The black liberation movement is again a developing force on the ground. This arising follows police murders of Eric Garner in New York City in July, 2014 and of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri a month later — and grand juries’ refusal to indict those officers. This unexpected rupture, under the name of Black Lives Matter, ends an interregnum of over 35 years, as the US movement’s last major political sequence arguably terminated in the 1970s.
“Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” was organized by the Brooklyn Museum in New York City and is currently at the Blanton Museum of Art, at the University of Texas in Austin. Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn, and Kellie Jones, Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, curated.
The show debuted at the Brooklyn in March, 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and so was conceptualized and organized well prior to Black Lives Matter. Even in the new situation, visitors should be attentive to questions originally posed by “Witness.” This can be challenging.
On view are approximately 100 artworks: documentary photos; painting; prints; sculpture; and, less intensely presented, cultural agitprop and activist graphics. More than 60-plus artists have been selected: black, white, and Latino; some more known and some less. A wide range of politics is instantiated in these objects — and critical responses to them.
Given this heterogeneity, I will address only a small constellation of works and the issues they raise.
Photographs play an essential role in Austin. Many are canonical images, having appeared in the era’s mass media and subsequent historiography. To this are counterposed less-appreciated artistic approaches.
One surprising approach in Austin is painterly abstraction, consistently exiled by canonical understandings of that period and anathematized by the left throughout the twentieth century. The overall attitude, which will still be familiar to readers, can be summarized by W.E.B. DuBois from the 1920s:
[A]ll Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.
Romare Bearden, who was a member of the Spiral black arts collective and had turned away from abstraction and towards “realist” collage, was skeptical in 1967: “Maybe protest could be done better by the camera … and reach more people and have more force than artists painting and drawing today” (Carbone 88).
A distinction here is implied between, on the one hand, realist idioms which are obviously necessary for agitprop in any political sequence; and, on the other hand, abstract idioms, which appear less necessary.
Attempted dialogues between abstraction and politics raise the specter of modernist diktats that painting be reduced to an object, self-consciously and self-reflexively interrogating the medium’s material specificity. That specificity encompasses, for example, canvas surface, edge, and flatness; the frame; and the work’s vertical orientation in composition and display. These diktats strove to exclude imagism and pictorial depth from painting, reduced to those properties strictly inherent to the object itself and not structured or overdetermined by external factors. This eliminated gestures towards the real-world referent, politics’ substance. Such modernist thought has been associated Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, and like-minded critics.
Formed in 1963 to travel to that year’s March on Washington, Spiral eventually included Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, Emma Amos, Norman Lewis, and Merton Simpson. With the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, they also organized against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s notorious “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition in 1969.
Spiral investigated, contentiously, how abstraction could become politically engaged. That is much too obscure in Alston’s Black and White #7 (1961), which does not escape its status as, per Jones, a “sublime riposte to the physical and often bloody struggle for social change” (17).
Better expressing that “physicality” is Lewis’ Untitled (Alabama) (1967). A large, hard-edged quadrilateral signals the foreground; a smaller one, the background. The bottom diagonals project towards, and the large quadrilateral fully intersects with, the canvas’ lower edge – and thus the spectator. This dramatic, spatial illusion is heightened by the diverse mass of upright figures revealed within those shapes and expressionistically rendered in black and white. The imaginary line created winds from the background, to the canvas’ left, and to the foreground: a figural line of march, moving forward, and engaging the real-world viewer.
One formal strategy of African-American artists then was use of the color black — which has very different meanings in different contexts. Spiral’s lone group show, in 1965, was loosely restricted to black and white palettes. Untitled (Alabama) utilizes that in two ways. First, those figures in motion reference an integrated black civil rights struggle. Lewis stated unambiguously of his oeuvre: “’It was just white and black people who feel togetherness so that you can’t tell who is white and who is black’” (Fine 192). Second, dull, matte black areas outside those figures in motion can be understood as indeterminate or empty space, pierced or lighted solely by that line of march. The political struggle is allegorized as the central subject here.
Similarly reduced to mostly red, black, and white is Philip Guston’s City Limits (1969) and his other late-1960s imagistic works. The heinous color scheme resembles blood and effluvium scraped from a slaughterhouse floor and suggests the racist and imperialist violence of the US state – connotations quite different than those of Alston or Lewis.
Every fold, crease, and bubble of the aluminum foil in Jack Whitten’s Birmingham 1964 (1964) pushes against an overlay of matte-black oil. At the center-right is a hole, rupturing the foil outwards from the imaginary pictorial space. Revealed is a newsprint photograph of police violence against black civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, one that had appeared in news sources around the country and was taken by Bill Hudson.
Such mass media images have long been hotly contested, in both political movements and the artworld. A detour into commentary around Andy Warhol will be illustrative.
Part of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series is the silkscreen Birmingham Race Riot (1964), based on the same event depicted in the Whitten combine. That event, despite Warhol’s absurd title, was not a “riot.” Additionally, “disaster” conventionally means a random accident or act of nature, which does not remotely describe police assaults or black civil rights protests. The latter are essentially political, economic, and social. For that matter, so are most other incidents featured in the Death and Disaster works: food poisonings (Tunafish Disaster), traffic collisions (Orange Car Crash 14 Times), suicides (Bellevue I), and executions (Big Electric Chair).
Published mere weeks before the silkscreen was created, the source is an influential photograph taken by Charles Moore for Life magazine. A print, Police using dogs to attack civil rights demonstrators, Birmingham, Alabama (1963), is at the Blanton.
On the far right is empty, foreground pavement and, in the medium-distance, a cop and dog astride white street markers. This was cropped out by Life. In the foreground, at the center-right, is a second cop with a dog; and, at the left, another span of empty pavement. There is a strong sense of depth. In the medium-distance, a demonstrator is facing off against a third dog, rearing back with fangs bared; a fourth tears at his trousers. In the far distance are more demonstrators, “observing.” The front-most German Shepherd glares menacingly at the camera, his pointy nose and taut restraining leash creating a steep line that draws, into the depths of the depicted space, any imaginary “observer.”
With Warhol, the image is reversed and enlarged: Moore’s print is approximately eight-by-twelve inches in size, while the silkscreen is more than double that. Moreover, editing enhances the enlargement effect and lowers the resolution. The bottom has been cropped, removing the foreground dog and empty space. So has the original’s left side, removing a third cop’s right foot and the snarling dog’s leash. Warhol maintains the right side’s cropping from Life and further trims that. The grainy image is higher-contrast, with abstract, uninflected fields of black ink defining, for instance, the background treetops.
All of this drastically flattens out the image. Without Moore’s foreground dog, there is no sinister gaze and no path traced into the depths of the pictorial space: along the restraining leash; to the cop; to the now-centered demonstrator; and into the mass of demonstrators in the far distance. The spectator position here is passive and in no imminent danger of being drawn into the scene. Moreover, any observer is visually and metaphorically debarred by the cop’s baton, an abstracted, hard-edged block of black and white on the picture plane’s “surface.”
Here is Time magazine critic Robert Hughes on Warhol:
[H]is paintings, roughly silkscreened, full of slips, mimicked the dissociation of gaze and empathy induced by the mass media: the banal punch of tabloid newsprint, the visual jabber and bright sleazy color of TV, the sense of glut and anesthesia caused by both. (52)
That Moore hardly disassociates “gaze and empathy,” but brings the two terms in close proximity, should be clear by now. Warhol decouples the two. The myriad transformations of the source for Birmingham Race Riot are hardly “mimicry.”
Using critic Hal Foster’s formulation, from his important revisionist interpretation of Warhol, Hughes’ reading is “simulacral.” “Glut” refers to the profusion of mass media imagery, seemingly endless in the age of television and film — and more so today, with internet-access and cameras available on smart phones, tablets, dashboard cams, GoPros, et al. “Anesthesia” signifies the familiar idea that this “glut” leads to evacuation of meaning or deadening of affect.
Finally, returning to Whitten: The hole in Birmingham 1964 resembles, is a metaphor for, a wound. The artist has described it as such, a visceral response to the violence of the times — and to brutality he endured, at the hands of arch-segregationists and as an organizer of black civil rights campaigns in 1959 at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This trauma led him to abandon pacifist strategies of civil disobedience, and the movement altogether: “I believed in Dr. King’s philosophies; but in reality I found out that I didn’t have it in me to continue … to turn the other cheek.”
The aluminum tear’s unpainted, reflective edges jut into the gallery space, and light scatters across them, piercing the viewer. In Moore, observers are drawn into the scene. In Warhol, observers are blocked from the scene. In Whitten, the scene, as it were, comes to you.
Pace Hughes, this implies less an “empathy,” in the spectatorial position; and more a moral demand, in the position of the subject: meaning both subject of the artwork and, here, a political subject.
Further — although I cannot detail the enormous representational questions that have arisen around, particularly, Black Lives Matter and this century’s antiwar movements — persistent anxieties regarding mass media images remain, I think, legitimate. However, in this case, those anxieties are displaced. Whitten appropriates a singular photograph, Hudson’s; no multiple is manifested. Meaning is not evacuated or neutralized; the image is traumatic. Pointedly, all of this is accomplished by moving beyond the image and towards other forms and mediums – painting and combines. The last element which makes this a wound is, of course, the really-existing, on-the-ground struggle.
The uninflected, gold-leaf base of Barkley L. Hendrick’s Lawdy Mama (1969) eliminates any illusionistic depth into which viewers could “enter” or become “absorbed.” Instead, as with Whitten, gallery light is powerfully reflected off this surface and back into the physical space of, piercing, the viewer. The immersive light leaves relatively indiscernible many details of the centered figure, such as her hairdo’s brushy facture, or her dark-colored dress’ red striping.
The flat expanse of gold is an instance of minimalism, evident elsewhere in Hendrick's work. It simultaneously evokes Byzantine icons. Negative contrast caused by the bright light renders the black woman’s giant Afro almost in silhouette; that outline is homologous to the halo required, by the “eastern” church, on holy figures.
The purpose of icons was not simply “representational,” but transformational. As Marie-José Mondzain puts it:
The flesh transfigured by the icon transfigures the gaze turned upon it. The icon acts; it is an effective instrument and not the object of a passive fascination. (90)
Black Power and “black is beautiful” movements made Afros and natural hairstyles one demand. Not merely a representation of black communities’ state of the situation, this was a call, one which ultimately revolutionized the self-consciousness and culture of black people. The conventions of Byzantine icons in Lawdy Mama signal this eminently political process then underway.
US astronauts first visited the moon in 1969 and planted an American flag on the surface. Faith Ringgold’s caustic response to this famed image was Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969).
The word “Die” is orientated right-side-up, as text in a book; superimposed, in a darker shade, over the grey stars; and, because of the color scheme, readable only in close-up. Conversely, the second word’s elongated, grey letters are rotated leftwards ninety degrees; indiscernible in close-up, where they look like “stripes” with slightly askew geometry; and readable only from a distance.
The Aunt Jemima brand had been founded in the late-nineteenth century and was based on the demeaning and racist “black mammy” archetype. Joe Overstreet’s gleeful, berserk The New Jemima (1964) appropriates and completely recodes this cultural trope, widely criticized by black commentators during the 1960s. It has a very different vibe from other artworks — by Betye Saar, for example — based on the character.
The three-dimensional painting is eight-and-a-half feet tall and suggests an enormous box of pancake mix. However, the proportions don’t exactly match, as the plywood construction on which the canvas is mounted is not deep enough; and the front image winds around both sides, unlike most packaged consumer goods. Further, the painting style is akin to that of large-scale, billboard illustration, prominent then among Pop artists such as James Rosenquist. Rendered in flat whorls of brown, pancakes — and a strange, decorative, glass bottle — have been upended and tumble through outer space. Aunt Jemima towers over the globe, her machine-gun blazing.
Ringgold’s flag — when imagined being beamed from the moon to the entire planet, akin to Apollo 11’s bit of expansionist, political theater — references white supremacy’s systemic character and its key role in imperialist aggression. Conversely, Overstreet’s combine gestures at a very different internationalism, one that inspired black militants at “home” and was based on decolonization struggles and wars of national liberation then raging in Vietnam and throughout the third world.
Given the formal, material properties of this Overstreet, typical of multiple genres and mediums, visitors can imagine the new Jemima bringing this war “home,” so to speak, and out of the newspapers, magazines, and photojournalism closely related to other art in “Witness.” This war would interrupt the bounty of consumer items on grocery store shelves; the privatized domesticity of a breakfast nook; and the scenic drive along then-new interstate highways.
Red April (1970) is emblematic of Sam Gilliam’s practice during the period. His aleatory technique was to pour thinned paints onto a raw, unstretched canvas, which was then folded or crumpled in various configurations and allowed to dry in a pile on his studio floor. Only when unfurled was the canvas attached to a stretcher — and thus edited along the edges.
Color fields bleed into, or layer over, one another and saturate the canvas texture in Red April. Wherever folds or creases had been present are marked by vertical or steep-angled lines, straddled by Rorschach patterns. The latter symmetry is attenuated: areas on which paint was directly poured are soaked and richer in color; the opposite side, less so. Stains are predominantly warm and projective: pinks, oranges, and yellows. Cooler olive-greens, and horizontal streaks of blue, recede into the background. Atop the canvas weave are mottled spatterings of blood red.
From a frontal standpoint in museum settings, conventional stretcher sides are perpendicular to the picture plane and thus out of sight. This accentuates an optical separation of that plane from the physical object-work itself and from the gallery wall on which it is mounted. With Red April, though, sides are chamfered, angling towards the viewer; the painting continues, winding around those “sides.” This accentuates its reality as a physical object-work and its integration with the gallery wall — the real-world space out of which it “grows.”
The stains are indexes, physical traces, of the folding process in the painting’s creation. From a considerable distance, greater than that necessary to grasp this massive work in a glance, they also figuratively resemble drape or curtain folds and so are also a representation. By decade’s end, Gilliam would move away from this signifier and towards a literal draping, with final canvases hanging from the ceiling in three-dimensional volumes and distant from the walls.
Two years prior, Gilliam had watched from his studio windows the immense, black-community rebellion which shook Washington, D.C. following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Alluding to that are the painting’s title and thick, gestural reds, in the style of abstract expressionism. He is playing with a number of conceptions: first, of the flat surfaces on which images appear, including a television screen, newsprint, a glossy journal page, or a window — here hidden by a curtain; second, of these mediums’ material foundations; and third, of their relation to the real as explosively revealed in the era’s evental moments — MLK’s murder and the national rebellions.
A powerful memorialization from the vantage point of 2015, Red April also engages the troublesome set of questions around representation. Overstreet and Whitten do so, as well.
Hughes and the Warhol debates indicated some of the concerns that swirl around mass media images: proliferation; a destruction of affect; and a collapse of meaning into equivalence. Limitations of medium and site, and varying audience receptions of such “realism,” are part of that, too. These concerns, to say the least, remain relevant both to art and politics — and to new conditions in the wake of the Garner and Brown cases. Abstraction may seem rather peripheral to these conditions but, given the known problems of the image, should not be cavalierly dismissed.
I have proposed elsewhere, in terms of a different movement, that abstraction can indeed reference the outside world. Moreover, that is sometimes required for things that cannot be, for political reasons, visualized in a realist idiom. This is not a simply a humanist valorization of creativity or a general argument for encouraging diversity and heterogeneity in artistic forms. Rather, this is closer to classical left injunctions that art serve as interventions in a specific political situation or strategic conjuncture — or as vehicles for agitation and propaganda. Whether or not such matters arise in terms of the new black liberation sequence, in its early stages, is still to be determined.
This new historical trajectory may surprise us and overturn very old assumptions about art and politics.
“Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” is on view until May 10, at the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin.
- Carbone, Teresa A. “Exhibit A: Evidence and the Art Object.” Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties. Eds. Teresa A. Carbone and Kellie Jones. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum; New York City: The Monacelli Press, 2014. 80-107. Print.
- Du Bois, W.E.B. “Criteria of Negro Art.” The Crisis, Oct. 1926: 290-297. WEBDuBois.org. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.
- Foster, Hal. The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 1996. Print.
- Fine, Ruth. “Abstraction and Identity: Norman Lewis and the ‘Activity of Discovery’.” The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume V: The Twentieth Century, Part 2: The Rise of Black Artists. Eds. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Karen C.C. Dalton. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. 179-196. Print.
- Hughes, Robert. “The Rise of Andy Warhol.” 1982. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Wallis. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art; Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, Inc., 1984. 44-57. Print.
- Jones, Kellie. “Civil / Rights / Act.” Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties. Eds. Teresa A. Carbone and Kellie Jones. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum; New York City: The Monacelli Press, 2014. 10-55. Print.
- Mondzain, Marie-José. Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary. Trans. Rico Franses. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005. Print.
- Whitten, Jack. “In Conversation: Jack Whitten with Robert Storr.” Interview by Robert Storr for The Brooklyn Rail, September, 2007. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.