Blanton Museum’s ‘Assembly’ spotlights new acquisitions by Black artists

An exhibition highlights 19 artworks by a dozen contemporary Black artists based in the United States.


Like traditional museums and cultural institutions everywhere, the Blanton Museum of Art is busy matching its activities to the current reckoning over racial justice and systemic inequality.

Though the University of Texas museum pioneered collecting and studying Latin American art, its permanent collection of more than 21,000 artworks is — no surprise — overwhelmingly white, male and Eurocentric.

With 19 artworks by a dozen artists, “Assembly: New Acquisitions by Contemporary Black Artists” is not a thorough corrective. But it is a smart sampler of art made in the last several decades.

The acquisitions come to the Blanton thanks to an anonymous female donor who gave the museum $200,000 annually for three years for the express purposes of buying art by contemporary Black artists.

“As the descendent of slaveholders, she was eager to support art that sparks critical thinking and conversations around race” offers the Blanton in its official language, adding that a catalogue is planned that will “amplify the voices of emerging writers and curators of color.”

“Assembly” includes all-stars like Lorna Simpson and Nari Ward, and rising stars like Kevin Beasley. There’s also significant elders, like Noah Purifoy, the late co-founder of the Watts Towers Art Center, and two quiltmakers from Gee’s Bend, Arie Pettway and Sally Mae Pettway Mixon,

Kevin Beasley’s “SlabX II,” (2019) is a double-sided sculpture, from the artist’s series large-scale “slabs” composed primarily of raw cotton harvested near his family home in Virginia, as well as found garments and other materials. Image courtesy Blanton Museum of Art.
Nari Ward’s “Spellbound” (2015) is composed of a salvaged upright piano covered with Spanish moss and hundreds of used keys, invoking “lost” spaces that no longer exist. On the back of the piano is a video documenting sounds, sites, and people the artist encountered in Savannah, Georgia, what the artist refers to as the city’s “forgotten histories.” Image courtesy Blanton Museum of Art

Perhaps not surprisingly, several of the artists in “Assembly” have Texas connections.

The Blanton already has a few pieces by Austin hometown heroine Deborah Roberts in its collection. Now it adds the collage painting “That’s not ladylike no. 1” (2019).

Installation view of “Assembly: New Acquisitions by Contemporary Black Artists” with photographs by Genevieve Gaignard, on the left, and Deborah Roberts’ “That’s not ladylike no. 1″ (2019) at right. Image courtesy Blanton Museum of Art
Genevieve Gaignard, “Blackish,” 2018, chromogenic print, 32 x 48 in. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of an anonymous donor, 2020 (photo: © Genevieve Gaignard, courtesy the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles)

Genevieve Gaignard had a stunning solo show at UT’s Art Galleries at Black Studies in 2019, so it’s terrific that the Blanton now has a couple of her compelling large-scale photographs. Her highly stage self-portraits jab at stereotypes of race, class, gender, and beauty.


Robert Pruitt
Robert Pruitt received an MFA from the University of Texas in 2003. On the left, “Untitled (Channeling Uhura),” 2016. Conté, pastel, colored pencil, and charcoal on tea-dyed paper, and right, “Sup,” 2018. Conté and pastel on coffee-dyed paper. Image courtesy Blanton Museum

Originally from Houston, Robert Pruitt received an MFA from UT in 2003, at the time one of only a handful of Black graduates of the university’s master’s level visual arts program since its founding in 1961. Always focused on representing the Black body, Pruitt made impressive, masterly large-scale figurative drawings as a graduate student, and he continues that practice. Pruitt was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and in 2013, had a solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.


Cauleen Smith
Cauleen Smith, “Light Up Your Life (For Sandra Bland),” 2019. Neon, Plexiglas, faceted hematite, and aluminum chain. Image courtesy Blanton Museum of Art.

Cauleen Smith was on the faculty of UT’s Department of Radio Television film from 2001 to 2007, and had a solo exhibition at Women & Their Work in 2007. Returning to Texas for a 2019 residency at San Antonio’s Artpace, Smith created the neon piece “Light Up Your Life,” moved by the death of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in police custody after being pulled over during a traffic stop. Smith’s neon banner alternately blinks a “I will light up your life” and “I will light you up,” the latter statement shouted at Bland by Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia.

Smith will give an artist’s talk online at 12 noon Feb. 16. Register at Curated Conversations: Cauleen Smith

“I wanted to play with this threat, ‘I will light you up,’ by finding a response that neutralized it,” writes Smith of her piece. “And so this flashing neon is a dance off, a sing-a-thon, a battle, a protest, a memento mori that collectivizes Sandra Bland’s resistance, reclaims her sovereignty, and reifies the ways in which Black culture is inextricably woven into national identities and cultures.”

“Assembly: New Acquisitions by Contemporary Black Artists” continues through May 8 at the Blanton Museum of Art,

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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