“America,” reads the poster, showing a small-town church steeple and soaring skyscrapers, a humble grain silo and the Statue of Liberty.
These iconic and nostalgic images, however, stand out on the sides. They are in the background, framing the smiling, deeply etched face of a man wearing a cowboy hat.
The Marlboro Man? Not enough.
Below the word “America,” the letters striped in red, white, and blue, comes the rest of the message: “Reagan Country.”
It certainly was. In the 1980 presidential election, when this campaign poster was produced, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president, in a landslide.
All these years later, many Americans remember the popular poster – and some even keep a copy. They recognized it as a piece of history.
But is it art?
Kansas City Art Institute curator Hal Wert answered that question with the 2016 exhibition “Sign of the Times: The Great American Political Poster, 1844-2012.”
The exhibit is now on display at the Oregon Historical Society museum until November 30.
The 1960s counterculture that Reagan rejected when he was governor of California had a lot to do with the elevation of the political poster to art. Innovative designs, including psychedelic imagery, made their way into campaign signage, particularly for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, whose upset in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary prompted President Lyndon Johnson to give up a candidacy for re-election.
Famed sculptor Alexander Calder created a memorable, limited-edition poster for 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern that nods to pop art – and inadvertently foreshadows the yet-to-be-invented Pac-Man video game , featuring the two faces in the bright colors of the campaign poster. the name of the candidate.
Posters of Reagan and McGovern are in the traveling exhibit, along with dozens of others from American political history.
There is an illustration of William McKinley, the 1896 Republican presidential candidate, standing on top of a huge gold coin labeled “Sound Money” as it is carried down a city street.
“Prosperity at home, prestige abroad,” the poster said. “Trade. Civilization.”
McKinley’s populist opponent William Jennings Bryan has argued for expanding the money supply by minting money, after he told the Democratic National Convention: “You won’t crucify mankind on a cross of gold !
McKinley eventually won, and he would earn re-election four years later, shortly before an avowed anarchist murdered him in Buffalo.
By the mid-20th century, photography had largely replaced illustrations, and artists began experimenting with new forms of graphic design for campaign posters.
“World War II saw a huge outpouring of Roosevelt administration posters and several key Democratic Party campaign posters designed by famous artists such as Ben Shahn and James Montgomery Flagg,” points out the Oregon Historical Society.
The 1950s featured the “floating head” campaign poster, which became very popular. The exhibit features examples featuring Dwight Eisenhower and his running mate Richard Nixon (1952), John F. Kennedy (1960) and Barry Goldwater (1964), highlighting American politics focusing increasingly on personality rather than on politics.
The Oregon Historical Society Museum in downtown Portland is open daily. Admission is free for OHS members and Multnomah County residents; otherwise it’s $10.
–Douglas Perry; [email protected]