portrays a man carrying his family on his shoulders while traversing the Rio Grande into the United States—an all too familiar story for millions of undocumented people in America. Jimenez’s sculpture invites serious consideration of one of the most pressing human issues a quarter century after its creation. Like all outstanding works of political art, this effort demands an active response, countering the social indifference that much of contemporary art generates, especially with its elite audiences.
Probably the most notable public sculptor working in the United States presently is Maya Lin (1959- ). The creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Lin won the commission as a 21-year-old student at Yale in 1981. This work is a magnificent V-shaped granite effort that contains the names of more than 58,000 fallen soldiers in America’s most foolish and costly military adventure. It allows families and friends of the dead as well as opponents of the war to stand in the same space, to grieve for the unspeakable loss of life. Anyone who has visited this monument has experienced its power and its capacity to generate both serious thoughts and enduring emotions.
Lin has created an impressive body of work beyond the Vietnam Wall. Her “Civil Rights Memorial” in Montgomery, Ala., in 1989 and her “Woman’s Table” at Yale in 1996 invite audiences to reflect on the struggles of African-Americans and women for full equality in American life and society. These works and others likewise set the broader context to understand the deeper educational value of Conrad’s “Chain Reaction.”
The other aspect to consider is Conrad’s artistic quality and reputation. He was the pre-eminent political cartoonist of his era; in the entire history of this medium, he remains a truly giant figure and it is reasonable to place him in the front rank of the world’s political cartoonists from the 19th century to the present. Most political cartoonists, however pungent and critical, seldom transcend their own time and place. In very few cases, their artistic brilliance allows them to simultaneously comment on their own times and make more timeless observations with relevance far beyond their specific targets. In the U.S., the finest examples include Thomas Nast; some of the early 20th century cartoonists from “The Masses,” like John Sloan, George Bellows and Robert Minor, Bill Mauldin and Herbert Block (better known as Herblock).
The most obvious comparison is with the great French artist/cartoonist Honore Daumier (1808-1879). His savage cartoons about King Louis-Philippe and other reactionary politicians after the July 1830 revolution can be viewed fruitfully today and compared to their equally reactionary American counterparts of the early 21st century. Likewise, Conrad’s acerbic treatment of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas and many others will endure for decades into the future, long after these men and their retrograde ideas and polices have (one hopes) faded into obscurity.
Daumier was also an accomplished sculptor (and painter), adding a huge dimension to his overall artistic stature. His political sculptures often caricatured the “leaders” of his era, but they are exquisitely applicable to the present. When I take students in my honors course on political art at UCLA to the Armand Hammer Museum to see Daumier’s cartoons, I also show them his sculptures, inviting them to see their contemporary significance and implications.
Conrad is a staple in that same course, a major figure in my survey on modern/contemporary social commentary in the visual arts. I deliberately compare Daumier’s work with his and I also bring students’ attention to “Chain Reaction,” while revealing that Conrad too was both a cartoonist and political sculptor. And I am pleased to add that during his lifetime, Conrad gracefully (and colorfully) spoke to my students about his life and work.
Whatever the authorities in Santa Monica decide to do with “Chain Reaction,” they must be totally cognizant of the long art historical tradition from which it emerges. Knowledge of that tradition should go a long way in convincing them, and the residents of the community in general, of the scholarly importance of this public sculpture. It is one of the many reasons why it must be preserved and repaired in its present location.
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