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Art and the Movement

Mike Newton Apr 4

"Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties"
Brooklyn Museum
Through July 6, 2014


Philip Guston — the famed American painter — is best known for his big, pink canvases of sloppy, truncated bodies. What’s less known is that by the time he started on this kind of work, he’d already been painting for nearly 40 years, having achieved considerable success with strictly abstract, non-representational images. Speaking about the 1960s, Guston said, “I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world.” It was in the late ’60s that Guston created an infamous suite of paintings showing cartoonish, hooded Klansmen going about their lives against a bruised, bombed-out American landscape. It was news of the civil rights struggle that caused Guston to turn away from abstraction and toward the style that would ultimately define his career.

The Brooklyn Museum’s “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” includes Guston’s 1969 City Limits (with three Klansmen riding in a jalopy). “Witness” is the latest of the museum’s socially conscious survey exhibitions, but compared with other recent shows (on subjects like wartime photography and LGBTQ history), it takes more of a sidelong, elliptical view of its era. The exhibition is about the civil rights movement through the eyes of artists: It’s history not as it was made so much as how it was felt.

Near City Limits is another large, cartoon-y canvas: May Stevens’ Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970), in which the artist’s own racist dad is imagined as the pale, fleshy embodiment of America at its reactionary worst. Stevens’ naked father is portrayed, paper doll-style, alongside some appropriate outfits (a policeman’s uniform, a butcher’s bloody smock); the work is bitter but tender, animated by rage but not by hate. 

Elsewhere, Bob Thompson’s vibrant Homage to Nina Simone (1965) finds the legendary musician and civil rights activist presiding over a psychedelic idyll: a picnic for people of all colors (including cherry red, electric blue and lemon yellow). It’s a piece that dares to imagine a utopia after all the struggle. Faith Ringgold’s Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969) starts with a simple American flag design, but there are breaks and disturbances, with the word “DIE” peeking out from behind the stars. Ringgold’s painting was in response to the U.S. flag that had recently been planted on the moon’s surface: a symbol of how the government was ignoring its own (Black) people.

To create his Lawdy Mama (1969) Barkley L. Hendricks used centuries-old European techniques to depict a stoic, beautiful Black woman: The work is classically pleasing while presenting a mix of elements that, even 45 years on, still feels contextually risky. Other exhibition highlights include Romare Bearden’s all-encompassing mid-1960s collages, Sam Gilliam’s luminous painted homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. (Red April, 1970), and Charles W. White’s expertly rendered social-realist drawings. 

One can imagine that in the late 1960s, it would have been hard for U.S. artists not to respond to the civil rights movement. With the daily news conveyed in such stark terms — a ceaseless, wrenching refrain of “white” and “black” — it’s only logical that this graphic turmoil would find its way into works of art. One of my favorite paintings in the show is Virginia Jaramillo’s Divide (1964): just a smoky, crackling, white form against a black background, it conveys a mournful, elemental conflict in a charred and barren place. Jaramillo made the painting as a young mother of a mixed-race family, living in the impoverished L.A. neighborhood of Watts (the 1965 Watts riots convinced her that there was no future for her family in America, so they left). Leon Polk Smith’s abstract Black Anthem (1960) shows a pedestal-like black mass, playfully but assuredly overtaking two errant white blobs. At face value, the piece has nothing to do with civil rights; looked at in context, there’s no way it could possibly be about anything else.

While seeing how the 1960s civil rights movement served as a vital, life-changing rallying point for all manner of artists and thinkers, it’s strange to think that these people were operating against pervasive, accepted social forces, and stranger still to realize that many of those forces are still the order of the day. In 2014, not only have problems of wealth disparity, mass incarceration and systemic violence not gone away, they still play out largely along racial lines, too. Despite what the Constitution says, equal rights for all Americans are still not — and have never been — a given. In that context, the basic political inefficacy and (often literal) abstraction of art-making can feel frustrating. But exhibitions like this help show the value of art as history: More than anything (or at least anything I can think of), art shows us what history felt like. Looking isn’t everything, but it’s better to look than not to look. There’s a huge difference between witnessing and averting one’s eyes. It’s like black and white.