This Book Review appeared in Afterimage Vol. 39 No. 5 in the Spring of 2012:
Revolution as an Eternal Dream: the Exemplary Failure of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective
by Mary Patten, with a preface by Lucy Lippard and an afterword by Gregory Sholette/Half Letter Press/2011/84 pp./$13.00 (sb) [Purchase it here]
It is all too rare to see social movement history interwoven with art history—so what a pleasure it is to read Mary Patten’s memoir, which does exactly that. Patten recounts, through short essays paired with full-color graphics reproductions, her days in the May 19th Communist organization, working with particular commitment in the graphics and propaganda subcommittee known as the Madame Binh Graphics Collective from 1975 to 1983.
The text is sewn together with prose that critically comments on cadre activism from a mature, deeply honest, and self-reflexive position. Patten writes, “We were on the margins of the margins, the periphery of the periphery: far left or ‘ultra left’ in our intensely florid and dramatic politics.[PAGE 11]” Later she introduces how art fit into these politics, elegantly explaining their approach to authorship and anonymity: “Those who choose this kind of political art practice find their lives intensely enriched and multiply connected to worlds beyond what they ever knew previously; worlds where possibilities beckon, and where ‘losing oneself’ also means sacrifice, sometimes to the point of self-obliteration.”[PAGE 49]
This book is unusual for a number of reasons. It is less a book than an essay, but an essay that is elaborated upon and contextualized by both a preface and an afterword. It is less a history than a memoir; a catalog, but without an accompanying exhibition. It is similar to a pamphlet, but with full color artwork never found in leftist propaganda.
I highly recommend this book to printmakers, politically motivated artists of any kind, and anyone interested in the way that art intersects with leftist history in general. Patten’s approach leaves many questions open concerning where these far left ideas went and what they mean today. But she reminds us that politics and art are ever-evolving outlets for our collective learning and dreaming—and in Patten’s case, despite let-downs, disagreements, and arrests, that remains eternal.