Race and Social Justice in Art

CHAPTER 5: Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties
Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties
February 15 –May 10, 2015

In the spring of 2015 the Blanton presented Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, an exhibition of approximately 100 works by 66 artists that explored how painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, and photography not only responded to the political and social turmoil of the era, but also helped influence its direction. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition highlighted the wide-ranging aesthetic approaches used to address the struggle for civil rights. The diverse group of artists in the exhibition included, among others, Barkley Hendricks, Charles White, Andy Warhol, May Stevens, Philip Guston, Betye Saar, David Hammons, Jack Whitten, Danny Lyon, Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold.

During the dramatic and often violent social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s, many artists aligned themselves with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement to address the issues of the time in their art and, often, to participate in acts of protest. From this crucible emerged powerful works that were dramatically wide-ranging in aesthetic approach, encompassing abstraction, assemblage, figural work, Minimalism, Pop art, and photography. Creating works informed by the experience of inequality, conflict, and empowerment, artists tested the political viability of their styles through art that addressed resistance, self-definition, and blackness.

Among the works on view was Jack Whitten’s Birmingham, 1964, which was created in reaction to the famous race riots in that city and uses layers of black paint, crushed aluminum foil, and sheer stocking mesh to reveal and obscure a newspaper photograph of the confrontations between protesters and police in Birmingham. We were fortunate to host Jack Whitten at the Blanton on February 22, 2015 for a conversation with Dr. Kellie Jones, one of the exhibition curators. Listen to audio excerpts of the talk in the links below.

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and made possible by the Ford Foundation.

Generous funding for this exhibition at the Blanton is provided by Jeanne and Michael Klein with major support fromAlec Rhodes and additional gifts from Chase, Nancy and Bob Inman, Melissa Jones, Regina Rogers in memory of Jack S. Blanton, Sr., the Texas Commission on the Arts, and a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Feature Image Credit: Installation view of  Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, February 15 –May 10, 2015. Photo by Milli Appelgren.