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Inspired rage rumbles through Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, an intensely satisfying show at the Brooklyn Museum. It coats Jack Whitten’s “Birmingham, 1964”, a pitch-covered canvas with a viciously lanced wound that oozes tinfoil like blood. It colours Betye Saar’s “Whitey’s Way”, a diorama of racist horror prettily ensconced in a mirrored box. It courses through photographs of poverty and solemn marchers and lunging police dogs.
But the wonder of the show is to see anger transfigured into purpose. In Saar’s piece, for instance, a black baby crawls away from a leering alligator – and towards a battalion of white ceramic alligators lined up to receive him. It is obscurely funny and obviously fiery, an elegant indictment of homicidal stereotypes.
Witness presents the products of a constructive wrath that spread across schools and styles. In 1968, Philip Guston abandoned his delicate cross-hatchings and floating blobs for crude, urgent renderings of hooded Klansmen. “I was feeling split, schizophrenic; the war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world,” Guston later recalled. “What kind of a man am I, sitting at home, going into a frustrated fury about everything – and then going home to adjust a red to a blue?”
The abstractionist Norman Lewis felt his blood simmer, too. By 1968 he had found that his pure, painterly language no longer suited what he needed to say. “I find that civil rights affects me; so what am I going to paint, what am I going to do? I just hope that I can materialise something out of all this frustration as a black artist in America.” The upshot was “Untitled (Alabama)”, which from afar looks like swirls of black and white brushstrokes confined by looming straight-edged black forms. Actually, Lewis has painted the state of Alabama as it might appear on a flapping map, its shape distorted into a pointed cleaver. Men in hoods emerge from the fluffs of paint.
A quieter fury bubbles up in Norman Rockwell’s 1967 “New Kids in the Neighborhood”, which would be a sentimental suburban street scene except that the boy and girl standing next to the moving truck, clutching fluffy pets and staring at their puzzled new playmates, are black. Even this sort of soft-spoken argument for integration would have been too risqué for The Saturday Evening Post: Rockwell’s editor told him “never to show coloured people except as servants”. So, in 1963, he left the magazine for Look, a more spirited publication that ran the illustration alongside an article called “Negro in the Suburbs”.
Witness pulls off what most themed exhibitions can’t: it consolidates an aesthetic mishmash into a coherent and handsome whole. Marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the show memorialises the full range of artistic activism, from boldly aggressive posters to meditative but fevered paintings. Curators Teresa Carbone and Kellie Jones orchestrate a clangour of styles: pop, hard-edged abstraction, realism, expressionism, documentary photography, collage, assemblage. They field a potentially fractious choir of black artists and white, young and old, militant and aloof, and they find the common tone that joins all those disparate voices.
The harmony is clearest in the first part, which shows artists united in their loathing of Jim Crow. Photographs by Moneta Sleet Jr, Charles Moore and Danny Lyon document the marches in Alabama. Moore’s infamous shot of Birmingham police attacking protesters with dogs spawned a series of other iterations: a Warhol silkscreen, an overwrought gestural oil by Jack Levine, and a virtuosic pop painting by British artist Pauline Boty, whose colourful “Countdown to Violence” commandeers the image for her jigsaw of global tragedy.
Benny Andrews’ “Witness” (1968) is the show’s mournful muse. The woman in the upholstered collage of painted fabric is solid as a piece of furniture, a severe and reticent matron who “shall not be moved”. For Andrews, the choice of medium evoked his family’s frugal habits of recycling and also tapped into the subversive history of collage. “I don’t really fit,” he once said with pride. “And collage is an outsiders’ thing.”
Others wielded assemblage with more explicit aggressiveness. Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge and John T Riddle – all from the riot-ravaged LA neighbourhood of Watts – hammered debris from the ruins, hammering it into totems of awkward beauty. Outterbridge was especially attuned to the metaphorical aura emanating from twisted metal shards and jagged scraps of wood, in which he perceived “the essence of the political climate, the material in the debris of social issues”.
May Stevens turned her political fury inward, on to herself and her family, which she flamboyantly rejected. Her father’s smug patriotism and casual racism so offended her that, in the emotionally brutal “Big Daddy Paper Doll” (1970), Stevens cast him as a cut-out puppet with a phallic head, a fat, flabby dog and a sickening grin. She endowed this paternalistic grotesque with a wardrobe of authoritarian outfits: black executioner’s robes, a butcher’s apron splattered with blood, a decorated military officer’s uniform and a riot-cop’s gear. In each costume, she left a space for the slobbering family pooch.
Three-quarters of the exhibition chronicle a moving unity among artists of vastly different backgrounds; the ending shows how the consensus came undone. The rise of black separatism and African nationalism split activists into factions and made concord seem like surrender. Barbara Jones-Hogu wanted to rouse people to revolution with her “uniquely black” prints and paintings, not a movement that would welcome her white peers. Rather than close the show in bitterness, the curators have tacked on a coda devoted to Martin Luther King’s vision of a “Beloved Community”, a post-racial utopia where everyone would live in peace. But after such full immersion in the rich art of brave conviction, after King’s assassination and the rise of the militant separatism, and after all that vivid rage, this hopeful finale feels like a hollow flourish.
Until July 6, brooklynmuseum.org