Beautiful and Violent Art from the Civil Rights Movement at New Brooklyn Museum Show Witness


Something is terribly wrong with the sedan in this black-and-white photo: The doors gape open, glass is shattered, dark drips trail down the seat back. In 1965, civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo’s automobile was overtaken by a carload of Ku Klux Klansmen who shot and killed her along a stretch of Alabama highway. Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson’s compelling composition — the angled roof just nips the horizon line, the broken window is sliced by the slanting windshield frame, wheels are abruptly cropped — presents evidence as art.

See more images from this exhibition.

Beauty and violence, art and evidence, tribulation and transcendence — so much sings out from these works, created mostly in the 1960s by 66 artists of different races working in varying mediums.

Gordon Parks leavened theatricality into his photos, which documented the struggles African-Americans faced in a country where too many in the white majority openly fought against, or benignly neglected, racial equality. In a 1963 photo, Malcolm X holds aloft a Black Muslim newspaper with a headline as stern and direct as a line from one of his speeches: “Seven Unarmed Negroes Shot in Cold Blood by Los Angeles Police.” Parks’s portrait of Eldridge Cleaver and his wife, Kathleen, captures a militant couple as striking as matinee idols, not surprising coming from an artist who would go on to direct the 1971 blaxploitation classic Shaft.

In Birmingham 1964, painter Jack Whitten used a nylon stocking to cover a newspaper photo of police dogs attacking protesters, and then centered that image inside a ragged aureole of black paint. Looking back on this collage, Whitten recently said, “My use of the stocking mesh over the photograph was straight out of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, his notion of the Negro having been born with a veil that created a double-consciousness (‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’).”

Violence is less overt in Philip Guston’s 1969 painting City Limits, but his ludicrous cartoon Klansmen in a bulbous jalopy exude menacing ignorance. In 1971, Guston said, “I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan and to plot.” The context of this show reminds us that the bumptious beauty of Guston’s late imagery was partly underpinned by the outrage he felt upon seeing photos like the one of Liuzzo’s bullet-riddled car. Such call-and-response among imagery happens often in this thoughtfully curated exhibition.

In Homage to Nina Simone (1965), painter Bob Thompson applied a rhythmic clash of colors to a classical pastoral scene to channel that virtuoso’s visceral performances. Simone had written “Mississippi Goddam” just the year before, and called her musical litany of Southern perfidy “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” On a more surreal note, Joe Overstreet painted The New Jemima on an eight-and-a-half-foot-tall structure mimicking a pancake-mix box, the smiling cook blasting away with a machine gun as flapjacks fly like shrapnel.

Any social movement benefits from strong graphic design to convey its message, and Ben Hazard succinctly summarized postwar American history in a stark black-and-white lithograph from 1967 featuring a war plane on top, a mushroom cloud at bottom, and a black man framed by a gun sight in the middle. The only nation ever to use an atomic weapon in anger, the U.S. was in the process of dropping more bomb tonnage on Southeast Asia than it used in all of World War II, and young black soldiers were dying in Vietnam at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Hazard’s image of a black male caught in the crosshairs of American history would resurface decades later in Public Enemy’s logo.

And so it goes. With the Supreme Court recently eviscerating the Voting Rights Act just as it neared its golden anniversary, America still awaits that great road show of racial justice.