Tuesday, December 6, 2011

NOW DIG THIS! ART & BLACK LOS ANGELES, 1960- 1980


I was writing the other day about Charles White and the art of social and political engagement—an art the mainstream of 20th century Modernism chose largely to sideline or ignore. Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles, 1960 – 1980 is a valuable, indeed indispensible reminder that a commitment to social justice and related issues remained very much alive in a thriving community of African American artists, whose mutual support systems provided a bulwark against the neglect of the establishment. Time and again, as the excellent exhibition catalogue usefully reminds us, it took solidarity, protest, even defiance to make black voices heard.

The Watts rebellion of 1965 was, of course, the watershed event. Much of the creative energy in “Now Dig This!” was released at that historical moment and much of the work in the exhibition springs, Phoenix-like, not only from the ashes of Watts but also from the epicenter of the Simon Rodia Watts Towers, which survived as both the cultural heart of the community and the aesthetic model for many of its artists.

Which is not to say that there were no black artists working before that moment in Los Angeles. The show starts out with those it identifies as “Frontrunners,” Melvin Edwards, Willam Pajaud, Betye Saar and the aforementioned Charles White. Accomplished artists, teachers, and in the case of Pajaud an important champion of black art to corporate (Golden State Mutual Insurance) and private collectors (Dr. Leon Banks,) they are properly honored for their dedication and persistence at a time when “Art & Black” in Los Angeles could be a discouraging mix. It is an absolute pleasure to see their work given a place of prominence in the Hammer installation, with enough examples to establish its depth and breadth. White’s powerful images exemplify his unique combination of paint and graphic virtuosity; Edwards’s dense, dark welded metal sculptures remind us that even overtly abstract work can be put to work as urgent social signifier; and, on the feminine side, Betye Saar...

Betye Saar. Black Girl’s Window, 1969. Assemblage in window. 35 ¾ x 18 x 1 ½ in. (90.8 x 45.7 x 3.8 cm). Collection of the artist; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York.

... weaves personal and social history in with magic, astrology, the voodoo arts to bring us back in touch with African and Caribbean roots, the soul that no amount of slavery could steal from its victims. Of the four, Pajaud is certainly to date the least known of the Frontrunners and is, here, the least fully represented—but enough to recognize a talent with watercolor as significant as an Arthur Dove or a John Marin.

If the Watts rebellion left things torn apart, much of the creative energy that tumult left in its wake was concerned with re-assembling them; and there stood, at its center, the great exemplum of assemblage art, the Watts Towers, a soon thriving center for education and creative activity that attracted writers and artists, videographers and filmmakers, dancers and musicians, all dedicated to the proposition that black is beautiful and that the African American artist has something of particular and urgent importance to say. Black, it has been noted, is not only a color but a social signifier. Black, too, was the color of the charred remains left behind in the wake of the rebellion. It is hardly surprising, then, that black is the predominant color in the spacious Hammer gallery devoted to the work of the next generation of artists who found their voices in the post-rebellion years—artists like John Outterbridge...

John Outterbridge. No Time for Jivin’, from the Containment Series, 1969. Mixed media. 56 x 60 in. (142.2 x 152.4 cm). Mills College Art Museum Collection. Purchased with funds from the Susan L Mills Fund.

... and Noah Purifoy...

Noah Purifoy. Untitled(Assemblage), 1967. Mixed media. 66 x 39 x 8 in. (167.6 x 99.1 x 20.3 cm). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Museum Purchase, the William A. Clark Fund and Gift of Dr. Samella Lewis. 1993.3. ©Courtesy the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

... who scoured the rubble for their raw material and, as teachers, inspired others to affirm their black identity and celebrate their black experience. From this moment on, in the story told by “Now Dig This!” we often find pride and defiance in equal parts, reflecting a social shift from the civil rights movement to the demand for Black Power and the assertive anger of the Black Panthers, now channeled into work that can be confrontational, challenging, uncomfortable, raw.

Next, a whole section devoted to artists who recognized that creative energy and production were not, in themselves, enough. Impatient with a gallery scene dominated by commercial imperatives and unresponsive to the work of African American artists, they opened their own galleries and collaborative spaces, curated exhibitions, and generated their own posters, flyers and literary and critical publications in order to bring their work and that of their colleagues to public attention. Such artists as Alonzo Davis and Dale Brockman Davis...

Dale Brockman Davis. Swept, 1970. Mixed media. 30 x 40 x 6 in. (76.2 x 101.6 x 15.2 cm)Blocker Collection c/o Rick Blocker.

... Suzanne Jackson and Samella Lewis also devoted their considerable energies to creating much needed supportive communities and shouting-out about the vitality and quality of black art to anyone they could persuade to listen. Their contribution was a critical one. The surprise is that they also managed to find time for the studio.

Under the subtitle of “Post/Minimalism and Performance,” the exhibition includes artists who appropriated strategies of mainstream media, or found in new media like video and performance the vehicle for their individual vision. Fred Eversley’s magnificent, gleaming discs...

Fred Eversley. Untitled (Blue Cylindrical Piece), 1973. Cast Polyester Resin. 20 x 20 x 7 in. (50.8 x 50.8 x 17.8 cm). Collection of the Artist. Photography by Ed Glendinning.

... stand out as compelling examples of what came to be called the art of “Light & Space”; Maren Hassinger’s unraveling, twisted ropes and metal cables...

Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980.Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 2, 2011-January 8, 2012. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer. (Maren Hassinger.)

... are not only powerfully minimal abstractions, they also resonate with the brutal history and the tools of enslavement; David Hammons...

David Hammons. America the Beautiful, 1968. Lithograph and body print. 39 x 29 1⁄2 in. (99.1 x 74.9 cm). Oakland Museum, Oakland Museum Founders Fund.

... best known, perhaps, for his work in assemblage—also collaborated in non-traditional media with Hassinger, Sengo Nengudi and the videographer Ulysses Jenkins...

Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980.Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 2, 2011-January 8, 2012. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer. (David Hammons & Ulysses Jenkins)

... in performances that addressed societal issues in sometimes confrontational ways. The documentation and videos included in “Now Dig This!” are a reminder of the desire among artists of the time to expose raw truths about repression and injustice, and to engage audiences in significant ways in the creative process.

Lastly, in a generous gesture, the exhibition acknowledges in each of its segments the contribution of “friends”—artists from other cultures and of other ethnic backgrounds who “got” what their African American colleagues had to say and supported it with their technical expertise, their collaboration, or their clout with gallery dealers and collectors. They include names both familiar—Mark di Suvero, Gordon Wagner, John Altoon—and obscure, but the inclusion of examples of their work invites us to consider the broader context of this important moment in art history. The Hammer Museum does us all a service, as we celebrate art in Southern California in “Pacific Standard Time,” in dedicating its gallery space and its prestige to the mining of a creative vein that is a vital part of our common history; and in producing a handsome, informative and comprehensive catalogue that will stand as the lasting document of an era. Let's not forget that today's prominent African American artists--Kerry James Marshall, Mark Bradford, Mark Steven Greenfield and many others--stand on the shoulders of those who went before.

4 comments:

merchant account services said...

These are so cool! I hope i can find some on ebay.

CHI SPHERE said...

What a beautiful testament to work not seen enough by large portions of our LA population. Thank you from the top of my heart!

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Gary. I hope this will also appear elsewhere...

JoAnnPen said...

Some artists' names I have not heard for a while. this looks like a wonderful exhibit. Thanks so much for including examples of their work.