This moving and inquisitive exhibition, coorganized by Brooklyn Museum curator Teresa A. Carbone and art historian Kellie Jones as part of the museum’s “Activism Season” (which runs through Aug. 24), takes the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as an occasion to reflect on a tempestuous decade in American history. Featuring works from the era by 66 artists, the show is titled after a Benny Andrews painting (Witness, 1968) of a brown-skinned woman staring into the distance with a knowing gaze. The curators emphasize the act of looking (a detail of the woman’s eyes adorns the exhibition catalogue); however, more than just image-based modes of witnessing are on offer. Music from the 1960s plays continuously overhead, and the voices of artists and other cultural figures are present in wall texts interspersed throughout the galleries.
“Which Side Are You On?”—a union song popularized by the late Pete Seeger—is among several anthems contributing to the confrontational tone with which the show opens. On one wall hangs a 1963 photograph of George Wallace by Richard Avedon, who captures Alabama’s segregationist former governor glowering pompously. On another is a photograph by Moneta Sleet Jr., showing Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and others marching on Montgomery. At the center of the space is David Hammons’s sculpture The Door (Admissions Office), 1969, an admissions-office door featuring imprints from a black-pigment-coated body pressed against the window. Created in the first decades of desegregation, the work makes for a relevant commentary on today’s educational system, which continues to leave disproportionate numbers of black children behind.
Elsewhere, lines are less starkly drawn. A painting by Norman Rockwell titled New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs), 1967, visualizes an encounter between white suburban kids and the children of a newly arrived black family. A pair of baseball mitts—one held by a black child, the other by a white one—suggests a common denominator. Edward Kienholz’s sculptural assemblage It Takes Two to Integrate (Cha Cha Cha), 1961, offers a vision of miscegenation. The work features side-by-side baby dolls whose respective black and white coloring has begun to intermingle.
As the show progresses, the central confrontation that emerges is less between black and white than between political art and the absent narrative of a hermetic modernism. Philip Guston, who left behind Abstract Expressionism for imagery like that in City Limits (1969)—which shows a trio of KKK-style hooded men in a car—emblematizes the irruption of social content within establishment art. Displayed near Guston’s work are Norman W. Lewis’s Double Cross (1971) and Sam Gilliam’s Red April (1970), two ostensibly abstract paintings whose titles and surfaces challenge the neutrality of seemingly nonreferential forms. The Warholian indifference characteristic of much Pop art is similarly subjected to subversion, with Joe Overstreet transforming Aunt Jemima into a machine-gun-wielding militant, Robert Indiana dubbing Alabama the “hind part” of the USA in a text-based painting and Faith Ringgold weaving a racial threat into an image of the American flag.
A section called “Sisterhood” contains works by female artists such as Emma Amos and Yoko Ono as well as painter Bob Thompson’s Homage to Nina Simone (1965), a Fauve-like riff on Poussin. The soul singer also appears in an adjoining screening room, where a rousing film shows her performing her politically charged “Mississippi Goddam.”
Other affecting works in the exhibition include an Allan D’Arcangelo assemblage about the John F. Kennedy assassination, a piece by Betye Saar that lays bare the perversity of racist tchotchkes and a painting by May Stevens in which her racist father is stripped of both clothing and paternal authority. Barkley L. Hendricks’s Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people—Bobby Seale), 1969, depicts Black Panther cofounder Bobby Seale against a metallic silver background, referencing Eastern Orthodox icon painting. The work calls to mind the paintings of contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley (one of which is displayed in the museum’s lobby), although the latter seem derivative and complacent by comparison.
Regrettably, the exhibition does not adequately explore the theme of economic inequality—a focus not only of the Panthers but also of King and many of his contemporaries. The same would appear to hold true for the Brooklyn Museum’s ongoing “Activism Season” as a whole, which has highlighted liberal causes while skirting the source of the nation’s most significant protests today.