Exhibit spotlights artistic response to the civil rights movement

Until he arrived at Cooper Union’s art school in New York in 1960, artist Jack Whitten had never been to a public library that wasn’t segregated.

Born in Alabama in 1939, the son of a seamstress and a coal miner, Whitten, who is black, had been allowed only into libraries designated for African Americans — libraries whose collections were at best meager.

“My whole sensibility is informed by growing up in the South,” Whitten told several hundred people Sunday at the Blanton Museum of Art, making an appearance in conjunction with a new traveling exhibit “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.”

“I grew up in 100 percent total American apartheid,” Whitten said. “Everything was separate. And the notion of ‘equal’ was a cruel joke.”

Landing in New York at the age of 21, already having studied at Alabama’s historically black college Tuskegee Institute, Whitten experienced integration for the first time.

“I had never sat next to a white student in class before; never had a white instructor,” he recalled. “And I read every art book in that library that I could get my hands on.”

And though he became embedded in New York’s percolating art scene — which at the time was a swirl of radical aesthetic movements from abstract expressionism to pop art — like other artists represented in “Witness,” Whitten felt the urgency of the civil rights events in the South he had left.

“I had to do something. Everybody had to do something,” Whitten said. “The most difficult decision to make was to stay in the studio and say ‘this is what I can contribute — the thing I can do is through painting.’”

“Witness” comes courtesy of New York’s Brooklyn Museum of Art, where it debuted last year pegged to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

And perhaps the exhibit’s most illuminating feature is that not all the artists are black.

Many of the 66 artists in “Witness” are African-American, but others are white, Latino, Asian-American, Native American and Caribbean.

As Whitten pointed out in his talk, many an artist in the 1960s and 1970s with a conscience felt compelled to respond creatively to the social and political upheaval of the times.

Some are quite well-known: Jacob Lawrence, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, David Hammonds, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringold, Philip Guston, Robert Indiana, Gordon Parks.

A few artists included in “Witness” surprise. So do the juxtapositions of how the art is arranged.

Opening the Blanton’s display of “Witness” is “New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs),” a 1967 painting by Norman Rockwell, whose broadly popular and sentimental scenes of Americana are rarely considered through any political lens. And it shares a gallery wall with a 1963 black-and-white portrait of Alabama governor and segregationist George Wallace by photographer Richard Avedon.

Plenty of what’s in “Witness” was created in response to particular events. Like Whitten said, many an artist felt they “had to do something.”

Whitten’s “Birmingham 1964” is a small, forceful painting. Thick layers of black paint surround a fist-sized puncture inside of which, barely visible, is a newspaper photograph of the 1964 race riots in the Alabama city.

Granted a side gallery of its own is a 1965 video of Nina Simone performing “Mississippi Goddam,” her sardonic yet forceful song penned as a protest to the murder of African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evars in Mississippi.

An undulating pale curtain violently spattered with blood-red paint, Sam Gilliam’s moving “Red April” refers to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Other pieces reflect seismic shifts in cultural views and values.

Barkley Hendrick’s “Lawdy Mama” celebrates the new black female beauty that emerged in the 1960s, rendering a woman a large, halo-like Afro on a shrine-like shaped canvas covered in gold leaf.

And taking its cue from graffiti and activist street art, Jae Jarrell’s “Urban Wall Suit” from 1969 — a wearable woman’s suit made of a patchwork of paint and appliqué — rather brilliantly anticipates the confluence of art and fashion today.

Scattered throughout the exhibit, black-and-white photographs of Martin Luther King Jr., Eldridge Cleaver, Macolm X and other leaders give the exhibit moments of topical balance between the rush of many metaphoric interpretations.

Expressive, sometimes contradictory, brimming with a swirl of strong sentiments,”Witness” resonates with an urgency that’s unmistakable, even though most everything included is decades old.

But that’s the intention of an exhibit like “Witness.” It’s a reminder that for whatever progress the civil rights movement accomplished, much change is yet to come.

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