In the Sixties and Seventies, a vibrant community of African-American artists and collectors thrived in Los Angeles, right under the establishment’s nose. Kevin West surveys “Now Dig This!”—a new exhibition that aims to give them their due.
IN 1963 JOHN OUTTERBRIDGE LEFT CHICAGO for a new life in sunny Los Angeles. Born in North Carolina and an alumnus of Chicago’s American Academy of Art, Outterbridge, then 30, was making art but supporting himself with a day job as a city bus driver. L.A. beckoned as the kind of place where Outterbridge might be able to work full-time as an artist—something that was just then becoming imaginable for an African-American. “People were really coming to this area for change—to be artists,” says art historian Kellie Jones. “Outterbridge was doing well in Chicago, but he was driving a bus. He heard that L.A. was ‘cool’—and that it was warm—and the idea was to be able to work in the arts.”
Today Los Angeles is a global capital of contemporary art, and artists working here—including such stars as Mark Bradford and Edgar Arceneaux—can earn their place on the international art scene without regard to skin color. But that was hardly the case when Outterbridge hit town almost 50 years ago. At that time, the city’s large cultural institutions and influential private galleries were essentially “segregated,” says Jones, or at least strikingly inattentive to African-Americans. She points out that when painter David Hammons—who later crossed over to achieve mainstream success as a conceptual and performance artist in New York in the Nineties—arrived in Los Angeles from Springfield, Illinois, in 1963, his reaction to the nascent black art scene was utter surprise. “He said, ‘I didn’t even know that there were African-American artists, just like there were black cowboys,’” Jones recounts as she sits in the café at UCLA’s Hammer Museum to discuss the exhibition she has curated, “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980.” “All of the artists in the show were born in a segregated country.” Opening on October 2, “Dig” is the Hammer’s contribution to “Pacific Standard Time,” a sprawling look at postwar Los Angeles organized by the Getty and involving some 70 collaborating institutions.
According to Jones, although the establishment largely ignored African-American art throughout the Sixties, the first generation of black artists in L.A. “willed” their community into existence by organizing exhibitions in homes, community centers, black-owned businesses and churches. After the 1965 Watts Riots, a new creative neighborhood took root in the Leimert Park area around Crenshaw Boulevard and Vernon Avenue—the first black-owned commercial galleries opened there, followed by African-American art writers, critics, and a black collector class composed mostly of doctors and attorneys. It was L.A.’s African-American SoHo.
“What was happening here in the Sixties and Seventies was really a cultural renaissance,” says attorney Stan Sanders, 69, who began collecting art in 1970 and was close to a number of artists in the Hammer show. “Guys were welding [sculpture] in their backyards. Outterbridge was collecting the detritus of Los Angeles and creating something beautiful.”
Even today, the legacy of the city’s black arts community will likely surprise many visitors to “Dig.” L.A.’s art history has typically been examined through the work and careers of such white artists as Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and Bruce Nauman, as well as through accounts of mainstream galleries like Ferus and the short-lived Huysman Gallery. The parallel story of L.A.’s black scene has only begun to be documented, and many of the movement’s seminal names—artists and collectors alike—will be unfamiliar even to knowledgeable art enthusiasts.
“Dig” includes some 140 works by 35 artists, most of whom have rarely been displayed in museums. Among them is Betye Saar, who was born in Los Angeles in 1926 and worked as a jewelry designer before creating the prints for which she became known. But numerous other “Dig” artists came to L.A. as part of the Great Migration—the African-American diaspora out of the South, often by way of Chicago, Detroit, and other northern cities. One of the earliest was William Pajaud, who came from New Orleans via Chicago in the Forties and later painted scenes from black history at a time when African-American studies had not yet emerged as its own field. Pajaud also became an important steward of L.A.’s black arts legacy when, from 1957 until 1987, he curated the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company’s 200-piece corporate collection, which was perhaps the single most important trove of black art from Los Angeles until it was broken up and sold in 2007. Another key early figure was painter and muralist Charles White, who came in 1956 from Chicago, had a solo show at the University of Southern California two years later, and went on to teach at Otis College of Art and Design, where Hammons was among his students.
“You have one or two artists who went and made it in New York, like Hammons or Mel Edwards,” says Leon Banks, a doctor and the patrician godfather of the black arts scene, and a lender to the Hammer show. “People don’t think of them as being L.A. artists, but they are.” Now 86, Banks was raised in Washington, D.C., where he had his first taste of art at the city’s public museums and later caught the collecting bug while serving as an Air Force captain in England. He moved to Los Angeles in the early Fifties; once his medical practice gained traction, he began buying abstract art by Mark Rothko, Sam Francis, and Robert Rauschenberg—as well as “Dig” artists, including painter and mixed-media artist Daniel LaRue Johnson and his Hispanic wife, painter Virginia Jaramillo.
In stark contrast to the vast wealth of the most prominent white collectors in L.A. over the past half-century—the Norton Simons and Eli Broads—Banks was typical of the middle-class black professionals who collected, joined museum boards, and helped found the California African American Museum (CAAM) in the late Seventies and build its permanent home in downtown’s Exposition Park in 1984. “It didn’t take a whole lot of money,” says Banks, who is still making the gallery rounds and attended a recent Kehinde Wiley opening at the Roberts & Tilton gallery in Culver City. “Most of my things came from the artists. It was a meeting of the minds.”
This also explains why, despite Banks’s affinity for abstract art, one of the artists who is represented the most in his collection is David Hockney. The two first met around 1960, at the home of collector Beatrice Gersh, when Banks stepped outside to tend to a nosebleed from a recent sinus operation and met the young British artist, who had gone out to smoke. The two quickly struck up a friendship. “His studio was about 10 blocks from my office,” Banks says. “Sometimes at lunchtime I’d go and we’d play chess.” Hockney has since painted Banks twice, once in 1980 and again in 2000. The portraits—as well as numerous other Hockney works—hang in Banks’s low-slung, taupe-colored midcentury home in upscale View Park.
IN THE YEARS AFTER THE WATTS RIOTS, protests calling attention to the contributions of black artists forced public institutions—funded, of course, by taxpayer dollars—to take notice. In 1970 a group of workers from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, seeking legal counsel for a manifestation against what they saw as a failure by the museum to engage its black constituency, walked across Wilshire Boulevard into Stan Sanders’s law office. It became his unexpected entrée into a new art-world vortex.
“At that time, LACMA had no African-Americans on its board of directors and no African-Americans among its docents,” Sanders explains. “The highest-ranking African-Americans in the whole firmament of employees and volunteers at LACMA were the preparators—the guys who actually handled the art.” Sanders signed on to a group that became the Black Arts Council—which advised the museum—along with Banks, advocate Samella Lewis, and Aurelia Brooks, CAAM’s first executive director.
Sanders admits that he didn’t know much about collecting contemporary art at the time, but learned by going on regular gallery and studio visits with Cecil Fergerson, a preparator he met through his involvement with the Black Arts Council. He was drawn into the dynamic and intellectually compelling milieu. The Brockman Gallery, run by Dale and Alonzo Davis, was “a gathering place,” recalls Sanders. Named after their grandmother, it was the city’s first black-owned commercial gallery and existed for 30 years. (By comparison, Ferus was open for nine.) Equally important to the scene was Lewis, who came to Los Angeles in 1964 to study Chinese and tirelessly championed L.A.’s black artists. Lewis opened a series of galleries that culminated with the Museum of African American Art and somehow found the time to run the Black Art Quarterly and publish the two-volume Black Artists on Art, which surveyed the work of nearly 150 contemporary artists—all while teaching full-time at Scripps College in Claremont.
“There was ferment,” Sanders says. “There was this cross-fertilization between young professionals and artists. We were mostly just hanging out together, but even if what we did was roll a joint and talk all night, we mixed the politics with the art.”
Of course, in a national cultural landscape fueled by protests, crackdowns, and counterreactions on the fronts of civil rights and Black Power—all set amidst the pop-culture stardom of Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Muhammad Ali—artists of all stripes were highly engaged politically. That was especially true of African-American artists, who quickly set about digging into pointed questions about black history and identity. Sanders recalls the artists he knew making art about “their own rage, to a very large extent, but also about the ordinary lives of ordinary people.”
“Dig” curator Jones says that for some black artists who wanted to participate in the era’s profound change without necessarily making overtly propagandistic works, the tension between politics and personal expression was “a conundrum.” Outterbridge, John Riddle, Johnson, Saar, and sculptor Noah Purifoy worked in assemblage, a style strongly associated with white artists in Southern California in the late Fifties and Sixties. But in the hands of African-American artists it took on a distinctive cultural and political resonance. Riddle was inspired by his experience of sifting through the postrebellion rubble in Watts, while Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger made ephemeral but deeply personal assemblage with scraps of pantyhose and wire, among other materials. Hammons worked with human hair collected from African-American barbershops.
The question of audience was another major concern. On the one hand, as Jones explains, black artists wanted their work to be “legible” to inexperienced viewers—demonstrators, picketers, and other young political activists—yet they also aspired to contend with their own more informed understanding of art history. “They were cognizant of not making art for a mainstream, wealthy, white collector population,” she says, “but they still wanted to be a part of the history of art.” By 1976, LACMA responded to the efforts of the Black Arts Council with the exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950”—one of the first museum shows of its kind and also the last major L.A. exhibition dedicated exclusively to African-American art until “Dig.”
Among those who saw the exhibition was UCLA medical student Joy Simmons, now a 58-year-old radiologist with a wide-ranging collection of contemporary African-American art. Simmons grew up in Los Angeles (her high school art teacher was Brockman Gallery cofounder Alonzo Davis), attended Stanford, and had entrée into the New York black art community through an aunt on the board at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She began collecting as a medical student—through Brockman, of course. “When I bought my first piece, it was only $50,” she recalls, sitting in her Baldwin Hills home among a collection that now includes work by contemporary artists Kara Walker, Mark Bradford, and Kehinde Wiley. “Then, every time I could scrape something together, I’d buy art.”
Other medical students she knew were doing the same. Simmons recalls Banks and older physicians as important role models, including cardiothoracic surgeon George Jackson, who commissioned painter Suzanne Jackson to cover one exterior wall of his private practice with a mural. One small detail of the LACMA show, however, helped clarify Simmons’s sense of mission as a collector: She couldn’t help but notice that most lenders of the show’s historical material had Jewish surnames.
“It was really eye-opening for me,” she recalls. “The major pieces of our work were not owned by us. That’s a reason I’ve tried to assemble a collection that is museum-worthy.” With the exception of Hammons, few of the artists in the “Dig” show have been widely pursued by contemporary white collectors or large public institutions, although Banks, Lewis, and others have steered select pieces into the permanent collections at the Oakland Museum, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Whitney in New York, and LACMA. That attitude is quickly changing, however, with a growing awareness of the historical importance—not to mention the rising market value—of black L.A. artists.
Recognition on the scale of the “Dig” show would have seemed unthinkable when Outterbridge was scraping by as a bus driver in Chicago. Equally unimaginable at that time was the establishment’s embrace of an African-American artist such as Walker, who has had solo exhibitions all over the world, including a midcareer survey at the Walker Art Center. Contemporary star Mark Bradford even eschews labels of race, such as “African-American artist”—which shows just how much has happened since Stan Sanders was arguing politics and art with Hammons, Outterbridge, and other members of the “Dig” crowd back in the Seventies.
“People would wrestle with that,” Sanders explains, “like, What is a Negro? We didn’t quite know what a Negro was. We had arguments all night long about whether the word should be capitalized.” He recalls with a chuckle that the birth certificate of a former law partner, who was born in Los Angeles in 1940, categorized his race as “Abyssinian.” Sanders’s wife, Debbie, shakes her head at what now seems a historical absurdity—one which only underscores how fluid yet intractable the issue of race continues to be in America.
“My parents were ‘colored,’ ” she says. “I was a ‘Negro.’ My daughters were ‘black.’ And now my granddaughter is ‘African-American.’ Go figure.”
The introduction to “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980″ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
On first glance, some may wonder why MoMA PS1, a New York contemporary art museum, has just opened a historical exhibition of art from Los Angeles. But as MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey explained at the press preview last week, the show in question, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, actually has a connection to the New York institution: many of the artists in the exhibition eventually migrated from LA to New York, and some of the art on view was actually shown there in the 1980s. “It’s nice to be able to show historical work here, to be able to choose things that reflect the founding period” of the museum, Eleey said.
Kellie Jones speaking at the press preview
All of that is well and good, and convincing, too, but in the end it hardly matters at all. Once you step inside the exhibition, you realize that Now Dig This! is so good — so well-curated, so full of fantastic art, so revelatory — that it was worth bringing to New York no matter what. I suspect that even for those MoMA and MoMA PS1 staffers who worked to get it here, the power of the exhibition came first, the connection to PS1 second.
Now Dig This! was originally organized by art historian and Columbia University professor Kellie Jones for the Getty Foundation’s LA art blowout Pacific Standard Time, which involved more 60 cultural institutions from Southern California mounting more than 60 shows about art made in and around LA between 1945 and 1980. It was originally shown at the Hammer Museum and only closed on January 8, meaning the MoMA and PS1 curators managed to bring it here in less than a year. It’s also one of the only shows (at least so far) to travel.
It’s not hard to see why. Amid the grand narrative of postwar LA art painted by Pacific Standard Time, Jones has zoomed in on one specific subset: the black artistic communities (and she takes this to mean the communities as a whole, including participants and friends of other cultural groups) in the city during a two-decade period. But once you get inside the smaller piece she’s broken off, you realize that she’s actually widened the art-historical narrative. She’s blown shit wide open.
Dan Concholar, “Suitcase” (1980)
The art on view here — 140 works by 33 artists — is sophisticated, playful, thoughtful, political, and beautiful. It’s minimalist and Pop, abstract and figurative, made of found materials and welded steel. It may sound naive or even condescending to marvel at the diversity of it, but it’s the volume and diversity that, when combined with the high quality of the art as well as the little attention it’s received, make the show so profound. In one of the galleries, there is a suitcase spread open on a white platform, its archival contents — magazines, slides, envelopes, artwork — splayed out in and around it. The suitcase, the wall text tells us, is an installation by Dan Concholar but actually belonged to Charles White, one of artists in the “Front Runners” section of the exhibition. It was discovered not too long ago in the archives of Just Above Midtown gallery with unseen artwork by George Clack and Ruth G. Waddy inside it. That suitcase is a microcosm of the entire show.
The exhibition is organized in five sections — “Front Runners,” “Assembling,” “Artists/Gallerists,” “Postminimal Art and Performance,” and “Los Angeles Snapshot/Friends.” As some of those titles suggest, the real underlying subject here, and the reason why the show hangs together so well, is that this is as much a historical exhibition about communities as it is a display of individual art objects.
Charles White, “Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man)” (detail) (1873)
A sculpture by Melvin Edwards
The show opens with a gallery of work by some of the precedent setters, among them social realist drawings by figurehead Charles White and deeply evocative steel sculptures by Melvin Edwards, the pair of which immediately demonstrates the different ways that art can be political. From there, a stunning room full of assemblages by Betye Saar and John Outterbridge mixes motifs, mediums, and high and low art, the artists drawing on voodoo, traditional African patterns, junk art, Rauschenberg’s confines, and much more. The pieces seem to be carrying on a charged conversation of their own — one that bleeds over into the next room, where more assemblages by Dale Brockman Davis and Noah Purifoy pick up on Saar’s and Outterbridge’s visual themes and inspirations. The gritty but often colorful aesthetic of those works resonates with John T. Riddle’s biting (in subject matter) yet playful (in appearance) metal sculptures, also on view in that gallery.
Work by John Outterbridge (foreground) and Noah Purifoy (background)
John T. Riddle, “Gradual Troop Withdrawal” (1970)
Another two rooms down the line, you’re reminded of the political and social roots of much of this work — although you might just call those roots “life” — when you watch footage from the 1972 Watts Summer Festival and meet African-American kids from the neighborhood who turned their energy and frustration into artwork. This was something that the bonafide artists in Now Dig This! did, too, as Jones explained at the press preview: Purifoy was the first director of the Watts Towers Art Center, and he organized a show after the Watts Rebellion of artists making work from the rubble.
Marie Johnson Calloway, “School Crossing Guard” (1970s)
The next room picks up on this idea of local spaces and community, focusing on artists who opened up their own spaces and used the galleries as meeting places. “When people don’t show your work, you show it on your own,” Jones had said. Not only that, but you write your own history, which is what people like Samella Lewis and Ruth Waddy did. Lewis is an artist (a few strong lithographs on view in the first gallery) and art historian who founded the quarterly Black Art in 1976 and published, with Waddy, also an artist, the two-volume Black Artists on Art in 1969 and 1971.
A wall of work by Elizabeth Leigh-Taylor, Samella Lewis, William Pajaud, Ruth Waddy, and Tyrus Wong
The last two rooms of the show focus on postminimal art and performance, moving into more well-known territory with a selection of work by David Hammons alongside a handful others. But Hammons’s art looks different here — it has gained a broader and stronger context and seems to emerge organically from what’s come before. At the press preview Jones told an anecdote about Hammons: at one point he apparently said that he hadn’t known any African-American artists before he met Charles White. Today, Jones pointed out, young African-American artists don’t have the same problem; they know their history. And fortunately for them, but more importantly all of us, we now know even more of it.
David Hammons, “Bag Lady in Flight” (1970s, reconstructed 1990s)
Foreground: Maren Hassinger, “Place for Nature” (2011); background: Senga Nengudi, “Only Love Saves the Day” (2011)
Art review: ‘Now Dig This!’ at the UCLA Hammer Museum
October 10, 2011 | 3:15pm
At the UCLA Hammer Museum, “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” tells an important story that is not so much unknown as underknown.
Many of the individual artists — Melvin Edwards, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, Charles White and others — are certainly familiar, while David Hammons ranks among the most important American artists of the last 30 years. What hasn’t been the focus before now is the context within which their work developed. “Now Dig This!” lays it out with clarity and compelling insight.
That means, of course, that the exhibition is not simply a compendium of great art. Quality is mixed. Even Hammons is represented mostly by precocious student work (he moved to New York in 1974), interesting primarily for seeing where his subsequent work came from. One of his most potent pieces is a bristling wall assemblage composed from shards of broken records, hair and plaster — contemporary materials combined to evoke an ancestral African “power shield” — but it dates from 1983.
The show, part of the region-wide Pacific Standard Time series, opens with a quiet wallop. The Hammer’s small entry room juxtaposes just two works — Edwards’ 1965 welded steel sculpture “The Lifted X,” all muscular strength laid low by battered industrial forms and grimly suspended hooks, and White’s monumental 1964 ink and charcoal drawing “Birmingham Totem,” its crystalline mound of splintered wood surmounted by the shrouded figure of a crouching youth.
Edwards spent his formative artistic decade in L.A., moving west after high school in Houston and leaving California for New York in 1966. Initially a painter, he began to weld compact wall-reliefs from salvaged metal objects — chains, tools, bolts, gears, padlocks, scissors, etc. — composing intense abstractions that nonetheless recall African masks, Cubist heads and the industrial-strength syntax of Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith.
“The Lifted X” ruminates on Malcolm X, the civil rights activist who was murdered as Edwards was at work on a then-unattributed sculpture. Frontal and more than 5 feet tall, almost like a figure on a pedestal, its robust but broken forms seem forever poised between being upraised and hammered down.
White, self-tutored as a kid finding a haven in the galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago and then professionally trained, was widely traveled. By the time he moved to L.A. at 38 his social realist style, influenced by time spent living in Mexico with muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, was in full flower. His drawing, nearly 6 feet tall, ponders one of the most horrific and galvanizing moments in modern civil rights history — the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of a black church in America’s most virulently segregated city, which left 22 people severely wounded and four children dead. The drawing’s mound of architectural splinters is laboriously built up from thin traceries of black ink and firm, rectilinear swipes of charcoal. The overall shape forms a kind of cloaked torso, its head composed from the crouching figure. Nearly hidden, a plumb bob is suspended on a string from the nude youth’s index finger. White’s sober drawing is an almost shamanistic vision of mystical restoration: The plumb bob, an ancient building tool used to determine accurate verticals, also deftly marks the Birmingham crime as a powerful center of gravity in American social history.Hammer guest curator Kellie Jones, an art historian at Columbia University, divides the rest of the show into a loose chronology of four themes. The framework is an effective way to orchestrate about 130 paintings, drawings, sculptures and videos by 33 diverse artists.There are “front-runners,” such as Edwards and White, who influenced younger generations in L.A.’s emergent art scene (compare, for example, White’s drawing to a self-portrait shrouded in an American flag by Hammons, who was White’s student); a large number of assemblage artists, including Outterbridge, Purifoy and Saar, who cobbled together collages and sculptures from discarded and reclaimed objects; artists perhaps better known for the galleries they operated to create exhibition opportunities in a limited art scene; and finally, Post-Minimal and performance artists of the eclectic 1970s.
Los Angeles, as the 1965 Watts rebellion attests, was no safe haven for African Americans. However, the city’s burgeoning growth, coupled with the absence of a strong institutional art-fabric, appears to have offered an open-ended sense of artistic possibility for all these painters, sculptors and performance artists.
The show’s four groups are not exclusive. Edwards was as much an assemblage artist as Outterbridge, whose rag-man aesthetic is more ephemeral than sculptures of welded steel. The shamanistic undercurrent in White’s drawing comes to the surface in Saar’s collages, made from windows whose panes offer glimpses into mystical worlds. Alonzo Davis, who started the Brockman Gallery with his brother, Dale, is represented by a large and arresting collage of torn scraps of silvery painted cardboard, which forms an exalted African map within a Marcus Garvey-style environment of red, green and black
The assemblage room is the show’s core, providing one-third of the works and echoing forward and backward through time. Purifoy is the standout. Great assemblage is often an alchemical transformation of harsh mortality into noble endurance, and a sensational secular altarpiece by Purifoy suggests a legacy-shrine to a passing Jim Crow era. Stuffed to overflowing with castoff tools, its abundance of old shoes and worn brushes evokes the shoeshine stand, a dignified image of labor at once restricted yet resolute.
Suzanne Jackson, familiar for having run Gallery 32, is also a gifted painter. Liquid acrylic washes — among the show’s few paintings — merge figures with landscapes in dreamlike spaces, all poised to slip away like desert mirages. Daniel LaRue Johnson merged painting with assemblage, affixing fragments of a broken doll, a hacksaw, a mousetrap and rubber hose onto a large, black field of viscous, tar-like pitch. Made in the aftermath of Bull Connor’s notorious Birmingham assault on peaceful civil rights marchers, Johnson injected a jolt of black social consciousness into the exalted status abstract artists then afforded to all-black paintings.
Provocative questions also arise. In 1967, Robert Rauschenberg created a sensation: He produced a monumental print called “Booster” at Gemini GEL, said to be the largest lithograph ever made, which centered around a life-size, medical X-ray self-portrait that removed from art any romantic notion of representing the artist’s inner life. Was Hammons aware of Rauschenberg’s celebrated project? As a nearby student at Otis, he began his pivotal body prints in1968, made by pressing his oiled flesh onto paper and sprinkling pigment over the surface. Their ghostly specters of absent figures fuse the surfaces of art and skin.
“Now Dig This!” is a story of artistic integration — not assimilation, by any stretch of the imagination, but integration broadly understood as the analysis and display of human identity to reach a point of harmony within a larger American environment. The point is cleverly italicized by including modest examples from significant artists who are not African American — Mark di Suvero, Ron Miyashiro, Gordon Wagner, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and 11 more — but who are identified as contemporaneous colleagues of black artists in the show. It makes for an absorbing narrative.
“Now Dig This! Art in Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” UCLA Hammer Museum, (310) 443-7000, through Jan. 8. Closed Mondays. www.hammer.ucla.edu
There is a paradox at the heart of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” an exhibition at MoMA PS1 about black artists who lived and worked in Los Angeles during a time of revolutionary changes in art and society. It is not specifically addressed by the exhibition, which was organized by Kellie Jones, a Columbia University art historian, and had its debut at the Hammer Museum last year as part of the Californian extravaganza “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980.” But I think it goes some way toward explaining why so few black artists have been embraced by the predominantly white high-end art world. It has to do with the relationship of black artists to Modernist tradition and the differences between the lives of blacks and whites in this country.
Foreground, Maren Hassinger’s “Place for Nature” (2011); in the corner, Senga Nengudi’s “Only Love Saves the Day” (2011); and on the wall, David Hammons’s body print, “The Wine Leading the Wine,” around 1969, on display at MoMA PS1 in Queens. More Photos »
“Untitled” (Assemblage), from 1967, by Noah Purifoy, who made sculptures using rubble from the Watts riots. More Photos »
The first piece you encounter on entering the exhibition, a welded-steel construction by Melvin Edwards called “August the Squared Fire” (1965), is emblematic. It consists of an upright rectangular framework within which a concatenation of twisted, bent, boxy forms is held, as if frozen in the moment of tumbling through a door or window. Formally, you have a dialogue between stasis and dynamism, and psychologically, between reason and feeling.
Such dualities would be enough on which to base judgment and interpretation were this a piece by, say, the white junk sculptor Richard Stankiewicz. But it makes a difference to know that Mr. Edwards is African-American and has for decades been producing small, wall-mounted assemblages of industrial steel parts called “The Lynch Fragments,” a few of which are in the show.
There is the allusive title “August the Squared Fire” to consider too. The most violent episode of civil unrest in the city’s history up to that time happened in the predominantly poor and black neighborhood of Watts in August 1965. So Mr. Edwards’s sculpture can be read as a metaphor for the struggle of black people to break through barriers that have kept them down in America.
The Watts uprising was galvanizing for other artists in the exhibition, among them Noah Purifoy, whose densely compacted assemblages of found materials are like the children of a Dadaist and an unhinged folk artist. According to Ms. Jones’s catalog essay, Mr. Purifoy has said that the Watts calamity made him an artist. He and the fellow assemblagists John T. Riddle Jr. and John Outterbridge began to make sculptures using rubble and detritus left in the aftermath of the riots.
Ms. Jones writes, “Purifoy, John Riddle and John Outterbridge reinterpreted Watts as a discursive force, emblematic of both uncompromising energy and willful re-creation, using the artistic currency of assemblage.”
Herein lies the paradox. Black artists did not invent assemblage. In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, David Smith and Robert Rauschenberg. For these artists assemblage was an expression of freedom from conservative aesthetics and parochial social mores. It did not come out of anything like the centuries-long black American experience of being viewed and treated as essentially inferior to white people. It was the art of people who already were about as free as anyone could be.
Thanks to white artists like George Herms, Bruce Conner and Ed Kienholz, assemblage was popular on the West Coast in the 1960s. Appropriated by the artists in “Now Dig This!,” however, it took on a different complexion. It became less a playful messing with habitual ways of thinking, à la Dada and Surrealism, and more an expression of social solidarity.
Mr. Riddle’s “Untitled (Fist)” (1965), for example, is in the form of an old shovel standing on its handle, its business end cut and bent into the form of a clenched hand. This is a far cry from Duchamp’s snow shovel titled “In Advance of the Broken Arm.” Duchamp’s work is a piece of deracinated, intellectual mischief-making designed to question relations between language and reality. Mr. Riddle’s is about a particular population of people digging itself out of a real-world debacle.
If I am right that most of the work in “Now Dig This!” promotes solidarity, then this poses a problem for its audience. It divides viewers between those who, because of their life experiences, will identify with the struggle for black empowerment, and others for whom the black experience remains more a matter of conjecture. Those who identify may tend to respond favorably to what those viewing from a more distanced perspective may regard as social realist clichés, like the defiant fist.
There are some black artists who finesse the difference, David Hammons being a brilliant example and, tellingly, the only artist in this show to be lionized by the mainstream art establishment. He is a Duchampian trickster who toys in surprising ways with signifiers of black culture, poetically unsettling entrenched representations of blackness on both sides of the racial divide.
For me, the exhibition’s most beautiful work is “Bag Lady in Flight,” which Mr. Hammons first made in the 1970s and recreated in 1990. It consists of grease-stained brown shopping bags cut and folded into pleats fanning up and down like wings, the whole extending horizontally almost 10 feet. Pleats along the lower right edge bear triangles of nappy hair, forming a pattern like that of a bird’s wing. It is an ancient notion that angels might reside in the most degraded of human forms, one that Mr. Hammons here updates to inspiring effect. You don’t have to be black to feel that.
Black artists who have gained recognition in the high-end art world have operated in the Hammonsian mode. Robert Colescott, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Adrian Piper, Fred Wilson, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker and Jayson Musson, a k a Hennessey Youngman, are some who complicate how we think about prejudice and stereotyping. The art of black solidarity gets less traction because the postmodern art world is, at least ostensibly, allergic to overt assertions of any kind of solidarity. Covert solidarity of liberal white folks? That is another story.
“Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” runs through March 11 at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, at 46th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens; (718) 784-2084, momaps1.org.
A version of this review appeared in print on October 26, 2012, on page C24 of the New York edition with the headline: Forged From the Fires of the 1960s.