by Robert Gwathmey
Gwathmey, who grew up as a member of a privileged white family in Richmond, Virginia, was well acquainted with Southern racism, but it wasn’t until the late 1930s that his art began to portray these tensions.
Custodian, from 1963, was likely influenced by the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. The elderly African American man sits with a rifle held across his body, and behind him stands a stereotypically racist painting of a black man, complete with a watermelon. Where the head of the painting should be, however, are a pitchfork and hoe – agricultural tools.
Gwathmey’s central figure refuses to succumb to the racist portrayal behind him; his evident strength separates him from the two dimensional caricature, but is not enough to bridge the gap between him and the woman in the background.