TWO YEARS AFTER MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Sam Gilliam created “Red April.” The draped canvas makes a bold statement with its candid reference to splattered blood in the wake of an assassin’s bullet. Gilliam, an internationally known artist whose work is influenced by Abstract Expressionism, is recognized for his Color Field paintings and pioneering works on unsupported canvases which he first introduced in 1965. His poignant interpretation of King’s murder, a major turning point in civil rights history, is not the kind of visual most people conjure when the think about the movement.
For so many Americans, as well as international observers, the Civil Rights Movement comes to life through black-and-white documentary and news photos that capture brutal, brave and sometimes triumphant moments from half a century ago. The powerful images have become a ubiquitous representation of the historic time—a barometer of African American perseverance, documentation of America’s shameful past.
Rarely is the era viewed through visual art. The work, by Gilliam and many others, exists, but art historians and curators have paid scant attention to the wide-ranging examples of fine art inspired by the pivotal period.
Several African American artists including Benny Andrews, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold and Charles White are known for their depictions of major events in 20th century African American history and, more specifically, interpretations of the conditions and social issues faced by their communities during the Civil Rights Movement. But many more were inspired by the strife of the 1960s, including black artists whose work is primarily conceptual or abstract, and white artists with mainstream popularity.
“Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” at the Brooklyn Museum brings together the work of 66 artists compelled by groundbreaking events that were transforming the nation. Co-currated by Teresa A. Carbone, the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art and Kellie Jones, associate professor of art history and archeology at Columbia University, the exhibition is a monument to ’60s era civil rights.
In the same manner that the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years” by Taylor Branch and the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize” recount and contextualize the violent details and hard-won victories of the civil rights movement, the work of these artists offers a poignant lens through which to view the era. Their conceptual, interpretive and realistic works respond to and are inspired by the tenor and tone of the marches, protests and campaigns to defeat discrimination, outlaw segregation, and enforce voting rights.
Paintings, sculpture, mixed media works and installations dominate the exhibition, which also includes some of the period’s most compelling photography.
“Some of the works…directly consider what makes up the bonds of civil society. They address ideas of citizenship through actions or visual presentations that can be thought of as civil, and framed, for instance, as a dialogue with art world trends of their time.” — Kellie Jones
The catalog published to coincide with the exhibition is a stunning complement. Vivid images from the exhibition permeate the entire volume giving visual heft to essays by Jones; Carbone; Connie H. Choi, research associate in the Arts of the Americas and Europe at the Brooklyn Museum; and Cynthia A. Young, director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Program and associate professor of English at Boston College. Meanwhile, insightful, page-long musings from contributing artists Virginia Jaramillo, Jae Jarrell, Mark di Suvero and Jack Whitten are interspersed throughout.
Whitten had a “horrific experience” enduring verbal and physical abuse as a student leader who participated in a protest march at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., where he studied art for a short period of time. The artist describes his mixed-media work “Birmingham 1964” as a wound.
“It was probably connected to my father’s death—to violence I had already seen. If you pierce through something, it bursts open,” Witten writes. “Every time I’ve experienced physical violence, I’ve had a visual response.”
Jarrell, who is both an artist and fashion designer, recounts the founding of the Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists (COBRA) in Chicago, after “speeches, marches, rallies and demonstrations filled the airwaves, newscasts, and Black artists’ consciousness nationwide.”
Among the most fascinating aspects of the catalog is the revealing chronology by Dalila Scruggs, assistant curator of American art at the museum, that concludes the volume. From 1954 to 1971, it documents the intersection of artistic enterprise and activism, American history and the international fight for civil and human rights.
“Witness” marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A worthy tribute, the exhibition and book demonstrate that while the movement was propelled by the revered and unnamed who fought and often died to advance the struggle for racial justice, an impressive panoply of artists was also engaged, enraged and motivated. CT
“Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” by Teresa A. Carbone and Kellie Jones, etal. (The Monacelli Press, 176 pages). Published March 18, 2014.
ENDPAPERS (INSIDE FRONT AND BACK COVERS): “Rosa Parks, Dr. and Mrs. Abernathy, Dr. Ralpha Bunche, and Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. leading marchers into Montgomery,” 1965, printed in 1970 (Gelatin silver print) by Moneta Sleet Jr.
PAGES 16-17: From left, “Black and White #7,” 1961 (oil on canvas) by Charles Alston and “Untitled (Alabama),” 1967 (oil on canvas) by Norman Lewis.
PAGE: 19: Detail of “Awaken from the Unknowing,” 1061 (charcoal and crayon on paperboard) by Charles White.
PAGES 26-27: From left, “Lawdy Mama,” 1969 (oil and gold leaf on canvas) and “Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people —Bobby Seale),” 1969 (oil, acrylic, and aluminum leaf on linen canvas) both by Barkley L> Hendricks.
PAGES 38-39: At left, from top, “Child in Sky / Victims in River,” 1966 (Gouache and ink on paper) by Nancy Spere and “Archeological Find #21: The Aftermath,” 1961 (destroyed sofa – wood, cotton, wire, vegetable fiber and glue, on wood backing) by Raphael Montanez Ortiz; At right, “Red April,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas) by Sam Gilliam.
PAGES 44-45: From left, “Untitled, Harlem, New York,” 1963 (Gelatin silver print) by Gordon Parks and “Urban Wall Suit,” circa 1969 (dyed and printed silk with paint) by Jae Jarrell.
PAGE 47: Detail of “Afro-American Solidarity with the Oppressed People of the World,” 1969 (offset lithograph on paper) by Emory Douglas.
PAGES 48-49: From left, “The Confederacy: Alabama,” 1965 (oil on canvas) by Robert Indiana and “Black Man and Flag,” 1967 (color etching and collagraph on paper) by Rupert Garcia.
PAGE 51: Detail of “Soldiers and Students,” 1962 (opaque watercolor over graphite on wove paper) by Jacob Lawrence.
PAGES 106-107: From left, “Witness,” 1968 (oil on canvas) by Benny Andrews, the work from which the exhibition takes its title, and “The Door (Admissions Office),” 1969 (wood, acrylic sheet and pigment construction) by David Hammons.