In Untitled (Alabama), bold gestural brushstrokes of stark white paint coalesce into a procession of figures marching across a black color field. Triangular shapes at the right evoke hooded Klansmen. In this play of black and white, Norman Lewis deftly negotiated Abstract Expressionism’s disavowal of overt narrative and political content while also fulfilling his desire to address the Civil Rights Movement.
Stains of hot pink acrylic and splattered globs of red paint—formal strategies associated with Sam Gilliam’s Washington Color School abstraction—gain symbolic resonance when viewed in light of this work’s title, alluding to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination on April 4, 1968. Having witnessed the riots that followed King’s assassination from his studio on U Street in the District of Columbia, Gilliam embarked on a series of works inspired by the civil rights leader.
Moneta Sleet Jr.‘s photographs of the Selma-to-Montgomery March capture not only the movement’s leaders but also the sheer number of ordinary citizens who demonstrated. Braving the wet weather, participants walked uphill (both literally and figuratively) to the state capitol in solidarity for voting rights. Two and a half weeks after the march began, Dr. King and others triumphantly led the crowd into Montgomery. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law four and a half months later.
Barkley Hendrick’s Lawdy Mama embodies the “black is beautiful” mantra by conferring the awe and reverence once accorded Christian altarpieces on the figure of a beautiful woman crowned with a large, halo-like Afro. Inspired by gilded Greek and Russian icons as well as Renaissance altarpieces he encountered during a 1966 trip to Europe, Hendricks applied metallic gold leaf to a shaped canvas, effectively enshrining his subject.
Norman Rockwell left his iconic position as an illustrator at the Saturday Evening Post in 1963 after forty-seven years because the magazine refused to publish his more socially engaged work. This painting was reproduced in a Look magazine article on integration in the suburbs. Rockwell’s decision to use children was deliberate, since they suggest innocence, and the baseball gloves allude to the great American pastime, a heritage shared by the children despite their racial differences.
In the late 1960s, Philip Guston experienced an artistic crisis: “I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”
Abstract Expressionism, his chosen style, no longer seemed adequate to the political and social unrest of the times. Abruptly, the artist began creating nightmarish, cartoonlike figurative work, repeatedly using hooded Klansmen figures to emblemize America’s violent and malevolent side.
In the early 1960s, David Hammons began creating “body prints,” a practice that involved coating his body with an oily substance and printing it onto a support, which was then dusted with dry pigments. Here, the impression of Hammons’s body against the glass door of an admissions office recalls the struggles African Americans faced gaining entrance to public schools throughout the South.
“Speeches, marches, rallies, and demonstrations filled the airwaves, newscasts, and Black artists’ consciousness nationwide. It was a call to all the aesthetically endowed to show up! Bring it: outspoken word, music with infectious cadence, images that look like me and mine, fond titles of ‘Sister’ and ‘Brother,’ and the Black community was utopia.
A group of Chicago artists collaborated to paint the Wall of Respect. Out of that project, painters Jeff Donaldson and Wadsworth Jarrell, along with printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu, partnered with painter Gerald Williams and myself, fashion designer Jae Jarrell, to found COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists). COBRA developed principles: Figures that were Profound, Proud. Black positive statements. Posters. Cool Ade Colors. We chose an identical assignment for our first project, Black Family. The rectangular format of my Ebony Family dress is a dashiki imitating a poster. Velveteen is patchworked to form figures that are further defined with appliquéd velvet ribbon. The piece always got good vibes from our members, no doubt, because my political stance on nurturing the strong loving Black family is real, and personally experienced. We regarded the members as extended family. We met for critiques every couple of weeks, and engaged in ongoing political discussions and news sharing of activists nationally. By 1970 membership grew to ten and COBRA changed its name to AFRICOBRA, signifying African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. I designed several garments during that transition, but one of which I am quite proud is Urban Wall Suit: a Cool Ade multicolored two-piece suit representing a brick wall with appliquéd velvet mortar lines with graffiti, posters, notices, and tagging in acrylic paint. When I wore it on a visit to the Gilchrist department store in Boston, where I had worked from 1957 to 1959, Miss Mackey, my former supervisor, and Ev’, her secretary, were thrilled with my revolutionary Silk Wall of graffitied messages from the ‘hood, and deemed it ‘Really Powerful.’ When our visit was over, I could hear in their voices, and see in their eyes, respect—Real respect…and pride. AFRICOBRA has always been a beacon in my personal and professional life.” —Jae Jarrell, June 2013
Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties
March 7–July 13, 2014
Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties offers a focused look at painting, sculpture, graphics, and photography from a decade defined by social protest and American race relations. In observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this exhibition considers how sixty-six of the decade’s artists, including African Americans and some of their white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and Caribbean contemporaries, used wide-ranging aesthetic approaches to address the struggle for racial justice.
The 1960s was a period of dramatic social and cultural upheaval, when artists aligned themselves with the massive campaign to end discrimination and bridged racial borders through creative work and acts of protest. Bringing activism to bear in gestural and geometric abstraction, assemblage, Minimalism, Pop imagery, and photography, these artists produced powerful works informed by the experience of inequality, conflict, and empowerment. In the process, they tested the political viability of their art, and originated subjects that spoke to resistance, self-definition, and blackness.
Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties is organized by Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Kellie Jones, Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.