By Mark Feeney
HANOVER, N.H. — The first image in “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” is Barkley L. Hendricks’s painting “Lawdy Mama.” As an introduction to the show — a bracing mix of dynamism, ideology, and confrontation — it could hardly be bettered. “Witness” runs through Dec. 14 at the Hood Museum of Art, at Dartmouth College.
An African-American woman with an Angela Davis-worthy afro stands against a gold-leaf background. She could be a Byzantine icon — truly, a figure worthy of worship. Encouraging such a response are the steady gaze with which she meets the viewer’s eye and the scale of the canvas, 4 ½ feet by 3 feet. Calm and cool (in both senses of the word), this woman means business. All right, so the revolution will not be televised. It doesn’t have to be. Here it is.
“Witness” consists of slightly more than a hundred items: paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures, assemblages, collages, even clothing and furniture (the vibrant garments of Jae Jarrell’s “Ebony Family” and “Urban Wall Suit”; the proudly destroyed sofa of Raphael Montanez Ortiz’s “Archaeological Fine #21, The Aftermath”).
There are almost as many styles: Africana, Abstract Expressionism, color field, Pop, Social Realism, even bits of Cubism (two Romare Bearden collages). It’s an exhibition that not only can find room for Yoko Ono and Norman Rockwell, George Tooker and Robert Rauschenberg, it finds a way to make them cohere.
The political turbulence of the ’60s long ago became a commonplace. The cultural turbulence of the decade is too often overlooked. It’s a tribute to the moral force of the civil rights movement, and the gravitational pull of its politics, that so many otherwise-clashing styles could successfully draw on it. Focusing on civil rights in the ’60s, “Witness” also offers a cross-section of art in the ’60s.
The decade’s defining style — its visual Beatles and Motown — was Pop. Several prime practitioners have work in the show. Pop prized surfaces and detachment. That’s not a prescription for engaging with social issues. Andy Warhol’s silk screen “Birmingham Race Riot,” from 1964, bears this out, as does James Rosenquist’s very large “Painting for the American Negro,” executed between 1962 and ’63. At least the Rosenquist feels well intentioned, if also structurally incoherent. Far more successful are Robert Indiana’s painting “The Confederacy: Alabama,” with the name “Selma,” painted in red in the center, looking like a wound; and Jim Dine’s combine “Black Bathroom #2.” Its placement of a real sink, all gleaming white, with a black painted background has the simplicity of a boxer’s jab — and the craftiness of a rabbit punch.
There are totemic figures of the ’60s one would expect to see here (Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, all in photographs by Gordon Parks). There are some one might not (Bob Dylan, playing for a half dozen SNCC workers, in a photograph by Danny Lyon; George Wallace, posing for Richard Avedon).
Such figures are evoked as well as shown. Barbara Chase-Riboud’s “Monument to Malcolm X,” from 1969, is a knockout. Made of wool and bronze, it’s no less imposing for being soft as well as hard. It’s a version of Malcolm’s own journey, from separatism to racial transcendence. Bob Thompson’s 1965 “Homage to Nina Simone” takes painterly inspiration from Poussin and Gauguin. Its vivid colors summon up a sense of liberation rivaling the one heard in the mahogany splendor of Simone’s voice.
Most artists in the show prefer a more direct approach. For all that nuance is an aesthetic virtue, it can be morally disabling. Sometimes this directness can seem reductive or rote. The sincerity behind Ben Shahn’s 1965 portraits of the murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner is unquestioned. So is the echo of ’30s agit-prop.
More often, bluntness is not only called for but highly effective. Joe Overstreet’s painted construction “The New Jemima,” originally from 1964, pulls no punches — and takes no prisoners, right down to the way its physical thrust as an object echoes the cartoony blam of the automatic rifle a certain familiar female figure is firing. Notice that the muzzle blast has set a pile of pancakes flying skyward. Just as serious, though without any humor, is John T. Riddle’s sculpture “Untitled (Fist),” circa 1965, which shows a shovel handle leading to stalky clenched fingers instead of blade. It’s like a Giacometti that’s fought its way into a union hall.
With Philip Guston’s great painting “City Limits” and Edward Kienholz’s assemblage “It Takes Two to Integrate (Cha, Cha, Cha)” art and protest have wandered into places where bluntness becomes nuance, and vice versa. Guston’s large canvas shows a trio of Klansmen taking a drive in a kind of clownmobile. They’re at once sinister and lovable, horrifying and comic. Guston liked to say that the “hoods” as he called those figures, a recurring motif for him throughout the early ’70s, were self-portraits. If there is one consistent limitation to the work in “Witness” it’s an inability, or unwillingness, to embrace the Other — confront, yes; but embrace, no. People get placed in boxes. Sometimes they’re boxes of nobility, sometimes ignobility (those are the boxes for the Other). Either way, they’re still boxes.
The truly unnerving beauty of Kienholz’s work — it’s even more startling than the magnificently outré title — is how he relies on literal placement in boxes. In this case, it’s dolls, but these two seem more human than a lot of people do. One is white, with head and torso covered with black lozenges. One is black, with head and torso covered with white lozenges. They stand in identical poses, hips slightly out thrust and hands cocked, like gunslingers. Sex, violence, race: Here they are, and it’s only 1961. In the context of “Witness,” Guston’s painting, first shown in 1970, can be seen as a summing up; Kienholz’s work qualifies as prophecy.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.