Home A 1976 painting by John Wesley is revived for the New York’s...

A 1976 painting by John Wesley is revived for the New York’s High Line Park.

Art, like the history it reflects, tends to repeat itself from time to time. For proof of this, look no further than the unusual star-spangled banner presiding over New York’s High Line this December. Through January 2, a billboard alongside the elevated park revives John Wesley’s 1976 painting, Nine Female Inmates of the Cincinnati Workhouse Participating in a Patriotic Tableau. Its site is significant: The billboard has previously hosted art installments from the likes of Gilbert & George, Louise Lawler, and Allen Ruppersberg, making it an important fixture in the city’s current public-art dialogue.

Originally created for the U.S. bicentennial celebration, Wesley’s large-scale work depicts a group of women swaddled in sections of Betsy Ross’s 13-star American flag—or bound by them, if you, like many viewers, can’t help but notice how the striped swaths of fabric resemble prison uniforms. Although art experts agree that the painting’s overall message is ambiguous, the piece contains an undeniable political charge; it has something important to say about the nature of American culture and patriotism, even as it forces you to fill in that blank yourself. But no matter how you interpret the work, its slightly tweaked reappearance serves as a reminder of what’s changed over the past 40 years and, pressingly, what hasn’t.

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