Marcia Annenberg’s Paintings and Installations:

Politics, Power, the American Dream and the Human Condition

Marcia Annenberg’s Paintings and Installations: Politics, Power, the American Dream and the Human Condition 

Art and politics have a long history of interweave. Images have been used by the politically powerful to assert or assure—or to commemorate—their power. But as Western art moved forward through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it went through a sweep of movements that sought to disconnect aesthetics from politics. People who are just ordinary people, landscape that is simply beautiful landscape, and objects represented merely for their interesting form or color emerged as subjects. Painting even reached a point, with Impressionism, in which objects of any sort—from haystacks to cathedrals—became less important as a subject than the light that moves across them and affects how we see them. So, too, the history of art is filled with conscious and unconscious imitation, emulation and transformation of earlier works of art. But the era that coincided with Impressionism set in motion an ever more intense interest in commenting on earlier art by referring to it with one’s own visual vocabulary. The consummate instance of this is Picasso’s obsessive 1957 series of 58 canvasses offering variations on both the whole and parts of Velasquez’s Las Meninas (1656).

Art resumed a direct politicized course by the 1920s, but from a new angle reflecting the reality expressed by the horrors of World War I and its aftermath and by the consequential frenetic flight from ourselves represented by the culture of the “Roaring Twenties.” Thus instead of serving the will of those in power to promote themselves, visual expression was transformed in the hands of the Mexican muralists and the American Social Realists into a weapon directed at those in power, assailing their social, economic and political oppression of others—and as a commentary on those being oppressed.

As the century limped forward in all its mind-bending violence, the art of socio- political commentary expanded in diverse visual directions. Jack Levine would direct his barbs at the power-mongers by way of a scintillating figurative painting style that has carried from the late 1930s to the beginning of the current millennium. But the abstractions of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko on the one hand and Jackson Pollock on the other referenced one series of events, connecting Auschwitz to Hiroshima with a subtlety that by-passed (and continues to bypass) most art critics.

By the 1960s and the decades following, the vocabulary of artistic political commentary expanded. The pop art movement reminded the viewer of how art has nearly always had a connection not only to politics but to economics: enlarged, stylized-into- flatness images of Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1962) point out that the color- and-form aesthetic thinking that went into designing the real can has a single purpose: to make you reach into your pocket and purchase this brand of soup, rather than some other. The expansion of media of which that Warhol silkscreen series was just a beginning offered the idea that not only anything around us in the world is fair game for artistic representation, but that everyday objects might be used and viewed as art. This is evident in works like Jasper Johns’ Ballantine Beer cans (“Painted Bronze,” 1960). The blurring of the line not only between “art” and “craft” but between made art and found art, along ever-renewed and continuously, conceptually expansive paths has gradually dominated the art of the last half-century.

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The work of Marcia Annenberg fits fiercely into such a layered context. Her paintings and mixed media installations present at least four elements that connect them to both the history of art and the contemporary art scene. They range across a varied scope of media. They at times offer deliberate and conscious references to iconic earlier works. They present—again and again, in inevitably diverse and fascinating ways—commentary on political and social issues that mark them as part of the politicized backbone of the art particularly of the last century. And above all, they are well thought out, often profoundly conceptual, so that aesthetic and spirituo-intellectual issues meet in a manner interesting and often brilliant.

All of these works comment either on the abuse of political power or on the abdication of responsibility on the part of the news media to educate its public (disseminating platitudes and focusing on fluff instead of offering information of consequence)—or on the public (most specifically the American public) for its own abdication of responsibility as a population of Leaders of the Free World, and as citizens of a democracy who, if they are to be involved in the world of politics, ought to be thinking and aware. So she has twisted the screw of artistic political commentary another turn: it’s not only the leaders at whom her work glares, or the oppressed for whom she expresses sympathy, but those who willfully allow themselves to be misled and even oppressed whom she lambastes.

“Yankee Doodle Went to Town” (2004) puns on a 1963 Tom Wesselman work (“Still Life No. 28”) that itself is layered with issues, from red-white-and-blue, star-and- stripe, Lincoln-portrait-dominated allusions to America, to the inclusion of two Ballantine beer bottles that suggest Jasper John’s already iconic work of three years earlier. He includes a TV set that both helps underscore the matter of commercialism and sexuality and presents a dialogue between moving and still images—and a statement of the problematic of competing for an audience’s attention (does the color outside the TV set win out over black and white, or does the action on the TV screen win out over the immobility of everything else in the image?)

Annenberg, playing with aspects of this image, offers a more directed statement on the abuse of political power. Across the painting one discerns the word “Halliburton,” an oil company with an international portfolio, from which Dick Cheney resigned as CEO in order to run for the Vice Presidency in 2000—receiving $36 million in a severance package, various stock options—and ongoing deferred payments thereafter, when he was already Vice-President. At the time of Annenberg’s painting, as Vice-President, Cheney had awarded Halliburton a no-bid contract in a boldly transparent act of abusing political power.

Of course the irony is deeper for this image that puns on the American flag so emphatically, by way of red and white stripes and stars. The no-bid contract for a corrupt company was in Iraq, where the administration in which Cheney was the key figure had concocted a disastrous war. Its false premises were paraded (like Yankee Doodle, parading on his pony) before the American people. The image of Honest Abe in “Still Life No. 28” has yielded to an image of two oil-diggers flanking a large pipe.

On the other hand, “Portrait of Two Woman” (2009) puns on the 1988 “Portrait of a Young Woman” with which the German painter Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) glamorized a member of the Baader-Meinhof Gang—Richter himself punning on seventeenth-century Dutch portraits such as Rembrandt’s 1633 “Portrait of a Young Woman” and Vermeer’s rather disturbing 1663 “Portrait of a Young Woman” with their presentation of bright faces in dark seas. The innocent-looking young face, white in a sea of black in which a pale hand also shows—in Richter’s blurred photographic style—belongs to someone associated with a notorious left-wing German political group that, between 1970 and the late 1990s performed over three dozen “actions” resulting in the deaths of both political targets and innocent bystanders.

Annenberg offers a double portrait, of two young women, with two nearly-white faces afloat in a sea of deep, almost-black blue, and two pale hands (one for each) in evidence, with slight differences of detail (forehead height and hairline, eyebrow line and eye shape, ear and nose configuration)—and using her sharp-edged “pop” style, the antithesis of Richter’s blurred style. Richter’s innocent-looking terrorist has become a pair of uninnocent-looking—heroines. The first—Bunnatine Greenhouse—testified, in 2005, before a congregational committee regarding the spectacular corruption surrounding the no-bid contracts being issued to Halliburton in Iraq and the over-billing and various levels of fraud being foisted on the American tax-payer—a silent, acquiescent American taxpayer. Bunny was demoted. The second—Christine Axsmith—was fired from her CIA job and saw her intelligence career end completely, after she published a statement, in 2006, denouncing water-boarding and other forms of torture on an interior CIA blog. These events were not big news.

What’s a fun-and-freedom-loving country with a statue in New York harbor offering a beacon that stands for protecting and promoting human rights to do? So asks “Betsy’s Dilemma”—alluding to the legendary seamstress who sewed together the first American flag in a hurry, to be ready when we were ready to be us—offering the red and white horizontal stripes of the American flag. There are thirteen of them, representing the colonies that fought against the British for oppressing us—with excess taxes. But against those stripes rises a dark box suggesting a guard watchtower for a prison camp (it is the tower from Camp Delta, Cuba), that seems to have become as much a symbol of what We the People stand for now as the stripes and now-gone stars used to be.

“Dusk, Railroad” (2008), playing on Edward Hopper’s 1929 “Railroad Sunset,” uses that same watchtower image. But Annenberg adds an American star this time—or is it the lone star, from Texas, home of President Bush? or is it the star from the old Soviet flag?—emblazened across the tower. Next to it is another tower, this one roofed—the railroad tower from Hopper’s image. But in this visual context, the second tower eerily recalls the watchtowers at Nazi prison and death camps. Indeed, on the other side of Annenberg’s image are railroad tracks disappearing into the distance, rather than running parallel to the picture plane, as they do in the Hopper original. Tracks like those she has painted, leading to a vanishing point, have become an iconic symbol of the Nazi regime and the tracks leading to vanishing points, like Auschwitz, for those packed into cattle cars riding along them.

There is a double irony in this. Hopper’s images in general offer often poignant images of America in its eloquent silences—and lonelinesses. Railroad tracks in the iconography of America connote endless distances that, if they may invoke loneliness also invoke untrammeled freedom to move from place to place across those distances. The sunset in Hopper’s image reinforces a bittersweet mood. But in Annenberg’s image it suggests the setting of the sun of the very freedoms that are said to define America—the more so in her transformation of Hopper’s sunset colors into red-white-and-blue hues. To superimpose imagery associated with prisons and prison camps over his stillnesses is to speak of how the new millennium and its post-9/11 regime has led to the erosion—before our overly-silent eyes and ears—of American liberties, of constitutional safeguards on our freedoms, of the right of due process and its concomitants.

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What’s the free and untrammeled media to do to help keep us mindful of what is happening in and beyond our shores? The media seem to be too often too busy towing the governmental, military-industrial line. “Old North, Recherchez” (2007), with its town hall/church spire rising vertically offers the word “freedom” expanding horizontally— emanating, as it were, from the lower part of the belfry where the bells toll a warning to the faithful to hurry into church, so the expanding word is offered like a cartoon version of the ringing sound waves extending outward—in time for the service; or if this is a town hall tower, then it tolls some other, more politically focused warning to come one, come all to discuss whatever the issue might be.

The image suggests that the very language of the media—language, that singular instrument that separates humans from other species on the planet—has become depressingly debased as the media use it. When platitudes and propaganda (these are the artist’s words) are all the news that fits the TV screen, and with a growing constancy of lost syntax to boot, then how can we understand what “freedom” is in order genuinely to protect it?

These questions frame other works that are central to the overriding theme of Annenberg’s work. For instance, “Great American News” (2001), wherein a placid, smiling face, flanked by theatre masks for comedy and tragedy all hover over the enlarged, highway sign-like word “NEWS” against a backdrop of angular stripes and tumbling stars—and above a cacophony of skeletally drawn images of quintessential “American” objects: car, soda can, ferris wheel, light bulb and the like, all centered around a gun (her imagery plays, in part on James Rosenquist’s “F-111”). This is the new pabulum we repeatedly encounter. Similarly, the earlier “White House, Your House” (1999) offers the suggestion of media obsession with sexuality: the central image is a full-color figure in pants, seen from waist to knees, the side images of which are simple line drawings: a figure in a gasmask, a figure with a machine gun, figures with a gun, a case filled with tools. The entirety is a kind of triptych in configuration but the serious issues relegated to the wings are also relegated to outline drawings, while the life of presidential private parts dominates the center.

No work is more emblematic of this last issue—sexuality-obsessed media obscuring the real news for which there is no time or energy or inclination—than the still earlier “Bosnia/Bobbitt” (1995), a diptych of American news focus. On one side, in shades of gray, a couple—refugees (2.6 million of them by July, 1992) from a genocidal succession of events, decades after Europe thought it had learned from the Holocaust how to function without ethnic cleansings—flees, hand-in-hand and suitcase in hand, toward the viewer, through an endless cemetery with endless uninscribed markers and beyond them the blank structures of a deserted-looking town. On the other side, the center of the blank white canvas, in minimalist-conceptualist mode, is simply occupied by the word “Bobbitt,” in bright red-white-end-blue hues.

“Bobbitt” of course refers to John and Lorena Bobbitt. In 1993, she severed half of his manhood with a carving knife after experiencing drunken spousal rape (presumably not for the first time) at his hands. They became instant celebrities, as the American media spent enormous amounts of energy discussing and sharing the various details of their relationship—far more than was expended on educating the American public regarding the slaughter going on in Bosnia at around the same time.

But then it is not only the political and military leadership and the news media that are indicted by Annenberg’s work; the American people itself is criticized. Most of us embraced the false tales told by Bush/Cheney and their associates, ignored what the occasional honest witness of events reported, and failed to rise up in sufficient anger against such lies so that the administration might be dislodged or its policies altered. We the People are exposed by Annenberg as listening to the empty calls to defend “freedom” without ever trying to think about what that word means and how freedom is ebbing away within America, poorly protected by its citizens.

Thinking doesn’t begin with the media; we respond to the news with awareness or ignorance, having been educated or not, at home and in school. “What Did You Learn in School Today?” (2009) carries us from Annenberg’s strictly acrylic work to a combination of acrylic painting and found objects. The foreground material suggests both the focus of the question—the child, sitting in a chair—and concern for the answer to it: precious little. For the “child” is a rag doll, a mindless little creature with an absurd smile and wide, empty eyes on its face. A scatter of toys spills along the floor toward the viewer. On the wall behind hangs a large painting, echoing the bright colors of the doll and blocks and things.

On the painting, balloon-like balls of diverse sizes—recalling those on the package of white, sugary, nutrient-free Wonder Bread, that once dared advertise how it builds strong young bodies—compete with the image of a little cartoon girl, her bouncy blond curls suggesting Shirley Temple; and a dog, Mickey Mouse’s pet, Pluto, one goofy ear up and one down. An over-sized strip of celluloid film tape weaves its way like a road from background to foreground (or foreground to background); interspersed with its curves are a few words: “agent orange,” “deplete,” “uranium”—their letters in part obscured by the figures and the balloons. The artist is clear on what we aren’t learning about in school— because it is too uncomfortable: the after-effects of the use of weapons such as agent orange and depleted uranium: birth defects and disease which know no borders, affecting both the “enemy” populations against whom we use them and our own soldiers.

So the Raggedy Anne doll on the little chair and the blond little girl in the painting play: on our child-like—or is it childish?—innocence about what is being done around the world in our name; on our failure to teach our children and ourselves about the consequences of our actions and the need to take responsibility for them; on the potential consequences of brain damage and the ability to learn, to inquire, for our own children and not just the children of “the enemy.”

There is an interesting, organic relationship between this work and “Home on the Range” (2007). Visually, the same balloon-like balls that dominate the painting in “What Did You Learn…?” dominate the entirety of “Home…” Conceptually, the children who are not taught to think and ask in school become the adults who are addicted to television and film—who sit mindlessly glued to other people’s stories to escape their own.

Inspired by Grant Wood’s 1930 masterpiece, “American Gothic,” Annenberg transformed Wood’s Gothic Revival cottage into a wall of balloons with a red map of the United States in the center, and changed the austere, hard-working farmer couple, pitchfork in hand, into a pair of overweight couch-potatoes, glued to the boob tube—which has replaced the pitchfork as the center of focus.

Of course there is an irony added through Annenberg’s title. “Home on the Range,” (the official state song of Kansas since 1947), was penned in the 1870s and over the decades adopted by cowboys and settlers of the west (that far-flung home “where the buffalo roam”). It found a place within the world of American patriotic music, in a number of films beginning with Colorado Serenade (1946) and even as the name of an animated 2004 Disney film. So the phrase once captured a somewhat innocent, idealistic—Christian, White Euro-American male—sense of American self: the very notion of the “range” connoted those fabulous expanses into which the free-swinging individualistic pioneer— strong, somewhat silent, in touch with nature (but not necessarily with his inner self)— might roam. Those wide-open spaces have become the TV room as the adventures are reduced to screen-size.

Patriotic music might be said to connect this pop-acrylic work to the very visually different installation, “Oh Say Can You See” (2009)—which takes its title not from some state song but from the opening line of our national anthem. And its theme begins to bring part of this discussion full circle, for it directs itself to those in power (albeit implicitly criticizing the media for collaboration). Its focus is on the intense conflict of interest for which We the People pay the price when the generals appointed by the political leadership to present to the public, by way of television, the discussion of and advice regarding war strategy, are at the same time consulting with or straightforwardly investing in the weapons technology being utilized by the military-industrial complex to put those strategies into action.

In Annenberg’s installation the TV set has gone blank and the repeated newspaper images and verbiage are all obscured—but only slightly—behind a veil: the sort of white, lacy veil that, worn by a bride, symbolizes purity. Both the visible contradictions behind the veil of secrecy intended to make them invisible, and the dark impurities of the marriage among military, industrial—and media—components of current reality have carried America a considerable distance, since the amateur poet, 35-year-old Francis Scott Key, wrote his noble words as he watched “the bombs bursting in air” during the British attack on Fort McHenry in the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, while miraculously—as if with Divine imprimatur—“the flag was still there.” Is it still there? Is it still there? Is it still there— beyond the platitudinous references to it?

“La Toilette” (2009) furthers the conflict-of-interest inquiry: its deep black shelving and sparkling clean black toilet bowl plunger play host to black-and-white newspapers, (is it as clear as black-and white?) and red-white-and-blue towels, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap and toilet paper. How objective can the reporting of the news be—particularly the news about wars—if and when the same individuals or groups own both the media companies and the companies manufacturing and investing in the technology of war? (The newspapers are laminated copies of David Barstow’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2009 article, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand”).

But then again: how much do We the People who are We the Audience of the News really care, or understand, or care to understand? Isolated from us, cut off and separated from us by a circle of small, black rocks is “Little Red” (2009). She is a mannequin with dark skin, wrapped in red—not the innocent purity of white, nor the noble sky-truth of blue, but the bright color of blood, of martyrdom, of sacrifice. Under other art historical circumstances, we could expect a martyr-saint or even Jesus to be enveloped or at least in contact with that color in order to express his self-sacrifice for us.

Not under these circumstances. This is a tribute to and image of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, a 13-year-old Somalian girl who was a victim of rape by three men. Because of the extraordinary, twisted logic of the Islamic militants who held her city in thrall, to whom her father reported the rape, she was stoned to death as if guilty of the capital crime (for a woman, not a man!) of unmarried sex. So she was murdered at age 13—for having been raped—wearing her bright red sweatshirt, publicly, in a stadium into which thousands of people crowded for the entertainment value of her agony. Those who sought to help her were gunned down by militants, whose shooting victims included a child.

So there is no sacrifice, no redemption in this—no martyrdom in witnessing for one’s faith, only witnessing the depravity of which humans are capable. The charming little pure, white Easter-like basket and its colorful contents—not eggs, but Arabic-language alphabet blocks—suggesting the innocence lost before her life was, can hardly hold their own against the rich sweep of her garment and the indictment that her fate offers to the people who embraced it and the people around the world who neither heard nor cared to hear about it beyond the outer edges of Amnesty International’s report.


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All of these works reflect the artist’s passion for using art as an instrument with which to comment on the socio-politics of the world in which we all live, and to confront the viewer with the obligation to think about where that world is going by thinking about the works of art before him/her. And it is, indeed, the entire world and not just the United States about which she insists that we think. For, contrary to the isolationist possibilities that seemed so desirable after World War I, into which the country withdrew, leaving the old European colonial powers to carve things up as they saw fit, hiding is unequivocally not a feasible option a century later: what happens in one corner of the planet can have distinct and profound ramifications for every other corner of the planet.

We see this notion conveyed not only in a work like “Little Red” that forces the American viewer’s attention into another corner of the world—and perhaps leads the viewer to ask “why didn’t our media cover this event? How did I not know about it?”— but differently, in Annenberg’s 2003 acrylic diptych, “Helen of Troy.” Each of the side- by-side 64” high images depicts a woman. One is covered entirely in a hijab—dark drapery that leaves only her very alluring eyes visible. The second—with the identical eyes, so it could be the identical woman—wears a bikini. The first is turned frontally toward us and looks directly at us; the other is turned away from us, twisting slightly around so that her torso is in profile, her hand on her hip and her head is almost frontally toward us—but her eyes look away, past us.

Helen of Troy, of course, refers to the beautiful woman whom Aphrodite gifted to the Trojan prince, Paris/Alexandros, (in exchange—as a bribe—for his having adjudged her the most beautiful of the Olympian goddesses, assisting him to spirit Helen away from her husband, King Menelaos of Sparta, and thereby directly engendering the disastrous Trojan War. This was a ten-year-long war in which Troy was destroyed and its attackers didn’t fare much better, fought over a woman who is therefore blamed in any number of male-devised discussions and literary explorations, beginning with book four of Homer’s Iliad. It is always, somehow, the woman’s fault. A woman raped is raped because she somehow seduced her rapist, who could not control himself, thanks to her nefarious attractiveness. Entire cities and civilizations may be brought down by a seductive woman. And it does not seem to matter what she does—or is forced to do—to limit her destructive/seductive power. If in parts of the Muslim world she must cover herself up, leaving only her eyes visible, those eyes are enough to “launch a thousand ships” (as Helen’s face was said to have done). The more so if much of her shapely body is visible, and her long dark hair—even if she doesn’t even look directly in our direction. What it is that we construe to be beautiful and thus dangerous will be very much informed by where we live and the particular culture of which we are part.

So: the Muslim world and the West. No moment in American and world history was more earthshaking—in which the United States as leader of the West and of the Free World found itself unhappily confronted by the Muslim world more painfully than had last been the case—when the Ottomans stood at the gates of Vienna back in 1683—than in the events that transpired on the morning of September 11, 2001. Consistent with her ongoing questions of the media in particular, Annenberg offered a finely-constructed exploration a few years after 9/11, as some of the physical and preliminary conceptual dust was settling. “Black /Gold” (2002), for instance, inquiring into the motives for the violence perpetrated on the United States on September 11, 2001. The work synthesizes chromatic abstract expressionism (the bottom block of red—blood red) with hard-edged, minimalist abstraction (the two verticals that suggest the twin towers) and Pop Art: the “Varoom” that accompanies a stylized explosion within those two rectangles; the location of the explosion further suggesting glass that is being smashed.

The earth-colored element that rests at the center of the composition, linking the red earth with the white and dark blue towers, is intended to represent an offshore oil rig. The artist noted—in a talk at Flomenhaft Gallery in 2015, and on a panel at the National Arts Club in 2016—that that element within the image refers to “a suspicion I had at the time that the story about 9/11 was incomplete. I never bought the explanation that Al Qaeda hated democracy, so I sent away to England for books about Osama Bin Laden’s writings. What he hated was our presence in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf war and he hated the fact that in the year 2000, oil was selling for $20 a barrel and he thought we were robbing Saudi Arabia. The American people had no idea that the Taliban actually visited Texas in 1997 to discuss building a pipeline across Afghanistan with the company Unocal” (emphasis added; this passage is quoted from a transcription of the 2016 NAC talk).

So the painting is less about 9/11 than about the failure of the media to communicate information about the larger context of 9/11 and to ask questions: what happened with that discussion between the Taliban and Unical and why did it yield no positive outcome, but only something so spectacularly negative—because of Bin Laden’s decision to attack American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998? This is even clearer in the more extensive Flomenhaft talk, where the artist elaborates both on the intensity of Bin Laden’s anger and hatred—but not simply, as President Bush kept saying, “over, and over, and over, and over that Bin Laden hates democracy…they hate our life”—and on her sense of frustration that so little beyond those two turns of phrase was expressed by the media, that so little effort was made to allow “the American people [to] have a discussion about these ideas, and accept or reject them. Why do we have to be treated like 4th graders?”

The problem of the media’s failure to provide information that will allow Americans to think and discuss issues knowledgeably and intelligently has a broad spectrum of potential areas of focus, and many of these are mined by the artist through the years. More than a decade after “Black/Gold”, her installation “Early Wednesday Morning” (2013) places a traditional, old-time barber pole with its ongoing pattern of blue and red diagonal stripes alternating with each other and a white background—so that the visual effect is of an endless series of red-white-and blue- diagonal stripes, moving up and disappearing, moving up and disappearing within the pole’s carapace—next to a series of six front-page articles from diverse newspapers, (LA Times, NY Times, Detroit Free Press, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post—the last one twice) all framed in deep, rich blue (the kind of blue that, in medieval and renaissance painting, symbolized the sky and thus God and God’s truth). Three of these are, further, covered with gauze-like, see-through curtains—one red, one white, and one blue.

To a symbolist or a historian, the combination of the seven elements on the wall might offer two overlapping connotations. The barber pole recalls an earlier America, a more innocent America—particularly a Hopperesque and Rockwellesque rural America— in which men (not women, but men and boys) visited the barbershop, even gathered in the barbershop on certain days of the week (perhaps early on a given Wednesday morning), not only to get their haircuts, and for some their shaves, as well, but to share and discuss the news, be it local gossip or that conveyed by the newspapers likely to be found in the barbershop, as the American Press grew as an instrument of communication.

So: on the one hand this installation alludes to that earlier (more “innocent”—and better, if you were a white male) time while raising questions regarding specific ways in which we have lost our innocence as a nation, and the role played by the press in facilitating that loss. Facilitation comes in at least two different forms: by offering misinformation and by withholding information: the way things are reported and the way certain things are not reported. Annenberg’s specific rhetorical question pertains to climate change, an issue the understanding or at least discussion of which is essential to our ongoing progress as a nation and to the future of the planet of which we are very much a part. She asks why the media failed to report “the civil disobedience and arrest of Dr. James Hansen, in 2013, at the White House…[and] his speech to Congress, in 2008, which called for the incarceration of the CEO’s of fossil fuel companies.” What is it that the media wish to keep from us and why? Who undergirds their support? What powers would prefer us not to hear or read about “the lawsuit, in Oregon, brought by 21 young people and Dr Hansen, for endangering their life, liberty and property by continuing exploitation and production of fossil fuels?”

Annenberg’s installation offers yet further thought-provoking implications, yet more subtle: it is perhaps not accidental that the configuration of her installation is hepta- partite, divided, as it were, into a six-part segment (the newspapers) and a separate but related seventh (the barber pole). For if we think back to the ultimate Age of Innocence, the time when the first humans wandered around in the Garden of Eden, its beginning point was a creation cycle that was accomplished by God in six days—and the Lord rested (shavvat, in Hebrew; hence: Sabbath) on the seventh. This is, at least, as creation is understood in traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and certainly in the minds of those Americans who deny unequivocally the idea of evolution, embracing entirely the Creation narrative in the Bible.

One might note, moreover, that the majority of Creationist Americans are Protestant Christians, for whom the seventh day of rest was supplanted with a New Covenant that replaced it with the Lord’s Day. Thus Sunday became the Sabbath and Saturday, with the advent of the American weekend, a day for getting things done for which there is no time during the working week and that are inappropriate on the Lord’s Day. So across Middle America the day of haircuts has been Saturday, the seventh day, for 150 years.

Why, then, early Wednesday morning? On one level, it is simply about the news: the night before, Tuesday night, February 12, 2013, (Lincoln’s Birthday) President Obama outlined his plans for his second term in a long speech, in which he included the following words, particularly noted in the alternative press, but not emphasized in the mainstream press: “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.” So early Wednesday morning refers to the aftermath of that statement and others largely ignored by the mainstream press and destined for opposition from climate change deniers and Obama- deniers—and also, perhaps, to the fact that on that Wednesday morning, Dr Hansen as well as Bill McKibben and Michael Brune, were arrested outside the White House as they protested in favor of a more effective climate policy—a moment severely under-reported in the American media.

On the other hand—and again, more subtly—could it be because that is the day, in the first chapter of Genesis, in which the sun and the moon and stars were created? These are the lights to illumine our reality; they are the symbols of pushing forth out into the universe in a thoughtful—illumined—way, for which the media are an instrument, but for which the media, when it fails as an instrument, assists in darkening our path. When the issue is the climate change that can ultimately destroy our environment and our ability to survive on our planet, the media turn the light into darkness, reversing creation and aiding and abetting destruction—the opposite course trajectory detailed in Genesis.

Indeed, as a most egregious example of this, there is “no entity more responsible for misinformation on climate change than Murdoch’s media empire. The Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed climate science news coverage on Fox New, in 2013, and found that 73% of its segments were misleading. This is problematic because the Fox News Channel has been the No.1 rated cable news network in America for several years. Media Matters revealed that Fox-owned stations reach 37% of the US television audience. They believe it functions as a propaganda organization, not a news organization.”

Annenberg’s “Checkmate: Foxy Moxy” (2016; the previous paragraph is quoted from the artist’s commentary on this piece)—a work cognate with “Early Wednesday Morning”—is designed to address this specific issue. It presents a very large chessboard (its squares are deep blue and white in color) attached vertically to the wall, with newspaper images on each of the white spaces. Thirteen different newspapers, in fact, however, across the lower and upper rows the image of three Victoria Secret models frolic in the water, illustrating the article next to them in Murdoch’s New York Post. On the top, upper left corner of the installation is a large clasp from which a large chain hangs down along the left side of the “board,” at the bottom of which sits a cuddly stuffed animal: a kangaroo (representing Murdoch, who hails, of course, from Australia, land of the kangaroo), held in place by that leash-like chain.

If that deceptively cute little creature plays on the deceptively news-disseminating News Channel associated with its owner, the whole chessboard alludes not only to the idea of a definitive endgame—checkmate—but specifically to Hansen’s May 9, 2012 New York Times editorial, “Game Over for Climate,” in which he asserts that we are rapidly approaching a point of no return with respect to greenhouse gas emissions and what they mean for the dangerous changes in which our planet has been anthropogenically engaged for the past few generations. More to the point of Annenberg’s overall focus, the enormously significant Paris Climate Treaty signed by 175 nations in New York City on April 22, 2016—yes, the treaty that Trump abrogated on behalf of the United States a year or so later—and which was reported by most newspapers on or near the front page, was buried by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post on page 33—with equal or more prominent billing given to swimsuit models.

Such a decision by a paper with the fifth-largest circulation in the United States is, as Annenberg notes, “neither neutral nor benign.” She coined the phrase, “inverse propaganda” to encapsulate such an act. This is “the absence of information, so that citizens are rendered unknowing and impotent in the face of critical information withheld—in this case the dire state of our planet. As our ecosystems, the atmosphere and the oceans become transformed through the influence of CO2 emissions, we will leave the next generation a compromised and turbulent existence. Is it not criminal negligence to use vast media networks to suppress this climate emergency?”

Annenberg further notes in the discussion of this piece on her website, that

The prestigious Journal of Communication, published an article by Feldman, Myers, Hmielowski, and Leiserowitz, in 2014, “The Mutual Reinforcement of Media Selectivity and Effects,” which stated that partisan news allows Americans to insulate themselves in echo chambers, exposed only to views that verify existing prior beliefs. Also, that persons influenced by Fox News not only believe that global warming is not happening but also oppose climate policies regarding mitigation.


One might say that she puns: on the one hand the chess game pits the issue of free press and fully disclosed information against the forces arrayed against it—which forces have surged since the beginning of the Trump presidency and the attempt he and his cohort have consistently made to obliterate the free press which has been too often so critical of him. The question of who is checkmating whom runs parallel, on the other hand, to the question of human survival with regard to climate change and the duel between those warning us, like Dr Hansen, and those denying what is happening, like those appointed by Trump to serve an environment-protecting role in his cabinet, but who seem determined to undermine any and every effort to protect the environment.

A second, similarly-themed work is called “Check, Checkmate” (2014). It is contrived of twelve large rectangles, eight filled with a front and non-front pages from the September 28 New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe (only on these three does the front page show, because only on these is the issue that she references mentioned on that page); and, at the four corners, with the repeating, very differently conceived front page of the New York Post—and in which the emphasis in the Post is so differently focused from the that of the other three newspapers—with that stuffed kangaroo leashed by its chain to the handcuff that hangs to the left of the array from a curtain rod from which there also hangs a sheer white curtain: that conceals and does not conceal what sits behind it. The backdrop frame of each newspaper page is either red (five of them), white (six of them), or blue (only one, the New York Post front page in the lower left of the installation).

Annenberg expands her discussion of the pressing subject of climate change and climate policy and success or failure in reporting about both, by emphasizing that it (both the discussion and her work) “takes the global warming debate beyond partisan politics. It examines the role American media plays in the lack of public response to our urgent climate crises. Both on air and in print, certain media outlets participate in ongoing omissions and misinformation concerning scientific research into climatic change. The release of the IPCC report, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, should settle the debate once and for all. It is neither Democratic, Independent, nor Republican. It is international.” There is more—both in that the chess-game metaphor once again alludes to Hansen’s editorial and the under-reporting of his arrests after chaining himself to the White House fence; and in the data to which the artist calls our attention: that “certain media outlets refuse to acknowledge the work of 259 lead authors, and 600 contributing authors, including scientists from 39 countries” in preparing this report. On September 28, 2013, the day following the release of the “Summary for Policy Makers, of the Physical Science Basis for Climate Change, taken from the larger report, the New York Post did not even mention it, much less report on and discuss it.

* * * * *


Annenberg’s abiding concern and ongoing rhetorical inquiry is whether the idea of a “Free Press,” guaranteed by the Constitution, means that the Press is free not to report the news. Does freedom not carry with it responsibility, and what is the responsibility of the press within a democracy—a democracy that has purported for more than 150 years to be structured with a “government of the people, by the people and for the people”? Given the role and position of the United States within the world and given the impossibility of any part of the world surviving in isolation from the rest of the world if the world self- destructs—and given how climate change obviously has the potential to affect every corner of the world—what can one say about a media empire that doesn’t feel a responsibility to inform its listeners, watchers and readers regarding the ins and outs of this issue? On the contrary, “media barons… use the press to delegitimize scientific data, thereby enabling the obstruction of coherent legislation to deal with this problem.”

They put extraneous issues front and center in order to distract the public, to capture its attention “as a diversion to the actual coverage of an issue that threatens the continuation of life as we know it.” Of course, anyone who is paying careful enough attention sees through this and recognizes the issues and problems that are being soft-pedaled, ignored or denied: and so the artist’s installation pulls a white, very transparent curtain across half the configuration of color-framed newspaper pages—so even what is behind the curtain is not really obscured by it. She plays on the art historical issue first raised by Athenian sculptors of the mid-fifth pre-Christian era, whose statuary offered conceptual tensions between what is revealed and what is concealed by contrasting naked flesh and clumps of drapery with areas covered in textiles so diaphanous and cellophane-like that what they ostensibly obscured was not only revealed but even emphasized. Only in this case, the message is not about aesthetics and the artist’s skill at presenting a visual tour de force, but about wrestling with a socio-political issue that pits the survival of the earth against the selfishness and greed of a self-appointed oligarchy of wealth and political power.

Eight front pages from diverse newspapers form the basis and backdrop of “No News Is Good News” (2012)—a fourth work, cognate with these last three, which questions serious media omissions in a concise yet comprehensive manner. Here, too, a sheer white curtain covers one half (the left) and is held partially open on the other (right) half by a charming bow decorated with white stars on a dark blue background and red and white stripes—in other words, emblematic of the American flag. The artist directs her wit toward the endangered media, shrinking in the role that it ideally might play in an informed democratic society.

In her 2014 essay commenting on this work, Annenberg noted how, rather than the problem of inserting entertainment news instead of more serious and substantive material, which defined the 1990s, the more severe crisis, by 2012, is that on some stations the news had shrunk down to 80 seconds—suggesting either that this is all the time that marketing research suggests Americans will listen to news, or that this is all the time that media outlets wish to devote to informing their audience about what is happening in the world of socio- politics.

Accompanying this has been the closing down of overseas news bureaus. She asks the rhetorical question: what if more had been reported back in 1998 in American newspapers regarding Osama Bin Laden (as it was in London) when all of our media were obsessed with Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress stains—if the news had sought to report rather than to titillate—would our focus and thus our preparation have been different in entering the new millennium? (And implicitly: might the catastrophe of 9/11 never have taken place?)

What prompted the installation was the inadvertent discovery that a critically important news story—the signing of the NDAA on New Year’s Eve, 2012—had not appeared in the national news (she stumbled on reference to it a week later on the internet). That bill—objected to even by then-FBI Director, Robert Mueller—expanded the role of the army, in effect transforming it into a police organization with the power to arrest terrorist subjects. The story appeared in no major (nationally read) newspapers except the New York Times—on page 22. However, (sigh of relief) it did appear on the front page of the Dallas Morning News!

What this in effect means is that another brick in our Fourth Amendment rights (regarding unreasonable search and seizure) has been pried out of the Constitution wall designed to protect us. Might one not expect this to be something that the free press in a democracy—our democracy—would take up, at least to discuss? So we are uninformed about essentials: we don’t even know that we don’t know what we don’t know. How, then, can we be the informed populace that a democracy needs if it is to function as a democracy—and not, say, as demagoguery?

The last element in her discussion pertains to what she refers to as “the greatest deceit of our time, [which] is the obfuscation of the science behind global warming. As the level of greenhouse gas rises above 400 parts per million, will any politician take to the floor of congress to demand action? How many newspapers and how many newscasts reported the implications of that number? When the greatest threat to our future has been suppressed for years—can we still say that America has a free press?” If the media simply fail to report on important issues, then they become instruments of “inverse propaganda” (a phrase used by the artist increasingly often since 2013), and it may be most accurate to suggest that we live in a “demi-democracy” (at best)—as she suggested in a July 10, 2017 letter to the author of this essay—which, she explained, means that there is more information available on the internet than in print or broadcast news..

Equally important, the last twist in her discussion of “No News is Good News”— focused as it is on climate change—underscores the fact that so much of what is left off the front pages and out of the newscasts has implications well beyond the borders of the United States and its citizens, however enlightened or benighted. From Annenberg’s early on to her more recent work one recognizes universal concern. This was emphatically conveyed in an early acrylic painting, (before climate change moved front and center as an issue), her very tongue-in-cheek “Button/Mushroom” (1998), a four-part work—all white, black and bluish-grey, as if the color has been drained out, leaving a kind of grisaille image.

From the left, a button with four holes through which threads would go yield, in the second frame, to an identically sized circle around part of which a black crescent form wraps itself—along the left edge. In identifying this form as that of an eclipse—but in reverse: the moon or sun is black and the form blocking it is white—one re-visions the button as a full sun (moon) eclipsing the moon (sun) the corona of which shows from behind and around its edges. The third frame offers a circle of identical size, identifiable as the earth, the recognizable continents of North and South America (and a sliver of Antarctica) in black against vast white oceans. Given the identical size of the fourth, far- right image—a mushroom—one cannot avoid the intended pun: that this should be also read as a mushroom cloud, a symbol of nuclear proliferation and disaster huge enough to consume the entire planet.

Each of these four images taken alone is perfectly innocent, but lined up as a compendium they carry a fearful message. And in the current climate, when the incumbent in the White House tweets with spectacularly immature irresponsibility, and one of the objects and subjects of those tweets is the current ruler of North Korea, we seem to be inching back—or perhaps leaping back—toward the nuclear precipice suggested by that painting of two decades ago. So an early acrylic painting both leads to and leads from the discussions of the four just-discussed installations.

* * * * *


In fact, as Annenberg has moved as an artist through the last several years, she seems to have shifted increasingly from painting to installation pieces. Yet her work, with its far- flung art historical and socio-political foci, continues to carry two streams of artistic thought forward from the time of the impressionist painters and to have radically updated them. The brushwork of Monet and Pissarro, as well as of Renoir and Sisley—the primary shapers of post-Manet Impressionism—departed from the “completed” style dominant in Western painting since the Renaissance, in which the evidence of the brush was virtually invisible and the illusion was delivered that the viewer looked, as it were, through a window into volumetric space in which three-dimensional entities sat, stood, lay, or moved about. These artists left the evidence of their brushwork—and even the horsehairs of their brushes—very much in the image, obligating the viewer to move forward or backward to the point at which the brushstrokes achieved invisibility and the intended image coalesced. That is: the viewer participated in and ultimately completed the painting. Moreover, the most senior of these four, Pissarro, argued in letters to his son, Lucien, how important is was for the artist not to limit himself to an aesthetic exercise: that there is a social obligation that accompanies the artistic enterprise; that painters must utilize their work and what it reflects regarding what they have learned in order to help improve the wider world beyond the canvas.

These two elements of Impressionism—the participation of the viewer to “complete the image” and the underlying social obligation articulated by Pissarro—achieve an apogee of direction in Annenberg’s hands, continuing in an expanded continuum that carry her work forward over the last several years—years in which a good deal more has transpired in America and in the world, carrying from the first presidency of a black man to the near presidency of a woman that instead yielded the first presidency by a man with absolutely no conception of America or the world and its shape (and no desire to know about either) beyond the paradoxically narrow yet bloated confines of his own ego and childish desires.

Consider a handful of her installations in these last few years and how they refer to the increasingly problem-ridden world around us, both domestically and abroad. Her “Ababacacadada” (2014) offers both a reference and a tribute to the 1914 found-object “Bottle Rack” by Marcel Duchamp—and then uses that reference to push the discussion forward. Duchamp made a point here, as elsewhere, of using already extent, usually industrial, objects, in part to suggest that what defines a work of art as a work of art is that the artist and a critical mass of curators and/or critics and/or the public say that it is so, rather than something inherent within it—that its aesthetics don’t necessarily automatically elevate it above everyday objects. So instead of painting or sculpting Duchamp re-visioned an everyday object with regard to its aesthetic aspects, as a sculpture, therefore initiating the process through which that object would be re-christened a “work of art.” He would also become involved in a movement called “Dada” for which the conceptual foundation was absurdity and thus the inherent arbitrariness of what it is that causes a work of art to be considered a work of art—or human coherence to claim to be coherent.

Annenberg’s starting points are her title—a child’s alphabetary—that culminates not with “adad” but with “adada”, so that the last two syllables deliver us punningly verbally into the realm of “Dada”; and with the bottle rack form that emulates what Duchamp placed before his audience a century ago. She adds her own series of found objects—that didn’t exist in Duchamp’s era: a series of plastic soldiers that she has mounted on the top circular horizontal strut of this metal object. We might recall that the year of Duchamp’s piece, 1914, was the year in which World War I broke out—the Great War; the War to End All Wars—in which an incalculable, unprecedented number of soldiers was either slaughtered, or wounded, either physically or mentally or both. The following four years radically changed the world—it was in the midst of the conflagration that the Dada movement was “founded”—and we are the heirs to that horror, who have watched (or actually participated in) the increasingly incalculable slaughter that has steamrolled down through the century between that time and our own.

So the real question asked by Annenberg’s tribute piece is: are we at the edge of a precipice even more steep and potentially death-dealing than the one where humanity stood a century ago? Specifically, the piece “comments obliquely on the absurdity of the Iraq War [of 2003]. Dr James Hansen met with Dick Cheney’s Energy Advisory Group to warn about methane, CO2, and global warming. The notion of protecting oil fields in other countries with our troops, while greenhouse gas emissions are destroying our atmosphere and our oceans, is frankly, incomprehensible.”

As absurd as Dada. As unpredictably and unfathomably dangerous as the guns of August, 1914 were, as they initiated a new century of unprecedented mayhem. And are we as blithely unaware as Europe was before that war broke out? We humans and in particular, we Americans, who more than a decade after the Iraq debacle are evermore caught in the throes of a post-Iraq, ISIS-borne chaos that we—that Dick Cheney and his cohorts, with their lust for oil, control, and power—created?

Are we closing in on an unhappy exploration of that age-old art historical discussion regarding how and when art imitates life and when and how that process reverses itself, so that life imitates art? Annenberg’s splendidly colorful mixed media confabulation, “On the Beach,” offers commentary on that commentary. The work takes its name from a renowned, star-studded 1959 movie (based on a 1957 post-apocalyptic novel by Nevil Shute) about nuclear catastrophe—in which, after World War III, Australia is the only place left on the planet where humans can survive, except that the winds carry radiation over the continent, condemning the survivors to the same fate as suffered by the rest of humankind, a motley bunch of whom variously await the cloud of doom. There was also a 2000 remake of the film—oh, and which, by the way, in turn derives its title from a Royal Navy phrase meaning “retire from service” as well as from a passage in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men” that ends: “We grope together/ and avoid speech/ gathered on this beach of the tumid river.”

Annenberg has synthesized the implications of these narratives, and that phrase that summarizes them, with our over-reliance on petroleum products like plastic, which reliance is leading the world to a warming that is unfathomable and incalculable. Her work is comprised of piles of brightly colored plastic flotsam and jetsam—the sort of stuff one might find in the gutters of cities, or along roadways out among the fields, or on the beach in too many parts of an overly-polluted world. She has organized this pile so that, on the one hand one can recognize particularly beach-related objects, like a little child’s sand shovel, (in which there sits a toy army tank) and plastic soldiers and action hero figures, or plastic straws and polka dot-decorated drinking cups. On the other, parts of it assume the configuration of eyes and another part as raised eyebrows and another part as a mouth: so there is a face that stares—or leers, or frowns—out at the viewer from upon his perfectly square base.

We surely find ourselves in the midst of a Danse Macabre—which is the name of a third of Annenberg’s confabulations of the last few years, which specifically questions the absurdity of American foreign policy priorities, which protect sources of energy with their emissions that are destroying the earth’s fragile ecosystems. One recognizes in this a particular nod toward the notorious 2003 invasion of Iraq—ostensibly to remove a dictator about whom the administration lied to the American people with regard to his ties to Al Qaeda and his possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, but in which our first priority was to take over, protect and control the oil fields while ignoring, for instance, the destruction and/or looting of antiquities from the national museum in Baghdad. One also recognizes, as usual, the universal, worldwide and not merely American implications of this.

The 24” high piece places a series of puffy little smurfish dolls around the periphery of a round plate—and within that periphery, a series of six plastic toy airplanes, asserting their role in the dance, even if they cannot get off the ground and boogie—positioned as if they are all bowing down to the tower made of plastic pails and swizzle sticks upon which sits a smiling glaze-eyed puffy figure and a squeeze-ball, between which two plump elements there rises a stick on the end of which sits a small, glass-faceted ball: a miniature version of a disco ball. So the macabre aspect of the dance is both the plastic substance— petroleum by-products—that accounts for most of the material that comprise the work (and in particular the flightless planes, like conceptual Dodo birds, made extinct over a century ago in their obscure habitats); and the absurd way in which one can read the figures as dancing a ritual dance around an absurd pair of figures and the absurd, non-spinning “disco ball” that towers absurdly above them.

Absurd dancing is a subject that the artist takes up a second time with her 2013 “Dancin’ w’those Stars”—another mixed media work, this one highlighting the genuine military, economic, and environmental cost associated with manufacturing plastic items, which costs are hidden by a culture devoted to entertainment. The 82” high floor piece places a tall black pedestal at the center of an array of six black overturned little plastic pots, on each of which is mounted a colorful floret—a closer look reveals that these are little plastic toy military jets. Upon the central pedestal that rises in the midst of the others there sits an orange and black vase in which four toilet bowl cleaners topped with plastic soldiers—from a few feet away they look like swizzle sticks with multiple bright-hued plastic umbrella hats, (of the sort you might get in a fancy fruit cocktail)—and hovering a foot or so above it, attached to the wall, there is a glass/mirror faceted disco ball, or rather, half of one, as it bulges out from the surface of the wall.

So to begin with, we may be reminded of the long history of the number “seven”— particularly in the Middle East—as a symbol of completion and perfection (because it is the number of the planets, the wandering “stars” visible with the naked eye, which are associated with divinities—still today: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Sol, and Luna). But the specific 6 + 1 configuration also recalls that evolution of that number into the Israelite and subsequently, Jewish and Christian tradition: that the six days of the week are distinct from the sabbatical seventh.

Tongue in cheek, of course. The artist’s satirical tongue, beating within her cheek. For the entire concept of “Sabbath” was designed not only to give us humans a rest one day a week, and to direct ourselves to matters spiritual rather than material, but to give the earth itself a rest. The biblical sabbatical year, as understood in the rabbinic tradition, was an abbreviated year in which the fields were permitted to lie fallow, so that they might recuperate from our annual depredations. Our adulation of the petroleum possibilities from beneath the earth’s fields (we care more about oil fields than fields of wheat and corn and barley) has driven us to ignore that sort of wisdom. Quite the opposite: we ignore altogether what our depredations of the earth do (and in particular what we do with its petroleum both directly and through petroleum by-products) to the earth and the water and the air and ourselves.

So we keep disconnecting ourselves further and further from the earth and the very stars with which we need and want to dance. Instead we are driven to dance with the political and industrial and military stars who manage to gain our acquiescence. But we are dancing a potential dance of death, as we slowly demolish rather than venerate the earth and direct ourselves toward eliminating, not appreciating, the stars—from the nearest planet to the most distant galaxy—and turn it into a toilet bowl with our unrecyclable garbage, which no number of toilet cleaning brushes, however colorful, can fix.

The oil-related debacle has broad and specific faces. Annenberg’s 2013 “Yellow, Orange, Red, Green” asks the question of what the true cost of cheap plastic products is, ecologically, financially and militarily. It offers a series of 13 bright, multi-colored large plastic spoons and sand shovels hanging in a row along the wall in a 54-inch-long line. To each is attached another plastic product, from a fork to a toy tank to a toy helicopter and a toy military jet plane to a rubber duck. Nearly all of these—even that rubber duck—have pre-plastic avatars that did not require the pollution that was yielded when these were made.

The coin of the question requiring what we need—and how aware we are or are not of the long-term consequences of what we use as petroleum by-products—is spun again with Annenberg’s “Here’s Looking at You, Kid,” in which the plastic product agglomeration wends its way from the floor 72 inches up the wall, assuming the form of some large artificial creature. The uppermost element, that suggests a face with two google eyes and something like a beak—as if this gargantuan entity is an odd version of Sesame Street’s Big Bird, his yellow feathered body exploded into a dozen colors and scores of pieces organized in rectilinear vertical and horizontal patterns. The artist asks what the human and environmental costs of the inundation of petroleum products (exemplified by the junk, from balloons to a toy bowling pin to toy pails to curtains: this entire plastic array) that further our oil dependence are, in the end. Will the flow of it (the plastic products) in fact, ever end before we do?

The title of course refers to that important line from the famous movie, “Casablanca,” spoken by Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman. That narrative, set in World War II North Africa, offered a dramatic story, at once heroic and romantic, in a time and context in which heroes were easily identified, as were villains, and it was clear that America was on the right side of a difficult moral moment. If Bogey has been reduced to a version of Big Bird, what has happened to the world and where is it headed? Clearly not to the idealized innocence of Sesame Street!

The issue of oil and its various prices resonates yet differently from the artist’s 2011 “Ode to a Gulfin Un”—the title an ironic allusion to the renowned poem by John Keats, “Ode to a Grecian Urn”—which references the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and in particular, the heartbreaking images of all the creatures coated with oil as a consequence of that explosive act of human irresponsibility.

So the poem and the catastrophe meet in the mixed-media installation. The poem, let us recall, begins with these five lines:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape


And as for the Deepwater Horizon disaster—also referred to as the BP oil disaster— in which 11 people died and another 17 were injured: it began on April 20, 2010 on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect. It is considered the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The US Government estimated the total discharge at 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 m3). After several failed efforts to contain the flow, the well was declared sealed on September 19, 2010—however, reports in early 2012 indicated that the well site was still leaking at that point.

Numerous investigations explored the causes of the explosion that led to the spill. The U.S. government report of September 2011 faulted defective cement on the well, blaming mostly BP, but also rig operator Transocean and contractor Halliburton (the same Dick Cheney-associated company that had been so destructive to so many lives half a decade earlier). A previous White House commission also blamed BP and its partners— specifically for a series of cost-cutting decisions and an inadequate safety system, but also concluding that the spill resulted from “systemic” root causes and “absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.” In September 2014, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that BP was primarily responsible for the oil spill because of its gross negligence and reckless conduct.

Needless to say, the extraordinary range of damage to the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico offers an image that is antithetical to the beautiful vision presented at the outset of Keats’ poem, although both share one element in common: that of “Silence and slow Time.” In the poem, however, these are aspects of the beauteous, woodsy elements of nature captured on a work of art; in the BP disaster, silence refers to companies so eager to make a bigger profit that they remained silent regarding dangers accumulating within their money-making enterprise, and slow Time eventually caught up with them—not with them, really, mind you, but with the 28 people working for them who perished or were injured and the habitat of the Gulf and thus, well, with the planet and all of us who live on and benefit from it.

In Annenberg’s response to this, within an array of beautiful plastic(!) leaves and flowers, an arrangement both vertical and horizontal, spreading out along and spilling over the edges of a copper vase—


  A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape


—there snakes down (or up) a small copper fountain, intended for just such a small garden array, its five connected cups a few inches above and below each other so that the water (produced through a small, discreet black hose) can trickle and flow gently down from one to the next until arriving into the vase. However, the liquid flowing down is not clear but brown, as if dirty, suffused with some sort of sludge.

That oval-shaped vase, in turn, rests on the closed black top of a rectangular terrarium, in which every single plant and the surface in and on which the flora rest are painted black—completely black, as if covered in a layer of oil. While the front glass wall is clear so that the viewer may see in, the other three walls are covered in brownish smudges, underscoring the unhappy atmosphere within that box, in which all life has been extinguished (and as if the liquid from above has somehow mis-aerated this space below). The terrarium rests on an oval base overrun with black, oily pellets. The ironic compendium links the creative and destructive sides of human possibility—poetry and irresponsible approaches to nature and its resources—and embeds them both within a creative act (visual art) entangled with nature and a kind of still life (what in French is called nature morte: “dead nature”).

The dance with death and the danger of our killing the earth and ourselves is one that the artist focuses on frequently, and each time from a slightly different angle. “Toss the Dice, Find the Bunny” asks whether or not world governments will reduce emissions in time to avoid the 2-degree Celsius increase in the overall planetary temperature with the catastrophic consequences with regard to the melting of glaciers and icecaps, the rise in the level of the oceans, the submerging of coastal cities—and a host of other disasters.

The three key elements in the installation—two brightly-colored plastic chairs and a brightly painted little table—are from the sort of children’s play set that one might see in a kindergarten classroom. To these the artist has added dice at the bottoms of each of the four legs of both chairs, a pair of gigantic “dice” that are ”loaded”—for each of them offers only one or two surfaces with dots; the other surfaces are covered with texts, so that if one were actually to roll them, only a small number of possibilities could turn up—and these in turn rest on a map of the world (the sort that, cardboard-backed and foldable, one would find in a board game such as “Risk”—in fact, look closely: it is the board from that game). “Find The Bunny” is a rather benign video game created by Roblox, in which up to 10 players at a time may participate. “Risk,” on the other hand, is board game (created in 1957 by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse), which simulates planet-wide war among two to six protagonists. Focused on diplomacy, conflict and conquest, it divides the world into 42 territories shared among the players, who may make and break alliances as the game progresses—the goal of which is to eliminate all of the others and thus control the entire world. Given the size and disposition of the dice in this installation the artist reduces the fate of the world to a game in the hands of a few power-mongers who themselves don’t understand just how loaded those dice are—or rather, who have no concept or conscience regarding the level of risk (pun intended) at which the planet squirms under the power of their games.

Circling back to the specifics of American governmental malfeasance in the wide world, Annenberg’s “Clue, As If” turns the work of art into its own “Find the Bunny” sort of game. “Clue, As If” refers to the secret FISA Court that functions in Washington, DC. It was derived from the “Protect America Act” of 2007 to oversee the intelligence community in its surveillance of foreign terrorism suspects—who disappear into its system to face trials over which there is no legal (or moral) oversight and the proceedings of which are entirely secret. So on the one hand the words “as if” are a play on FISA, spelled backwards, which refers to that secret federal court. On the other hand, “Clue” both references elements within the piece itself—and another board game, of that name.

In “Clue,” players move from room to room in a mansion to solve the mystery of who done it, with what, and where? Players are dealt character, weapon, and location cards after the top card from each card type is secretly placed in the confidential file in the middle of the board. Players must move to a room and then make an accusation against a character saying that they did it in that room with a specific weapon. The player to the left must show one of any cards accused to the accuser in that player’s hand. Through deductive reasoning each player must figure out which character, weapon, and location are in the secret file. To do this, each player must uncover what cards are in other players’ hands by making more and more accusations. One wins through effective reasoning and thinking things out—and constant accusations.

Is there even a way to reason out and deduce in the FISA Court context? Certainly that capacity will be of limited use in Annenberg’s piece. A half-hidden black pedestal— half-hidden because a semi-transparent black curtain surrounds it (configured the way, in an old apartment in some city with many of its buildings boarded up, a shower head has been placed over the claw-foot bathtub, and a flowered curtain suspended from a circular bar has been suspended, in order to make a shower possible without too much water ending up on the bathroom floor). Half-hidden, so that one has a clue but no clarity as to what exactly is going on behind the curtain. For on the pedestal stands a white structure, a kind of box with a triangular fronton top—like a miniature Roman temple or Washington government building.

The naked lightbulb suspended from above—like a light bulb in an interrogation scene in some murder mystery movie—illuminates these things, but not fully: what exactly is it that is behind the veil-like curtain and what does it signify? What do we and what can we know about what is happening beyond our sight lines—apparently to protect us, but without any assurances that those designated as our protectors won’t be a group from which we need to be protected. (Sound absurd? Consider the many malfeasances by the FBI when it was under J. Edgar Hoover’s watch….)

All of which circles us back to the problem of the media and the news we do and don’t or cannot get, as it pertains to a range of important issues that threaten our survival at different levels: as Americans who wish to live in a real democracy, and as humans who wish to continue to live on a livable planet. Annenberg’s 80” tall mixed media “Maypole Mayhem” alludes to the suppression of news; referencing such specifics as the ground events in Afghanistan, unlimited detention without trial of individuals suspected of some terrorist or other crime—that is, without trial and without specific accusation—and, of course, climate change.

The work is also inspired by Nancy Spero’s work, “Maypole: Take no Prisoners.” Spero erected a 15-foot black pole in the center of the studio/gallery space and extended from its top several dozen black and red ribbons. At the ends of these, extending to the wall, was a series of 100 faces, hand-painted on silhouette-carved aluminum. They offered a variety of carnage: bloody necks and faces, outstretched tongues, mouths open mid- scream or mid-vomit. If there were to be a dance around this maypole, it would be one of violence—war and otherwise—and death. First imagined back in 1966 during the height of the Vietnam era, (in a series of drawings), the piece was finally devised for the Venice Biennale in 2007, two years before Spero’s death.

In Annenberg’s work, three stanchions, configured in a kind of open circle, and displaying newspaper pages, heavy with photographs, on both their inner and outer sides, are covered with white-covered veil-like curtains, so that the new material may be read, but with difficulty. In the middle of the open circle stands a brass pole that rises to a height at least a foot above the three stanchions, on the top of this pole is a ball with a reflecting surface—so that everything around it may be seen in a distorted manner, reflected from that ball—and from just below it, red, white and blue ribbons extend. Three of them, to be exact, one draping itself over each of the three stanchions and extending onto and out along the floor of the gallery space.

Thus the “red, white, and blue”—that concept that has been abused more frequently than ever before in recent American history, particularly in two of the last three presidential administrations, exemplifying Alfred Lord Whitehead’s concept of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (think of the concept “American flag” or “patriotism” as abstractions spoken of by certain politicians and their supporters as if they are concrete, tangible entities)—intrudes into the viewer’s space. We can turn away from the news that we don’t clearly see or don’t wish to see too clearly, but cannot outrun the running ribbons that follow us to the edges of the gallery space, like events and their consequences that follow us to the ends of the earth.

Indeed it is the ends of the earth that are crowding toward whatever might be its center in yet another world-wide issue upon which the United States, with its deconstruction of Iraq in 2003, has had a significant role: the refugee crisis, which currently dwarfs that which emerged during and after World War II. Refugees pouring out of Iraq and Syria into whatever imagined refuges they can find—and resonating back to the Bosnian refugee crisis of 1992 (with its 2.6 million internally displaced persons) in which our role was far less significant—form the substance of Annenberg’s “The Haywagon,” painted in 1995 (after Bosnia) and rethought by the artist in 2017 (in the ongoing aftermath of Syria, that came about as a consequence of the creation of ISIS and the Arab Spring).

That is: her triptych, intended at the time of the painting to focus on Bosnian refugees, can now, alas, (as she recently noted), stand for the more recent Syrian crisis— particularly after 75% of Syrian farms failed due to drought, just prior to the “Arab Spring” events of 2012—that is still playing out in and beyond Syria (and is still affected by the presence of ISIS in the region as one of the complex of protagonists in the disaster). People flocked to the cities—but in the year and then years following, the cities often became shells and yielded their own refugee exoduses. What in 1992 was a crisis shaped in Europe has by our own time become a crisis pouring itself into Europe—with cognate aspects all over the planet.

Annenberg’s piece was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s 1516 “The Haywain.” In the latter, the left panel offers a top-to-bottom sequence that follows from the Fall of the rebellious angels being turned to flies to the Fall of humans and the expulsion from the Garden, to the right of which Adam looks back toward the expelling angel and Eve looks, in dismay, off toward the central panel. That central panel features a large wagon of hay surrounded by a multitude of fools engaged in a variety of sins. An angel on top of the wagon looks to the sky, praying, but none of the other figures sees the Christ who, near the top, looks down on the world. The rightward bow of the figures around the wagon provides the force for the viewer’s eye to move with them on their journey and the cart is drawn by infernal beings which drag everyone to Hell, depicted on the right panel.

Annenberg has simplified and stylized the central panel, in which the wagon has become a kind of box on tractor wheels, moving out toward the viewer, with a plethora of virtually faceless people sitting in it and a long stream of them, receding into the distance, following after and pushing that surging image directly at us. To the left, a scorched earth with scorched foliage culminates with a volcanic cone spewing steam toward a reddish sky in which a trinity of beautiful white, dove-like birds soars; the right panel—all three are joined by a common, undulating horizon line—carries the horizon, above its deep “earth” component, also blackened, toward the rectilinear shapes of buildings: an urban skyline (or what’s left of it) to balance out the ultra-rural skyline of the volcano.

Religion has been stripped out of the image that was dominated by religion in Bosch’s triptych; the sorts of sins in which Bosch’s characters are or might be engaged are gone. What’s left is a vast crisis of refugees whose only evident sin was/is to be part of a species whose real sin is its ongoing and ever-expanding success at fulfilling its destructive inclinations. The entire earth is the garden and the entire earth is the path of the hay wagon and the entire earth is hell, depending upon what we do with it or which corner of it we are privileged or cursed to call home—or former home.

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We can find a concise summary of this eloquent array of imagery—contrived of diverse materials and with diverse stylistic modes of presentation across the past nearly three decades—in four recent works that have carried the artist deeper into and just beyond the era of Trump and his realm of rage and lies—or, rather, raging lies. Annenberg seeks our awareness, through her art, of the unabated climate crisis, of the crisis in human— particularly intergenderal—relations. She seeks our participation, not in completing her art by looking at it, as the Impressionists wished their viewers to do (to come full circle to the very beginning of this essay) but, having looked at it, in turning away from it, to resolve to do something as responsible adult members of a democracy the survival of which depends upon an informed populace and media willing and capable of keeping us informed and our leaders carefully (as opposed to carelessly) scrutinized.

Thus “King George’s Revenge” (2019)—playing in its title on the very beginning of our national history, when we rebelled against the English King George III in order to assert our right to shape the democracy that we have been often struggling to shape in the 250 years since—is elegant in its simplicity and its image of illicit love. Not illicit as an act of love, because no form of positive human expression can be construed as illicit except those that embed within them serious harm to others. But that is what the central image within this multi-media work suggests. The enthusiastic hug between Energy Secretary Rick Perry—whose job it is to help protect the country and the planet from the depredations of corporations that act in ways that are detrimental to the country (and because those ways pertain to the environment, they are also necessarily detrimental to the world at large)— and coal CEO Bob Murray, who is by definition the epicenter of just that sort of detrimental activity, certainly suggests illicit love. Or at least illicit comradery. Or at least illicit partnership, since that partnership is directed toward destructive environmental activity.

It is the back story of the photograph of the Perry-Murray hug and the chapters of that back story that certify the hug as illicit. Chapter one: Murray had just provided a wish list that would save the coal industry—and therefore continue safely to fatten Murray’s wallet—without concern of that wish-list for the consequences to the environment (or for that matter, for the health and well-being of the myriad employees of that industry). Chapter two: that wish-list would become a centerpiece of Donald Trump’s administration’s energy policy. So the administration’s point-person in protecting the American people from dangerous greed-driven corporate malfeasance was—literally— embracing that malfeasance. Chapter three: that the photos were taken by the DOE staff photographer, Simon Edelman, who then released the hug photo and as a consequence was stripped of his photographic equipment and fired—which suggests rather clearly that the administration understood very well the illicit symbolism of this illicit image’s relationship to illicit actions.

The photo is grouped with several others: there is one of Donald Trump embracing Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born American media mogul, whose New York Post and Wall Street Journal and primary broadcast outlet, the Fox News Channel, notably ignore news of issues like climate change; and there is another of Robert Mercer on his cell phone. Mercer, principal investor in Cambridge Analytica, saved Trump’s 2016 campaign the summer before the elections with a huge cash donation—and was a key player in the campaign to have Great Britain leave the EU, and a major funder of right-wing organizations, such as Breitbart News.

This horror hall of fame line-up is casually placed against a florid background and partially (insufficiently for its messages to be missed) obscured by a half-closed curtain. That curtain’s pattern is recognizable as a repeating series of idealized rural images (unscarred by coal-excavation or industries fueled by coal) from a 1960s wallpaper and curtain pattern (an Ashford House AF2000 Seasons Toiles pattern) evoking the nineteenth century—in monochromatic blue (the color of the clear and truth-filled skies), against the white that represents purity across the past fifteen centuries of Western-Christian art. That is: the pretense of innocence evoking still greater innocence attempts (and fails) to obscure the far-from-innocent implications of the photograph that reveals the illicit relationship between our government and an ugly branch of industry.

And while it is true that the Fox News Network first emerged as a mouthpiece for the government of George Bush, Jr, providing his administration’s desired spin on the world to an ever-expanding segment of the American people, this media branch truly arrived at the apogee of its failure to speak truth to power on behalf of the American people under the Trump administration. Annenberg’s 2021 “What the…GAP?” turns the Fox Irresponsibility Quotient (I.Q.) around another element within the environmental crisis that threatens Americans and non-Americans—including those who blindly cheer the Trumpian messages that have fattened the Fox News Network.

That element is the UN Environment Emissions Gap Report, brought out in 2019— which compared actual current planetwide greenhouse gas emissions with the level that is needed in order for catastrophic global warming not to ensue. The focus of Annenberg’s image, in engaging the Report is—as we have seen her focused before—the media and its coverage of this important issue. She uses the motif of the chess board that we have also seen her use on other occasions: one might be reminded, given the importance and implications of the Report, of the iconic Ingmar Bergman film, “The Seventh Seal,”—its title borrowed out of the apocalyptic text of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation—in which the protagonist, a medieval knight (played by Max von Sydow) plays chess with death itself (played by Bengt Ekerot), who has come to take his life, during the time of the apocalyptic mid-14th-century Black Death.

On various black and white squares, she offers the front-page coverage of the Gap Report, reflecting a sense of its heavy importance, by 12 different national and international news outlets—and repeated images of the Fox News Channel logo, which is—because it was—completely devoid of a single reference to it. What could possibly be more earth- shaking (pun intended) as news that needs—needs, if we are to survive—be seen and absorbed and thought about and maybe even understood by the American people? Yet Fox was too pre-occupied with advocating for President Trump’s self-aggrandizing and self- focused political agenda—centered on his repeated expressions of disdain for the realm of science and denial of the reality of gas emissions, climate change, and related issues—to report on and to inform its constituents about this.

The artist’s Fox News squares are ordered so that they occupy a double diagonal succession of the chessboard squares that lead from the four corners (a visual pun on the phrase “four corners of the earth) to the center of the board—where the convergence, departing from the norms of a chessboard’s configuration—is occupied by four squares together, yielding one larger square. In the journey from the corners to the center, the Fox News Channel logo gradually dissolves—and the central four-square image strongly suggests the kind of image that a weather satellite offers of clouds converging in a twist that signifies a large storm front: the sort of storm front that is shaping up as a dangerous hurricane (the increasing annual numbers of which weather phenomena is, incidentally, an indicator of anthropogenic climate change).

The double emphasis on the dangers of climate change and the failure of the media to be an effective instrument of warning, which reached a crescendo during the Trump era, together with an exponential surge in American ignorance (in the dual sense of not knowing and not caring to know, as if our country is its own isolated planet), resonates from the third of Annenberg’s recent works, “Hush my Kush” (2019). This piece refers to the Hindu Kush Himalayan Assessment, and poses the question: why is the potential loss of drinking water for a billion people in Asia—a billion human beings on a different continent that is a substantial part of planet earth—not found newsworthy in the American press?

This potential humanitarian crisis is explored and explained by a science-based assessment, but the voice of the science of climate emergency is being silenced. Seven major American newspaper systems did not bother to report the conclusions of the Assessment: that even if emissions targets are met—part of an anthropogenetic solution to part of an anthropogenetic problem, provided we have the will and desire, shepherded by real political leadership, to do so—one third of the Himalayan Glacier will melt. The repercussive consequences of this are profound—and it does not take an Einsteinian level of brilliance to recognize how the initial difficulties for all of those Asians are only preliminary to the expanding array of difficulties for others in other corners of the planet— and yet the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Detroit Free Press, Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, and Wall Street Journal all decided that this story is not important enough to find its way into their pages. Only the climate desk of The New York Times, among the major American print and digital news sources, placed the story on its front page.

Once again we are presented with the chessboard of our planetary duel with death and destruction, in the central four black squares of which the Times’ coverage story is presented, while in the black squares—the very choice of color out to make us think, yet again, of the context of Bergman’s film: the Black Death that swallowed up a third of Europe’s population in less than two years, (1347-49)—all around the board, the other newspapers are arrayed, with articles on a range of other issues. Another Annenbergian motif is present here: that the image she has created is presented as if we are seeing it as a window or a stage, over which a delicate curtain is partially drawn—so she plays with the idea of what we can see and not see (choose to see and choose not to see), since the translucence of the curtain means that even the part of the board behind it is visible, if blurred to the eye.

This dialogue between seeing and not seeing, between visually revealing and concealing, emerged as an obsession of fifth-century BCE Greek statuary—and the specifics of a curtain pulled partially aside has a long history in art from sixth-century synagogue mosaic floor décor to the apogee of representing such a trope in Baroque painting. So, as so often, Annenberg plays with motifs and ideas that embed her work in art history—but where these motifs offered mere aesthetic or occasional spiritual connotations in earlier manifestations, in her work they become instruments of socio- political commentary, and in these they connect to concerns for human survival.

The board itself is a textile, as if it is a curtain behind that visually porous demi- curtain, and a fringe hangs along its bottom edge. The blue and red pigments of the fringe, together with the dominant white aspects of the entire composition offer the colors of the American flag that are more directly offered as a trio in the ribbon used to hold the “outer” curtain back so that we can see (so that we cannot miss) the imagery of the chessboard and its implications.

The implications pertain to the human relationship to nature and how that relationship, going awry, is overly ignored by the journalistic medium that prides itself, in its freedom, (the freedom of the press) in being a quintessential instrument of the America organized by the Founding Fathers. Their insistence on a free press in the very first Constitutional Amendment was designed to help assure the survival and, indeed, flourishing of our new democracy, once it had achieved its freedom from England and its monarchy. We have often ignored or forgotten the role of the Founding Mothers—and their roles were certainly circumscribed by the limits to gender parity from the history of which the new democracy did not step away—anymore than it stepped away from issues of racial or religious parity. The governance franchise, although wider than elsewhere and earlier, was still limited by gender, race, religion, and economics.

Where gender in particular is concerned—and in spite of strides made thanks to the feminist movement of half a century ago (pushed in part by the strides made by the civil rights movement)—lack of parity proves to be the tip of a far uglier iceberg. Skewed intra- human gender relations connect to skewed human relations with the environment in Annenberg’s 2018 “It’s the Agenda, Stupid.” In this fourth recent work the issues of press reportage and climate change are linked to a specific and egregious instance of gender- based harassment—sexual harassment—in that most dominant of American fields of enterprise, the cinematic aspect of the entertainment business.

The work reflects on the reporting of two apparently unrelated events: the publication of the National Climate Assessment and the anticipated arrest of film mogul, Harvey Weinstein—both reports appearing on November 4, 2018. The Assessment validated the scientific consensus that greenhouse gases that are warming the planet are not simply part of natural cycles of earth’s own behavior, but a consequence of the large volume of our burning of fossil fuels: oil, gas, and coal. Among the main participating agencies in the Assessment were the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Energy— we have come around full circle, by a different path, to the issue of the DOE leader’s treason to the American people in Annenberg’s “King George’s Revenge”—as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The artist notes that, although the New York newspaper, Newsday, printed the Assessment on its front page, neither the New York Post nor The New York Daily News even mentioned it—at all. The title of the work—specifically, of course, “agenda”— alludes to the issue of propaganda, defined, as Annenberg notes, by as “information, ideas or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, or nation.” More specifically, it alludes to the inverse truth: that inverse propaganda is the deliberate withholding of information so that persons, groups, movements, institutions, or nations don’t have the capacity to form opinions or to act on real and urgent issues.

So the issue is certainly the malevolent agenda of the Trump administration that for four years was renowned for its deliberate spewing of misinformation—Trump himself reiterated (literally) tens of thousands of lies at an ever-increasing rate in his four years of dividing his time between the White House and the golf course. But it also is intended to reflect on the Trump circle in its less commonly noted proclivity, deliberate withholding of information (think back to the second work in this last series of four, and Fox News: not only promoting Trumpian falsehoods but ignoring urgent issues that the administration preferred to ignore). This is less about the abdication of the responsibility that freedom and human free will impose upon us than about the deliberate suppression of the urge to responsibility.

This time the chessboard is a huge—94” x 94”—wall-filling construction, in which the black squares offer alternate full-sized front-page headlines and images: The New York Post and Daily News focused on Harvey Weinstein (the Post offering a “clever” buyer- friendly format as a “Wanted” Poster), while Newsday’s almost imageless headline reads “CLIMATE CHANGE CONTRADICTION.” The smaller print of this headline explains that “Trump administration releases scientific report in contrast to president’s policies.”

So the contrast is not only between administration claims and policies and the officially-sanctioned report that contradicts these claims and policies—which report will end up lambasted as false and fake by the administration, whose acolytes will simply follow the mental path of the lambast-procedure and ignore the opinions of experts in favor of believing their bombastic, lie-spewing leader—but between the one news source that raises all of this on its front page and those, with ties to the administration, that don’t even bother to report the matter on their interior pages. What is the innocent consumer of news, walking by a newsstand, supposed to think?

The title of the work is also another play—on the phrase “agenda-setting theory,” that explores and explains the ability of the news media to influence what ends up coming to the fore as important topics on the public agenda. “Agenda-setting” refers, in this context, that is, to the capacity for news media to manipulate public awareness and what comes to be perceived as essential to public discussion.

Oh… and is the emphasis on the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment issue, then, a function of simple responsible reporting because that issue is finally coming toward the front and center of the American consciousness—or is it because the fascination with sexual malfeasance and with the fall from grace of the powerful is a magnet for newspaper- buying American dollars? (How seriously can we take administration-clinging media when the leader of the administration is notorious and self-proclaimed as a paragon of sexual harassment?) And—coming back around to the intentions of the first of these four recent works—what will be the ultimate revenge of King George, the autocrat, if we fail as a democracy, and instead embrace the egocentric, truth-averse leadership of a demagogue?

How close did the country come in 2020 to finalizing that process—and how much of the country remains mentally imprisoned by that demagogue? (And one might wonder where the brilliant commentaries by Annenberg will go as she places the debacle of Covid- 19 into the container of her visual engagement of urgent issues).

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Ultimately, Marcia Annenberg’s work is about humans and our fate—and the ways in which we are paradoxically more linked than ever in a world where media criss-cross the globe in seconds and weapons of mass destruction have the potential to do the same. “Button-Mushroom”—bringing us back to that early acrylic on canvas, but nearly twenty years later, when with an unstable and immensely immature American president and an apparently conscienceless North Korean dictator we seemed to stand nearer, for nearly four years, to that particular abyss than at any time since the early Cold War era—warns of that potential: nuclear weapons proliferate rapidly on a planet in which the dangers of such proliferation had seemed past with the end of the Cold War.

This little stroke of genius puns both verbally and visually, as we have noted. To elaborate further, however: it’s not just that the right-hand-most table mushroom image, juxtaposed with an image of the earth, would suggest the mushroom cloud of nuclear destruction that can encompass the earth. It’s not that the left-hand-most image is a button such as one might use in a coat, its four holes pointing in the four directions of our reality (east, west, north, south) but devoid of the threads needed to bind it to the material it is supposed to close—that is: to bind us together. It’s not just that the little, humble button is connected to the idea of the mushroom cloud—which can be released by the push of a different sort of button—and so we are reminded of how the littlest things can have very big consequences. But a “button mushroom”—agaricus bisporus—which is that last image as we read her visual text from left to right, goes by more than a dozen other names and is cultivated in over 70 countries across the planet.

So the edible fungus that proliferates so readily in so many places is a metaphor for the readily proliferating nuclear fungus that has the potential to devour the entire planet. The more so if the news media ignore the important news about such proliferation and other, related matters, and if people, but especially We the People of this Great Democracy fail to be interested in and aware of the important news, and fail to demand of our leaders— many of whom are foolish enough to imagine that the destruction of the planet will somehow bypass them—that they address the planet and its inhabitants with mindful and not mindless manners, with caretaking concern, and even with love.


Ori Z Soltes Georgetown University