Historically, the ephemeral hardworking American political poster has been hiding in plain sight, attempting to catch our eye and capture our vote through the use of visual language. In a survey that spans the life of these ubiquitous messengers, Sign of the Times: The Great American Political Poster 1844–2012 explores a variety of styles, design trends, and printing technology that will delight your eye, engage your imagination, and lead you to ruminate over past political commitments. Sign of the Times features the most exciting and rarely seen posters created in the last 170 years; the exhibit will be on display at the Park City Museum from February 14 to April 30, 2022.
The political campaign poster had its humble beginnings in the 1840s when the new lithographic printing process, largely developed in Germany, was developed to satisfy a growing demand for printed material. Hand-colored portraits of presidential and vice-presidential candidates were first printed for the 1844 race between Whig Party candidate Henry Clay and the eventual winner, James K. Polk of the Democratic Party.
Technological innovation in the lithographic process in the 1880s ushered in the golden age of lithography, roughly 1890–1912, which produced some the of the most intricate and colorful posters in the exhibition.
World War II saw a huge outpouring of posters offered by the Roosevelt administration and included several key Democratic Party campaign posters designed by famous artists like Ben Shahn and James Montgomery Flagg. The international style that pervaded the 1950s rarely affected the campaign poster, an era in which cheap letterpress and offset “boxing style” posters were de rigueur. However, a marvelous new design element that became popular at the time was the “floating head” poster, and several for candidates Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Goldwater are included in the exhibition.
The left-wing counterculture revolution of the 1960s was awash in civil rights, psychedelia, and anti-war posters that culminated in the creation of some of the finest campaign posters, many of which appeared in the 1968 Democratic primary campaign of Eugene McCarthy. The George McGovern campaign that followed in 1972 was a virtual explosion of exciting political art. The offset printed poster was the more frequent, but many famous artists such as Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol screen-printed limited editions that helped fund campaigns. Hundreds of posters were created by well-known artists, illustrators, and often by inspired first time poster makers.
After the graphically exciting 1972 presidential campaign, future contests produced only a few outstanding posters in each election cycle. However, the Democrats’ nomination of Barack Obama in 2008 heralded a renaissance of the form, as many artists—insiders, outsiders, and the famous—jumped on the candidate’s bandwagon. In fact, in 2008 it looked as if the great American political poster had at last solidified its place in future campaigns. Unfortunately, it was not to be; in 2012 the creation of exciting innovative posters tapered off sharply from the previous presidential election cycle.
Through time, the American political poster has been sorely neglected as an art form and has played a minor cultural role despite its effectiveness in conveying a political message to millions of voters often through the skillful use of visual communication. Sign of the Times has made every effort to bring eye-popping political graphics to the forefront and show the great American political poster as art.
Sign of the Times was curated by Hal Wert, Ph.D., collector and professor of history at Kansas City Art Institute, and organized by Exhibits USA/Mid-America Arts Alliance.