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War (What Is It Good For?)


Jim Shaw, Untitled (from the aestheticized disaster series), 1991–92. Graphite on paper; 16 3/4 x 13 5/8 in. (42.5 x 34.6 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Lannan Foundation, 1997.51.1

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Leon Golub, Mercenaries I, 1979. Acrylic on unstretched linen; 120 x 166 in. (304.8 x 421.6 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Lannan Foundation, 1997.39. © 1979 Leon Golub

Photo: © MCA Chicago

Enrico Baj, Punching General, 1970. Lithograph on paper; 26 1/8 x 20 in. (66.4 x 50.8 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Milton Ratner, 1973.11. © 1979 Leon Golub

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


“Absolutely nothing!” is the refrain, answering this question posed by the emblematic 1960s song War! The exhibition What Is It Good For? draws from works in the MCA Collection, focusing on artists' critical responses to war, its threat, and the politics that provoke it.

Works of the postwar era such as H. C. Westermann's W.W. I General, W.W. II General, W.W.III General and Enrico Baj's General series respond to the macho politic rhetoric of Cold War hawks and their persistent threats of nuclear war. Works by Peter Saul are critical of American escalation of the Vietnam War, and Leon Golub's Mercenaries I conflates the heroic and horrific in his painting that describes the often pitiless forces behind Third World conflicts and civil wars. Artists of a younger generation have explored how war is transformed through memory and its representation in the media: Doug Hall comments on the absurdity of American and Soviet Cold War militarism evoking geopolitical newspaper maps. Jim Shaw's Aestheticized Disaster series draws from published newspaper and magazine images of conflict to further isolate these carefully composed images of horror and brutality from reality. Mike Kelley's Disembodied Militarism refers to the classic newspaper comic Sad Sack in a suite of drawings that wryly comment on the dispensable role of the soldier through ironic humor. And like Shaw, Malcolm Morley draws from popular culture in MASHto underscore the media’s romantic interpretation of the Korean conflict. Borrowed works will augment the exhibition such as Barbara Kruger’sYour Manias Become Science*—a sobering caution about the potential of weapons of mass destruction.


Support for War is provided by Wolf-Gordin, Inc., and Photo/Graphic Specialists. Special thanks to Jeffrey Cassens, Michael and Jennifer Lash, Jack Bakker, and Foster Goldstrom.