Art From a Turbulent Era

Thursday, October 02, 2014
E very generation has its burden to bear: the Depression, World War II, Sept. 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there are the 1960s, which began with a burst of optimism and idealism with the election of John F. Kennedy and stumbled, exhausted and uncertain, toward the shootings at Kent State in 1970. In between was a national reckoning, a revolution, for which no adjective seems too hyperbolic.

The timeline for 1963 alone beggars the imagination. Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Ala., turns water hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters in May; civil rights activist Medgar Evers is murdered in Mississippi by Klansman Byron De La Beckwith in June; Martin Luther King leads the March on Washington in August; the bombing by Klansmen of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham kills four girls in September; Kennedy is assassinated in November, and Lyndon Johnson assumes the presidency.

In June 1964 the Freedom Riders descend on Mississippi to register African-Americans previously denied the vote; three Freedom Riders are murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. One month later Johnson signs into law the monumental Civil Rights Act.

“Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” an essential exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, testifies both to the upheaval of the era, and its artistic vitality. To see how artists responded to the weight of events delivers a jolt, regardless of whether you lived through the era.

The traveling exhibition, organized by the Brooklyn Museum and seen there this spring, is at the Hood through Dec. 14, and continues to the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas, Austin in February 2015. There are 100 works by 66 artists in a variety of media, using a variety of materials: painting, sculpture, photography, collage, textiles, metal, a couch and a sink. The artists range from the well-known (Philip Guston, Faith Ringgold, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell and Jim Dine, and photographers Bruce Davidson, Gordon Parks and Charles Moore) to the perhaps lesser-known but equally accomplished (May Stevens, Betye Saar, Benny Andrews, photographers Ernest C. Withers, Danny Lyon and James Karolas, sculptor John T. Riddle.)

“The quality of art work is exceptional,” said Juliette M. Bianco, deputy director of the Hood and a Dartmouth graduate, in an interview this week in the museum galleries. What’s key to understanding the show, she said, is “the way the works of art speak to each other and how they’re reflective of what was happening.”

So the exhibition at the Hood opens with the 1969 oil painting Lawdy Mama by Barkley L. Hendricks, a recasting of Byzantne religious icons with a portrait of a young, resolute African-American woman, against a backdrop of burnished gold leaf, who wears her hair in a halo-like Afro and stares calmly out at the viewer, one arm crossed over the other.

On a diagonal across from Lawdy Mama is Witness , a 1968 oil painting by the late Benny Andrews, a Georgia artist who incorporated fabric and collage into his study of a woman standing in front of a window. Her face functions as a kind of Rohrshach test for the Civil Rights protests of the 60s: on it you can see stoicism, resignation, fatigue and determination. She may be anonymous, unlike Gordon Parks’ photos of Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X, but she represents the backbone of the movement: the kind of person who said, finally, “Enough.”

Because the arrangement of galleries at the Brooklyn Museum is so different from that of the Hood, and no works were eliminated for reasons of space, Bianco had to reimagine the exhibition’s installation. “It’s one of the most difficult layouts I’ve ever done, to try to think about how to make those connections work.”

Bianco added to the exhibition contextual statements from people involved in the Civil Rights movment that are positioned next to some of the works in the show. And because the Hood is a teaching museum, students were asked in focus groups this past winter what they knew about the Civil Rights movement and what they wanted to learn from “Witness.”

Some, Bianco said, didn’t know what the acronym SNCC (pronounced “snick”) stood for (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee); not everybody had heard of the Freedom Riders; and others were curious about Martin Luther King’s visit to Dartmouth in 1962, when he gave a lecture on “Towards Freedom.” An audio guide was designed specifically for students to acquaint them with the history.

What you can’t shake off after seeing the show is the urgency with which artists threw themselves into protest and activism in the cause of civil rights. Nothing less than the soul of the nation was at risk.

When the Beatles sang about revolution in 1968, they were alluding to political and civil turmoil but they could just as easily have been writing about the crowded intersection of politics, art and music. The works in the show reflect the tragedies of the period, yes, but they’re also exhilarating, fueled by rage and sorrow harnessed to exceptional artistic expression.

What a charge it is to see the massive, foreboding Red April by Washington, D.C. artist Sam Gilliam that, at first glance, looks like a nod to Abstract Expressionism with spatters of red, blue and yellow against a white backdrop. On closer examination the canvas looks more like a crumpled sheet whose pristine white has been violated by streaks of blood, and the title is then understood to refer to King’s assassination in Memphis in April 1968, and the outpouring of grief and outrage that erupted afterward.

On another wall, just beyond the Gilliam, are three screenprints of three young men, arranged vertically. Young unremarkable faces until you see their names: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three young men murdered by the Klan in Nashoba County, Mississippi in 1964 because they had the audacity to help black citizens register to vote.

The artist is none other than Ben Shahn, the Social Realist painter from the 1930s who’d worked out a series of variations on the theme of The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti , the two Italian immigrant anarchists controversially put on trial for the murder in 1920 of a Boston area bank guard, and executed in 1927. So Shahn draws a line from the Red Scares of the 1920s to the 1960s with these drawings of the slain Freedom Riders as martyrs to a movement.

You have to take your time, or go back more than once to get at the breadth of work here. I was struck, in no particular order, by John T. Riddle Jr.’s Shovel , an ordinary shovel that Riddle found in the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, and which he altered so that the handle becomes a fist, clenched in the Black Power Salute. But the fist and shovel could as easily refer to the labor of rebuilding Watts after the destruction.

Also: May Steven’s painting Honor Roll , in which thick gray and white paint is etched with the names of, among others, James Meredith, the first African-American to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962; Dewey Greene, a Freedom Rider murdered in 1963; and Harvey Gantt, the first African-American admitted to Clemson University in South Carolina, who later became the first black mayor of Charlotte, N.C.

Faith Ringgold’s Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger Black Light #10 , is a 1969 painting that deconstructs — indeed, tears apart — the American flag, completely eliminating the color white from the familiar stars and stripes. While the U.S. was celebrating the moon landing in the summer of 1969, Ringgold makes her point that the money spent on the mission could have been better spent on alleviating the social conditions that led to the wave of national protest. What makes it so effective, like many pieces in the show, is that it works both as polemic and as art: there’s a brutal elegance in the way Ringgold remakes the flag, replacing the white stripes with gray ones, and breaking apart the red stripes. What does the flag stand for?

Charles Moore’s searing photographs of the civil disobedience in 1963 Birmingham, during which Bull Connor set loose police dogs and aimed water cannons at non-violent protesters, are deservedly famous. But just as memorable is a photograph titled Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 by then- Look magazine photographer James Karales.

Against a backdrop of what look like boiling thunder clouds, a long line of marchers stretches from left to right on the horizon. Karales, the caption informs us, got down into a ditch to point his camera up at the marchers so that they seem foregrounded against the lowering sky.

The effect is nothing less than an evocation of the first verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic : “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the Grapes of Wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.”

The predictable irony, said Bianco, is that during the 1960s very few of these works were recognized or exhibited for the impassioned testimonies they were, and since then, seldom have they been exhibited together. Like the overall trajectory of civil rights in the U.S., the role of the art establishment in promulgating all artists equally seems to be a case of one step forward, two steps back.

“Witness” reminds us just how much is still at stake.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.