The Art of the Diss: Contemporary Artists Take On President Trump at Frieze New York
Frieze may be a big tent, but these artist don't seem too fond of the Republican president.
When Donald Trump strode onto New York City’s Intrepid aircraft carrier on Thursday for his first hometown visit since Inauguration Day, most of the protesters railing against the president’s extreme right-wing policies massed outside the naval landmark. Uptown, however, at the opening of the Frieze New York art fair, a quieter kind of anti-Trump demonstration was at hand in the work of three very different artists—and their galleries—who decided to use the fair as an opportunity to show how they feel about the new Commander-in-Chief.
Here’s how they did it.
President-Elect Trump, 2017
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (Paris)
For two decades now, the Shanghai-born, Paris-based painter Yan Pei-Ming has been painting autocratic rulers—Mao and Stalin among them—in a style that melds the classical French tradition of exuberant, expressionistic brushstrokes with the muted, monochrome palette often used in Chinese contemporary art. In this brand-new painting, the artist has added Trump to his roster of dictators, depicting him with the purse-mouthed snarl so often captured in photographs of his fiery rallies.
How much would it cost to put this little painting—which a gallery dealer describes as “horrible and beautiful at the same time”—on your wall? A cool $140,000, the same price, incidentally, that Bob Dole was paid to facilitate the January call between Taiwan and Trump that nearly blew up U.S. relations with China.
Donald Trump, 2004
Galerie Nathalie Obadia (Paris)
Andres Serrano, a bugbear of Conservative America ever since his Piss Christ became a target of the culture wars, is not known for the warm-and-fuzzies. But in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the artist set off on a patriotic project to capture the “identity” of the United States with a kind of crazy-quilt of portraits featuring everyone from firefighters to Muslim women to celebrities. This was in 2004, when Trump was the likable star of “The Apprentice” (and when he told Wolf Blitzer, “I probably identify more as Democrat”), so Serrano included him in his lighthearted celebrity category alongside Snoop Dogg and other pop stars, inviting the real-estate magnate into his studio to mug against a hand-painted backdrop.
Now, with a very different image of Trump in power, Serrano worked alongside his gallery both to recall that previous moment of national unity and to put the president back in the context where the artist clearly feels he belongs: that of a TV star with the same cultural cachet as a pot-puffing rapper. Buying this photograph from simpler days costs $45,000, the same price Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn was paid to speak at a party for Russia’s Kremlin-backed RT propaganda network.
Night Train, 2016
Sprüth Magers (Berlin)
The most trenchant anti-Trump artwork in the fair comes from the Los Angeles artist Llyn Foulkes, in a painting given pride of place in the middle of the gallery’s booth. From afar the piece seems innocuous enough, a simple nighttime landscape—but look closer. A train is speeding past a graveyard of white crosses punctuated by glowing television sets, one presided over by business-suited Mickey Mouse, the other showing a smirking Trump pointing a chummy finger toward the Goldman Sachs logo; at the bottom right, a golf ball is embedding in astroturf, and a scalp bearing a distinctly Trumpian haircut hangs from a stake. Is that a swastika on the post in the middle? No, it’s the artist’s initials cramped together—but it sure looks like one.
The piece debuted in a show at the gallery that opened on Election Day, and at the artist’s request the gallery remained closed the following day as a form of protest, or mourning. As an artist, Foulkes “comes from a cynical place, and right now I think that’s more true than ever,” a dealer at the gallery noted. Priced at $325,000—the same amount a judge once ordered Trump to pay after stiffing over 200 undocumented Polish laborers on a construction job—it went to “an incredible home in New York City, and we could have sold it ten times over,” the dealer said.
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