Published: May 8, 2015
Charles White, “Awaken from the Unknowing,” 1961, charcoal on paper, about 30¾ by 55½ inches.
AUSTIN, TEXAS — Drs Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon of Pomona, N.Y., have given the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin their collection of works by African American artist Charles White (1918–1979). The Gordon collection of White’s works is among the largest in the United States and includes key drawings, prints, an etched silver plate and a major painting by the artist.
“It is a tremendous honor for the Blanton to be entrusted with this substantial gift of works by Charles White,” says Simone Wicha, director of the Blanton Museum of Art. “White was not only one of the most renowned draftsmen of the Twentieth Century, but also a distinguished educator and revered mentor. He profoundly influenced countless younger artists and paved the way for generations of African Americans in the field. We are deeply grateful to Drs Gordon and the leadership of Black Studies for making this gift a reality, as it enhances the museum’s collection in indelible ways. The Gordon collection will catalyze scholarship about White and his groundbreaking work, and allow for rich collaborations with faculty and students.”
The Gordons’ gift spans 30 years of White’s career and underscores his talent as a draftsman, painter and printmaker. Revealing the artist’s interest in African and African American history and culture, the collection includes one of White’s most celebrated paintings, “Homage to Sterling Brown,” 1972, a powerful portrait of the poet, critic and Howard University professor.
Also included is the well-known drawing “Awaken from the Unknowing,” 1961, White’s large-scale rendering of an African American girl studying diligently, produced in the face of violence surrounding segregation and the right to education. This important work is featured in the Blanton’s exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” closing May 10.
Also included in the gift is an etched silver plate and 18 works on paper — among them, a 1954 charcoal drawing of Sojourner Truth and Moses. White created this early drawing for the Harriet Tubman Child Health and Guidance Clinic, a private medical clinic in Harlem that the Gordons established to serve disadvantaged children. White and his wife Frances Barnett were fictive siblings to the Gordons, with whom they shared much, including child rearing, family vacations and the drive to seek social justice.
Alongside artists Augusta Savage and Palmer Hayden and writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, White was a participant of the Harlem Renaissance and a keen observer of the black community. (White emerged at the end of this period, along with artists Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.) Frustrated with racial injustices in the United States, his work often aimed to affect social change. Many of his portraits highlight the strength, beauty and dignity of African Americans and the working poor. In the 1960s, members of the Black Arts Movement discovered and championed his work, and fellow artist May Stevens has credited her passion for civil rights in part to her friendship with White.
“Susan and I have chosen the Blanton and The University of Texas at Austin as the repository for the Gordon Collection of Graphic Art by Charles W. White in order to advance the intellectual legacy of this great American artist, to protect this collection of some of his finest works of art and to ensure public access to White’s legacy and exemplars of his work in perpetuity,” said Dr Edmund Gordon. “To achieve these purposes while our son Dr Edmund ‘Ted’ Gordon leads the African and African Diaspora Studies Department is a delightful bonus for the Gordon family. This coincidence would have been greatly appreciated by Charlie and Fran White.”
The Blanton Museum of Art is at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard and Congress Avenue. For information, 512-471-7324 or www.blantonmuseum.org.
Charles White, “General Moses and Sojourner Truth,” 1954, charcoal on paper, 21 by 36 inches.
Charles White, “Homage to Sterling Brown,” 1972, oil on canvas, about 40¼ by 60 inches. All photographs Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin; Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon Family Collection.
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