Waiting for Tear Gas at Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present three exhibitions exploring salient themes of grief, protest, artistic meditation, and remembrance. Drawn largely from the collection, these installations embrace a wide range of media, include numerous important recent acquisitions, and present works created by artists working in the 20th century or earlier whose expression remains fresh, vital, surprising, or even searing today. 

The ways in which artists have created visual elegies from different perspectives is the subject of Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century (through July 24), which focuses on how makers in a wide variety of media, who lived and/or worked in the United States, elaborate themes about personal and societal loss, grapple with the aftermath of historic tragedies, and commemorate those who have died.

Waiting for Tear Gas (through July 17) will explore the work of artists, operating in places ranging from Philadelphia to Tokyo, that convey public protest, or response to protest, in ways that bring aesthetic and political commitments together in an act of open, collective, political dissent. 

Pictures in Pictures (through July 17) will present works that embed other images within their compositions. This installation will consider the ways such embedded images can summon or invoke a presence, making the imagined real, the absent present, or the lost remembered.

Waiting for Tear Gas

"Storm Troops Advancing under Gas," No. 12 from the portfolio "War," 1924, by Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969). Printed by O. Felsing, published by Verlag Karl Nierendorf, Berlin. Etching, drypoint, and spit-bite aquatint, plate: 7 9/16 x 11 3/8 inches (19.2 x 28.9 cm); sheet: 13 1/2 x 10 5/8 inches (34.3 x 27 cm). Gift of Carl Zigrosser, 1961-211-2. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2022.
“Storm Troops Advancing under Gas,” No. 12 from the portfolio “War,” 1924, by Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969). Printed by O. Felsing, published by Verlag Karl Nierendorf, Berlin. Etching, drypoint, and spit-bite aquatint, plate: 7 9/16 x 11 3/8 inches (19.2 x 28.9 cm); sheet: 13 1/2 x 10 5/8 inches (34.3 x 27 cm). Gift of Carl Zigrosser, 1961-211-2. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2022.

The act of public dissent has long appealed to artists who seek to represent intense moments of expression. Protests highlight coordinated masses as well as exemplary individuals. They appear, by turns, both organized and chaotic. And they are events filled with visual representations—from painted signs to human gestures—offering up many visual possibilities for artists.

This installation centers on Allan Sekula’s bracing work Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black], a 13-minute slide show that presents a complex negotiation of politics, portraiture, and, most importantly, protest within a broader context of artistic representations of dissent and social justice.

The recent acquisition is a monument of politically engaged art and was created in the wake of the anti-globalization protests that rocked Seattle, Washington, in late 1999. It consists of eighty-one 35mm color slides that document the artist’s participatory observation of the protest, sequenced and projected at nearly life-size scale on a continuous loop. Viewers of the slide show confront a procession of people who Sekula met in the crowd that day.

He has called the work “a simple descriptive physiognomy” that illustrates how “the alliance on the streets was indeed stranger, more varied and inspired than could be conveyed by cute alliterative play with ‘teamsters’ and ‘turtles,’” a reference to the highly visible coordination between organized labor and environmentalists at the event.

Included in the exhibition are works spanning the period from 1913 until 2017. These representations of protest provide an opportunity to reflect across time. Among the highlights are Storm Troops Advancing under Gas, 1924, an etching by Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969) that depicts a horrifying scene created in response to the early chemical warfare introduced during World War I; Demonstrators Cross Broad Street at Girard Avenue, 1968, a photograph (lent by The African American Museum in Philadelphia) by Jack T. Franklin (1922–2009), who captured some of the most defining moments of civil rights protest in this city; Marie Bond, Reading, Pennsylvania, 2006, from a series of portraits by Judith Joy Ross (b. 1946) of people protesting the Iraq War; and a suite of images by David Lebe (b. 1948) that document the Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987, at the height of the AIDS/HIV epidemic in the United States.

"Revolutionary (Angela Davis)," 1972, by Wadsworth Jarrell (American, born 1929). Color screenprint, image and sheet: 33 1/16 × 26 inches (84 × 66 cm). Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund, 2018-147-1. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2022.
“Revolutionary (Angela Davis),” 1972, by Wadsworth Jarrell (American, born 1929). Color screenprint, image and sheet: 33 1/16 × 26 inches (84 × 66 cm). Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund, 2018-147-1. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2022.

The exhibition was organized by Samuel Ewing, the museum’s former Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography.

“The year 2020 saw an upsurge of public protest,” Ewing said, “Even the pandemic did not stop tens of millions of people from coming into the streets in support of Black Lives Matter. We can be sure that many artists joined in collective calls for justice. The works in this exhibition help us reflect on past calls for social transformation and imagine a future they might bring into being.”

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