In a 1951 talk, William de Kooning observed, "Today, some people think that the light of the atom bomb will change the concept of painting once and for all." In Hiroshima, that light had remade the world with terrible minimalism: "For one instant, everybody was the same color."
Yet nuclear weaponry did not revolutionize artistic priorities. Its shadows, however, stretch well into the two decades after the end of the Cold War, as can be seen in Bay Arts' The Bomb exhibition.
The show is curated by Ross Lesko, gallery director at Kenneth Paul Lesko Gallery on West 80th St. and a Bay Arts advisory board member. His aim was to explore the diversity of connotations in the show's title. While the phrase "da bomb" has entered the lexicon as a slang term for quality, for Lesko it called to mind the "duck and cover" era of school safety. In invitations sent to Lesko Gallery's roster of artists, he explained that he wanted to explore both the historic and colloquial connotations of "the bomb." Of the dozen participating artists, more than half took up atomic power as a topic.
Martin O'Connor's acrylic painting "Bahia Dias" presents a fallout shelter sign secreting rust, except in its top left corner, where a silver model rocket displays "61" numerals. The number references the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961; the rocket recalls the thrill of technology and space exploration, cultivated in Washington to push the Cold War into the cosmos. The painting distills the postwar fever that fostered both a gee-whiz optimism and a mental and martial buildup to World War Three.
In a similar vein, Preston Buchtel's modified photograph "Dreams During Wartime I" presents a bikini-clad pinup model lying prone; the background shows a sky raining fat bombs. In "Morning Rain," (pictured) warplanes streak over a shower curtain. The photo's near- and implied nudity illustrate human helplessness against mechanized destruction.
However, not all of The Bomb's artists are Cold Warriors. Others followed Lesko's invitation to flesh out all the connotations of "the bomb," from doomsday device to more generalized idioms.
Judith Brandon flits between both extremes. Her painting "Blitzkrieg Kids" explodes a mushroom cloud against a swirling sky. Like all the best cloud-watchers, Brandon looks for objects in the tower of vapor. "Blitzkrieg" hides at least two anguished faces, along with circles and geometric arcs resembling astronomical plots. The atomic weapon is raised to the level of natural powers, reifying its unimaginable might.
In "The F-Bomb," Brandon's method remains the same, but her goal is different. Here, it is catharsis. From a cloudy landscape emerges a fizzing fuse bomb. Viewed closely, the clouds turn out to be tiny, tight text. The title suggests the content.
Beyond the nuclear age is Craig Mains of Ithica, New York. His monoprint "Letter Bomb II" sets a scene of anarchy in a daylight neighborhood setting. Its sky-blue mailbox might have been an illustration in a children's book, but for the orange flames and whorls of black smoke spewing from it. The clash of form and content, of playfulness and destruction, is jarring.
If all this is too heavy, Detroit painter Mo Pho imposes Arthur Sasse's iconic shot of Einstein sticking his tongue onto Flavor Flav's body in "Relativity."
The distance of history keeps even The Bomb's most apocalyptic work from depressiveness, as do the Strangelovely and word-playing satiric pieces. This is one show worth leaving the bunker to see.