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Art Does Have an Impact: Visitors Respond

Sharing Memories, Hopes and Fears at Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975

A photograph of a wall with a sign that says "This exhibition makes me feel..."

Visitors leave hand-written notes after viewing the exhibition, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975. Photo by Libby Weiler.

Melissa Hendrickson is an Interpretation and Audience Research Specialist at SAAM.

More than forty years after its conclusion, the Vietnam War remains an emotional and affecting topic. Whether you lived through the conflict or were born long after its end, you likely have strong feelings about this divisive period in American history. Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, on view through August 18, 2019 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, explores the era through the lens of its artwork.

During the war, artists, like many ordinary Americans, felt compelled to respond to their political, social, and cultural moment. The artworks they created are powerful and provocative, reflecting the turmoil and passion of the decade. Recognizing the strong emotions inherent to the topic and works, SAAM’s interpretation team worked closely with curator Melissa Ho to create space in the exhibition for visitors to rest, reflect, and respond.

Our process began by engaging with SAAM visitors. Through surveys, interviews, and in-depth focus groups, we explored visitors’ associations with the Vietnam War, their questions about the exhibition’s content, and how the museum could best support their experience.

One result of that feedback was the creation of a dedicated interpretive gallery. This discrete space includes an in-depth timeline, which puts exhibition artworks into context with major political and social events of the period, as well as a communal table, where visitors are invited to pause, reflect, and connect with friends or strangers.

A major element of the interpretive gallery is an extensive response wall, which encourages visitors to share written feedback through two prompts: “The art in this exhibition makes me think…” and “The art in this exhibition makes me feel…”

Visitors encounter the timeline in the exhibition, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975

Visitors examine the timeline in the exhibition, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975. Photo: SAAM staff.

To date, nearly four thousand people have shared their reactions. Their responses reflect a range of emotions: pride, shame, regret, awe, confusion, optimism, fear. Some share their memories of the Vietnam War era and their own experience as a soldier or activist. Others express frustration at their lack of knowledge about the period and their desire to learn more about its overlooked histories. Some recognize soldiers of color, who were drafted in disproportionately high numbers. Others honor family members who came to the United States as refugees from Southeast Asia. Many draw parallels to the contemporary moment and reflect on lessons learned, or ignored.

The handful of cards below represent a range of distinct voices, thoughts, and personal responses. If you’d like to visit and add your thoughts to the interpretive gallery, the exhibition remains on view through August 18, 2019.  Following the presentation at SAAM, the exhibition will travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Art where it will be on display from Sept. 29 through Jan. 5, 2020.

Feedback card from Artists Respond exhibition
A visitor comment card describing outrage over the Vietnam War
A visitor respond to the exhibition by writing in Vietnamese about the pain of the war

Translation: We will need a few more generations to ease the pain of the Vietnam War

A visitor's comments reveal a personal connection to war
A visitor creates a map linking Vietnam and the US as his mother was a refugee
A history teacher describes how students reply on memes to express how they feel
A visitor draws a hand and a skeletal hand

On Paul Thek’s Warrior’s Leg

Rarely exhibited, Paul Thek’s Warrior’s Leg (1966–1967) stands in the current exhibition Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965–1975. The artist, Paul Thek (1933–1988), cast a part of leg—most likely his own—painted it in realistic detail, and adorned it with a leather sandal and greave. The top part of the leg, which we can peer onto, reveals the flesh, sinews, and ligaments; the leg fragment once belonging to a warrior, as the title tells us, had been unceremoniously cut off, perhaps in battle.

An image of a leg with a covering over it.

Paul Thek, Warrior’s Leg from the series Technological Reliquaries, 1966-67, wax, leather, metal, and paint, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 1990. © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York, Photo by Cathy Carver. Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Paisid Aramphongphan was a recent Terra Foundation Postdoctural Fellow at SAAM and holds a doctorate in the history of art and architecture from Harvard University. He was recently awarded the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s 2019 Terra Foundation for American Art International Essay Prize for his work on the artist Paul Thek.


The work is part of Thek’s Technological Reliquaries series, informally known as the Meat Pieces, which he worked on from around 1964 to 1967. At first, Thek sculpted wax to look like slabs of meat, and displayed them in all their gory and shiny detail (for an example of an early Meat Piece, see Untitled (Meat Pyramid) from 1964, currently on view in SAAM’s Luce Foundation Center). Around 1966, Thek started casting his own body parts, raising the unsettling uncanniness of his work. His ultimate goal was to cast his body as a corpse, which he did in a work that he presented as his tomb (The Tomb, 1967).

Paisid Aramphongphan speaking about Paul Thek's Warrior's Leg in Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War (1965-75)

Paisid Aramphongphan speaking about Paul Thek’s Warrior’s Leg in Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975

What had prompted, first of all, his morbid fascination with dead flesh and mutilated body parts? Among the formative events of his artistic imagination surely was Thek’s visit in the early 1960s, with the photographer Peter Hujar, his lover at the time, to the Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily. The sight (and, as he tells it, touch) of long dead, desiccated corpses stayed with him, and brought home the realization of the „thing-ness“ of his own body. With his Catholic background, Thek furthermore was taken in with the religious art he saw in Italy. The title of the series, Technological Reliquaries, refers to the relic tradition in religious material culture, while the leather strap and protective gear allude both to gladiators in Roman times and depictions of archangels such as Saint Michael in battle. The field of allusions the work makes—certainly not a set of common references his artistic peers were making in the 1960s at a time of self-referential, modernist art—speak to his hope of creating an art that would mean more to him, more than the cold coolness of the trendiest art of his time, from pop to minimalism, an art that would be closer to liturgy, to a „spiritual education,“ as opposed to the „technological education“ pervasive in society to the detriment of, in his view, collective well-being.

In Artists Respond, the work is shown alongside works of the often overlooked „hot“ and politicized side of 1960s art, many confronting the viewer with images of death and destruction, the ravages of war that were also being beamed straight into the living room during the first „televised war,“ as Martha Rosler’s work, also included in the exhibition, demonstrates so well. Beyond a statement against the prevailing artistic trend of his time, Warrior’s Leg in this context brings to mind losses and pain that, as Thek reflected on his experience walking through art galleries, co-mingling with his peers, the art world seemed helpless, if not simply disinterested, to do anything about. At the time of the work’s making, the US government was becoming further involved with the war in Vietnam, with deployment of more troops in the region as the war escalated, even as the anti-war movement was gaining ground.

In religious material culture, bodily fragments are not only associated with reliquaries. Another tradition is the ex-voto, a practice with a long history in many regions in the world, including in Sicily. Casts or replicas of afflicted body parts are offered to deities or higher spirits, with offerings, with prayers, with the hope to heal, or as gratitude for past healing performed. Sights of casts of legs, arms—or even models of internal organs such as the womb—lining the walls of shrines are common. Whose leg are we looking at, torn off but standing erect still? What healing could be asked of it? Whose healing?

The exhibition Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War is on view in Washington, DC through August 18. It then travels to Minnesota, opening at the Minneapolis Institute of Art September 29, 2019.

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