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Clay Spohn (aka Clay Edgar Spohn)

American
(1898–1977)

Rolling Forts, Flying Fort and Anti-aircraft Net


1942

Graphite and gouache on paper
17 x 33 in. (43.18 x 83.82 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
1990.7

Months before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Clay Spohn had dreams of war in spectacular color. To fight the enemy in his dreams, he imagined fantastical war machines before sleeping. Friends encouraged him to paint these visions and show them, with his “guerragraphs” (from the Spanish guerra, war) depicting mechanical monsters, at the San Francisco Museum of Art in February 1942.

The seriousness and detail of his descriptions of the capabilities of these machines, contrasted with the impossibility of building them, was laughable but also frightening, because it demonstrated the lunacy of those who engage in war. Spohn wrote: “The Rolling Fort is supported on a chassis 120 feet above the ground, enabling it to travel rough country at a terrific speed, thus overtaking the slower and comparatively minute tank which it easily destroys, as well as batteries and other battlements.” His Gravitational Sky Hook Aircraft Trap has yet to be invented but are not those primitive drones nearby? The somber coloring is distinct from the bright colors of his other machine drawings, as if to resemble a World War I battle field.

The Rolling Fort illustrates Spohn’s imagination, attention to detail, and power to communicate. Inspired by the exhibit’s fantastical depictions, artist John Hultberg wrote: “Spohn has always been close to the spirit of dada and surrealist outrage, turning rage outward into delight and a benign sense of shock that would express the sense of humor that he felt was at the core of the modern art impulse.”

The horror of the Pearl Harbor attack usurped Spohn’s aim to warn a complacent public of war. Today’s fantastic weaponry, however, has given Spohn’s satire a relevance that he could not have imagined.

David Beasley


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