Although formalistic innovation is routinely accorded preeminence in histories of modern painting, no period has produced as vigorous or indefatigable a tradition of socially aware art as has the twentieth century. These impulses have been most evident in times of turmoil—especially in the periods immediately preceding the two world wars—and it seems that the present moment is equally ripe for a resurgence of political art. Popular culture, conceptual art and other manifestations of modernism have provided new raw material for today’s political artists, but Sue Coe reaches back further for her primary inspiration, continuing the tradition of Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz and other social realists of the Expressionist era. The critic Donald Kusput has called her “the greatest living practitioner” of “a confrontational, revolutionary art.”
Sue Coe believes that her politicization was a direct outgrowth of her economic background, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion that this drive would find an artistic outlet. Raised in a lower-middle-class area of London, she was primarily concerned with making a living, and she entered the Royal College of Art in 1970 to study graphic design: the only branch of the fine arts that promised a steady income. Her training was appropriately pragmatic—cereal boxes and children’s book illustrations were typical exercises—and David Hockney was her most substantial early influence. At the time, Coe had no idea that art could be political.
All this gradually began to change after Coe came to New York in 1972 to pursue her chosen career. She was fortunate in landing a professional commission from The New York Times almost immediately, and while the ensuing stream of work was not exactly bountiful, the editorial climate of the 1970s was considerably more adventuresome than it is today. Coe’s first direct involvement with political art came at the “Workshop for People’s Art,” a volunteer association of artists who produced posters and pamphlets for community groups. Not only did the Workshop introduce overt social advocacy to Coe’s assignments, but the adjunct Marxist Library provided her initial exposure to the work of politically oriented artists such as Otto Dix, John Heartfield and José Clemente Orozco.
An important concomitant of the increasingly political direction of Coe’s art was her tendency to work in series. These series were not specifically narrative in intent, but rather grew out of an innate perfectionism and a desire to explore certain subjects in detail. In the beginning, the focus of the pictorial cycles—devoted to such topics as plane crashes, television game shows and Sherlock Holmes stories—was only subliminally social, but around 1974 the artist began her first directly-observed series, on Manhattan street life. With this, Coe discovered another important core of her art: to transform specific events into shared ones through visual affirmations of them.
Coe gradually came to realize that art has the power to release people rom their isolation by revealing the universality of their experiences. From 1973 to 1978, she taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts, and the reactions of her students, as well as of friends and of strangers who wrote in response to her published work, convinced her that art could be a powerful vehicle for social change. Various magazines published portions of her series in the form of pictorial essays, further encouraging the artist to set her own agenda instead of being bound by the editorial dictates of an art director. It was a logical next step to begin publishing the series in book form, with text custom-crafted to suit the imagery, instead of vice-versa. Coe’s first books, How to Commit Suicide in South Africa (1983) and X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X) (1986) drew pointed parallels between institutionalized racism and the broader inequities of the capitalist system. Police State (1987) was a more generalized discourse on political oppression.
In 1983, Coe acquired an important presence in the nascent East Village art scene when the P.P.O.W. gallery featured a selection of work from the South Africa book. Subsequent exhibitions also revolved around the artist’s publication projects. The Malcolm X series was shown at galleries in Chicago and San Francisco, as well as at P.S. 1 in Long Island City, New York. Police State doubled as the catalogue for a retrospective seen at eleven museums in the United States and Great Britain. Publication of Coe’s latest cycle, Porkopolis (a multifaceted exposé of the meat industry) is still pending, but the work, first shown at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1989, is presently on a five-city museum tour. The exhibitions have won Coe national recognition (including an Artnews cover), and her work has been acquired by such institutions as the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress.
The expansion of Coe’s domain from printed page to gallery wall has brought with it increasing confidence in and refinement of her artistic skills. “Quality” is a concept lately in disrepute among those who champion political content in art, and so it may come as a surprise to realize that Coe crafts her work with the meticulous care of a Goya or a Kollwitz, resting her effects on precise observation and consummate draftsmanship. Coe had to wean herself from the smallish format of her illustrations, and now appreciates the freedom of a larger canvas or sheet, provided the impact of the draftsmanship is not compromised by scale. If some of her earliest work was brash—striving for the easy sensationalism of tabloid headlines—she lately strives for subtler, more carefully articulated effects. The slightly abrasive “look-at-me” attitude has dissipated; the artist now hopes that the audience will look through her eyes, to see things as she sees them. Thus viewer and artist are implicitly joined in a shared exploration of reality, a search for meaning.
Coe’s work of the past decade gives ample evidence of the eloquence and efficacy with which she has borne witness to the seamy underside of the Reagan/Thatcher era. She has managed to maintain a constant dialogue between the specific and the universal, so that, for example, her well-known painting of the infamous New Bedford rape is not only a depiction of a single incident, but a more probing statement about the abuse of women. Similarly, Porkopolic is not merely a plea for animal rights, but a philosophical treatise on the subjugation of one species by another—of the powerless (in the broadest sense) by the powerful. Coe believes that, just as lab animals are tested to see how much of a particular carcinogen they can endure, we human guinea pigs are being tested to see how much battering, how much environmental pollution, how much manipulation and outright brutality we can take. And just as the limited and ostensibly “harmless” U.S. military incursions in Grenada and Panama set the stage for the present war in the Persian Gulf, so the small-scale economic disasters of the 1980s—monetarism and the resulting fiscal and human abuses—have set the stage for the current economic downturn. Regardless of whether one accepts Coe’s wholesale repudiation of capitalism, it is increasingly difficult to deny the reality of the problems she describes, or the necessity of redressing them.
We would like to extend our heartfelt appreciation to the many lenders who made this exhibition possible, above all to Ida Balboul and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who went out of their way to accommodate us on short notice. Warmest thanks also to the Edward R. Broida Trust, Elaine and Werner Dannheisser, the Stefan T. Edlis Collection, Don Hanson, Catherine Hillenbrand, Phyllis Kind, Robert and Mary Looker, P.P.O.W., the Prudential Insurance Company, Dr. Robert Shimshak, the Speyer Family Collection, and several anonymous collectors.