“Title,” a painting by Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara, changed the way that Melissa Ho ’92 understands American art history. A three-panel painting, “Title” features the words “One Thing,” “1965,” and “Viet-nam” on canvases in sequential order. The prominence of the Vietnam War struck Ho’s sensitivity to the relationship between and art and social conditions.
“Kawara is known for being very austere in his means, but this specific work showed how important the year 1965 was,” said Ho, the curator of 20th century art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “By putting that year in the center of his work, Kawara depicted 1965 as a really important turning point.”
This painting inspired Ho, then a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum, to draft an exhibition proposal examining canonical works of American art during the Vietnam War period. Five years later, Ho has organized “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum — a “must-see show,” according to Washington Post critic Sebastian Smee, who wrote that the exhibition “pulsates with anguish from first to last.”
“What’s striking about the Vietnam era is that it’s uniquely visualized as an American war because there was no military censorship and it coincided with the maturity of broadcast news and a golden age of documentary photography,” Ho said. “It’s not surprising how pervasively it affected visual artists, and there really hadn’t been a museum exhibition examining this in quite a number of years.”
“Artists Respond” displays close to 100 different works from 60 different artists. According to Ho, she and her team spent the past five years researching and submitting loan requests in order to construct the exhibit. Ho thinks of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as an especially supportive space in constructing her exhibit.
Through Aug. 18, 2019, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
8th and F Streets, NW, Washington, D.C.
“There’s no question it’s the most ambitious project I’ve ever attempted,” Ho said. “By its nature, it’s not confined to one art movement or a handful of artists who are closely aligned — it’s deliberately cutting across the whole spectrum of art.”
Ho graduated from Princeton with a degree in studio art and art history. Although she recalls taking numerous classes about ancient Chinese art history, much of Ho’s exposure to contemporary art came from her interactions with her studio art professors.
“I was at Princeton at a time when the art world was going through a political moment and issues of identity and representation were coming to the fore,” Ho said. “I see how the roots of my interest in contemporary art could date back to that time.”
The experienced art historian has received feedback from a wide range of visitors, from individuals who lived through the Vietnam War to students who are learning about the era for the first time through Ho’s exhibit. Ho herself has had an especially formative experience researching and constructing this exhibit.
“I’m of the age where I grew up in the direct aftermath of the Vietnam War but wasn’t old enough to completely understand it,” Ho said. “Researching this period has definitely helped me make sense of the world I grew up in.”