History always finds its way into the dialogue of artistic expression. In particular, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art boasts several striking works that exude memories of the Cold War. By exploring a selection of these pieces, we have a unique opportunity to study the historiography of the Cold War through the lens of contemporary American art.
One of the most provocative examples is the sculpture Pinko (2009), by Brian Tolle. At first unassuming, the piece consists of pink silicone rubber draped over a flagpole. But the rubber component is actually a model of a 1950s-era Levittown house, a mass-produced icon of early suburbia. Levittown homes were available in a small range of floor plans and offered certain citizens an affordable chance to experience a highly sanitized version of the American dream. People of color were discouraged from purchasing Levittown houses, with the original leases warning, “the tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” 1
As a foil for this relic of American hypocrisy, Tolle ingeniously affixed the model to a Soviet flagpole. This juxtaposition defangs domestic Cold War propaganda that excoriated the Soviet Union as an authoritarian society while ignoring flagrant racism in the United States. Even the title, Pinko, refers to a twentieth-century pejorative for those suspected of harboring Communist sympathies. Stripped of its Cold War context, the art remains relevant as a bitter testament to the lengths humans will go to justify their own conduct.
Another outstanding piece (currently on view) at the Nerman Museum is Asad Faulwell’s Mujahidat #11 (2010), a remembrance of the role women played in Algeria’s war for independence. A French colony until 1962, Algeria spent seven years fighting to achieve autonomy. The artwork incorporates newspaper images of three Algerian women who participated in the resistance movement and features a robust field of colors. The mosaic patterns have a distinctly North African aesthetic, but the absence of any significant amount of green, a color associated with Islam, is conspicuous. Instead, purple dominates the background, evincing a sense of chaos as long-simmering conflicts erupted.
Part of a global phenomenon of decolonization during the Cold War, the Algerian uprising represented a dilemma for the world’s former colonial powers. France, a major ally of the United States, struggled to maintain its reputation as a free, democratic nation as it waged a brutal campaign to preserve its crumbling overseas empire. The United States’ and Soviet Union’s destabilizing efforts to gain influence in these newly independent states typically exacerbated the upheaval of the people who lived there.
In the heyday of the Cold War, nuclear Armageddon was the ultimate fear. Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison poignantly portray one interpretation of our potential to destroy ourselves in Gray Dawn (2006), also currently on view at the Nerman Museum. A chromogenic print embellished with acrylic, the image of a nameless, recumbent man is both understated and severe. Following the subject’s gaze out a window, we see a pair of nuclear cooling towers amidst a damp haze. His only visible companions are a motley assortment of dying plants whose fragile postures are supported with bits of wire.
The Cold War could have been a genesis for the reality depicted in Gray Dawn — a fate for millions of people who didn’t perish in atomic blasts but whose habitats would have been irreversibly contaminated by nuclear war. The work also invokes an actual nuclear disaster of our own making. The 1986 accident at the Soviet nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, resulted in the expulsion of large quantities of radioactive material into the air. In response, authorities ordered the evacuation of Pripyat, a nearby town built for the power plant workers that was rendered uninhabitable. Although Pripyat remains a ghost town, its environment bears a grim resemblance to the atmosphere of Gray Dawn. The artwork recognizes that even when our intentions are peaceful, the human capacity for hubris can wreak devastation.
This survey of three twenty-first century pieces at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art suggests that the Cold War still has a dynamic influence on the work of today’s artists. Through this material, we can gain a deeper understanding of our flawed history and strive to transform the present into a more peaceful and optimistic future.