New York Historical Society: Art as Activism


Lester Beall, Cross Out Slums, 1930s, Lithograh on paper, 39 3/4 x 29 5/8 inches

Link to the New York Times review, Seeing the Power of Political Posters

Link to the Hyperallergic review, The Raw and Stylish Designs of 20th-Century American Protest Posters 

Throughout much of the 20th century, political protests and calls for action reached the public on posters and broadsides. Long before digital technology made worldwide communication possible, graphic artists used the powerful tools of modernist art to inform communities, stir up audiences and call attention to injustice. American graphic artists, often drawing on European models developed in the 1920s to fight fascism or promote revolution, used brilliant colors and violent imagery to produce ephemeral artifacts aimed to inspire and energize the angry or disaffected.  Posted on walls and bulletin boards, or slapped up on store windows and church doors, these bright, quickly produced images embodied the anger of the masses, ultimately serving as the wallpaper of public discontent.

Art as Activism: Graphic Art from the Merrill C. Berman Collection presents a selection of posters produced between the early 1930s and the 1970s, some by known artists like Emory Douglas and Hugo Gellert, others by unidentified designers. Many of the best known date from the activist period of the 1960s, but their style and power have deep roots in the past and would continue to shape the imagery of protest until replaced by other forms of social media, including street art and ultimately the internet.

The exhibition is drawn from the Merrill C. Berman Collection, one of the world's finest private collections of modern graphic art. Over the past forty years, Merrill Berman has put together a collection of graphic design comparable to the collections of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Selections from his holdings have appeared in exhibitions throughout the world.  

From left to right:
Hugo Gellert, Daily Worker, ca. 1935. Lithograph on paper

Photography attributed to Blair Stapp, Composition by Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton seated in wicker chair, 1967. 
Jay Belloli, Amerika is Devouring Its Children, 1960s-1970s, Silkscreen on computer paper
Vera Bock (1905–73), Haiti; A Drama of the Black Napoleon by William Du Bois at Lafayette Theatre, 1938. Screenprint on board