Now Dig This at Williams College

Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980

By: - Oct 02, 2013

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Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980
Organized by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
As part of Pacific Standard Time, 2011-2012, a collaboration of more than 60 cultural institutions in Southern California
Curated by Kellie Jones and organized by Kathryn Price for WCMA
Williams College Museum of Art
July 20 to December 1, 2013|
Related Exhibition: 72 Degrees art of the period in Los Angeles from the permanent collection

Catalogue: Edited by Kellie Jones, Essays by Hazel V. Carby, Karin Hega, Naima J. Keith, Franklin Sirmans, Jacqueline Stewart, Roberto Tejada and Daniel Widener, With; Artist Biographies, Selected Chronology, 1960-1980 (By Jennifer Vanore), Checklist, Artists/ Gallerists, Notes on Contributors, Index, Reproduction and Photography credits, 352 pages Published by Hammer Museum and Delmonico Books-Prestel, with Assistance of the Getty Foundation, 2011. ISBN 978-3-7913-5136-0

In a catalogue essay for the exhibition “Figuring the Future in Los(t) Angeles” by Hazel V. Carby she states “In Ecology of Fear, the historian Mike Davis reminds us that the city used to be regarded as the ‘Land of Endless Summer,’ a national symbol of a ‘lifestyle against which other Americans measured the modernity of their towns and regions.’ Today’s metropolitan Los Angeles, however, has become ‘a dystopian symbol of Dickensian inequalities and intractable racial contradictions…with its estimated 500 gated subdivisions, 2,000 street gangs, 4,000 minimalls, 20,000 sweat shops, and 100,000 homeless residents.’ Rather than representing America’s modernity, Los Angeles has come to symbolize ‘the collapse of the American Century.' ”

The black Watts section of Los Angeles erupted from August 11 to 17, 1965. The six-day riot resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. It was the most severe riot in the city's history until the Los Angeles riots of 1992. In 1970 Ruben Salazara, a Mexican-American journalist, was shot in the head by a teargas canister and killed by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy. This occured during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War on August 29, 1970.

A fecund combination of social and political turmoil, racial tensions, motivating uniquely brilliant and original outbursts of creativity, informs the dense, provocative and insightful exhibition Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980. Uniquely, it fills the entire second level space of the Charles Moore designed expansion of the Williams College Museum of Art through December 1.

For this landmark survey of a rarely examined aspect of contemporary American art the permanent collection galleries have been temporarily removed in order to provide a stunning installation of one of the most compelling and transformative exhibitions seen in the Berkshires in decades.

Now Dig This! was awarded Best Thematic Exhibit Nationally for 2012 by the International Asssociation of Art Critics (AICA).

John Stomberg, a former curator of WCMA, probed the depth of institutional memory. He recalled an exhibition of contemporary German painting curated by former director, Tom Krens, before he initiated planning for Mass MoCA and moved on to direct the Guggenheim Museum. Similarly Krens cleared the space for that project which included an essay by a young curatorial associate Joe Thompson.

Visiting the current exhibition not only allows for seeing many fascinating and unfamiliar works by relatively unknown artists but a rare chance best to appreciate the vision and potential of Moore’s design. We get to follow a narrative flow through the space. There is a continuity to our exploration that is not disrupted by mood shifts when encountering the different periods and genres of an academic collection intended to offer cultural specimens for undergraduate students of art history.

A curriculum of courses in multiple disciplines with releated events has been planned. In this academic setting the 130 works by 33 artists are but one of many resources for research and dialectics. The exhibition itself is largely a conundrum as only a handful of artists and works are familiar. Of the 33 artists the museum’s press release states that Melvin Edwards, Fred Eversley, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Alonzo Davis, Dale Brockman Davis, Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar and Charles White are “featured.”

Of these “featured” artists, prior to this exhibition, only the works of Hammons, Saar and White were known to me. Not surprisingly they are represented by some of the strongest pieces in an exhibition which is fascinating but eclectic and uneven.

But that comment comes from an art critic. Passing judgement on the individual quality of works may not be the most productive or insightful approach to such a ground breaking exhibition. It is important to consider that the works were created under duress during a time of a police state, brutal living conditions, poverty, struggles for education, the infancy of the Los Angeles community of gallerists and collectors, and the apathy of museums.

The exhibition is organized into several categories: Front Runners, Assembling, Artists/Gallerists, Post/Minimalism and Performance, Los Angeles Snapshot/ Friends.

Viewing the exhibition and its related 72 Degrees was just the first step in coming to grips with a daunting and galvanic chapter of contemporary American art. Much to the credit of this project it has widened its scope beyond examining the work of the 33 represented artists. The eight, superb essays provide a compelling overview of the full range of creativity in Los Angeles. The scholars examine the proximity of Hollywood and its impact on documentary and feature filmmaking, poetry and literature including collaborations between musicians and artists, the emergence of gallerists, collectors and curators, as well as the importance of “friends” or non black fellow artists, supporters and soul mates.

The sidebar show 72 Degrees, selected from the museum's permanent collection, includes mostly photography, graphic works and sculptures by Asco and Harry Gamboa, Jr., Lewis Baltz, Billy Al Bengston, Anthony Berlant, Wallace Berman, Vija Celmins, Richard Diebenkorn, Ger van Elk, Walker Evans, Larry Fink, Robert Flock, Lee Norman Friedlander, Joe Goode, Maren Hessinger, Robert Heinecken, George Herms, Edward Kienholz, Robert Kinmont, Edward Moses, Grant Mudford, Wayne Kenyon Nowack, Helen Pashgian, Kenneth Price, Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Joseph Ruscha, Robert S. Titus, James Archie Turrell, DeWain Valentine, Peter Voulkos and Garry Winogrand.

One of the most absorbing essays, by Franklin Sirmans, “Find the Cave, Hold the Torch: Making Art Shows Since Walter Hopps” paid tribute to that seminal genius. It was moving to have Hopps described as closer to an artist, as creator and free spirit, than to curator or museum bureaucrat. There was a logic to why he was hired and fired by museums. We learn how his vision and originality put such an indelible stamp on the institutions whose patience he exacerbated.

During the era in question 1960-1980, other than film and television, it was difficult to survive in the arts in Los Angeles. Ambitious artists decamped to New York.

There were few opportunities for serious artists to show their work. Hopps was involved in founding Ferus Gallery (1958-1966) with Irving Blum which changed that incrementally.
The experimental gallery became more mainstream when Hopps sold his interest to Blum.

Artforum was founded in 1962 in San Francisco by John P. Irwin, Jr. The next publisher/owner Charles Cowles moved the magazine to Los Angeles in 1965 before finally settling it in New York City in 1967. That move reflected the notion that for critical thinking New York was a bigger pond than LA. Today that is less obviously the case.

If New York represented the paradigm for contemporary art during the period in question that allowed for under the radar and off the grid experimentation particularly in Californian takes on pop, funk, film, performance, collage and assemblage.

In the 1960s I recall Bruce Conner, then living in Newton, later Brookline, Massachusetts, describing to me the work of California artists like Edward Kienholz. I knew of the work through an exhibition of his Barney’s Beanery at the ICA then on Newbury Street. Bruce was the most complex and original artist I have ever known. He had packed up his work, including large funky assemblages, and carted it from California to Mexico to Newton. In the basement of International Foundation of Internal Freedom (IFIF) on Kenwood Avenue in Newton, the home of Tim Leary and Richard Alpert (pre Ram Das) and friends, he showed a group of us collaged films he called “A Movie” and “Cosmic Ray.”

Much of the work in Dig This! reflects the Conner/Kienholz collaged, assembled, funk aesthetic. There are many ways of approaching this confluence. On the one hand it allows for working with found materials with their imbedded signifiers. It also obviates the need for classical training and skills. It allows a means of finding the work intuitively through glue or blow torch. The materials come with a history and the artist is an enhancer of their associations. For an artist like Noah Purifoy it was a way of connecting directly to the detritus of Watts scorched by riots. So there is a phoenix like aspect that informs these assemblages.

Collage/ assemblage provided the possibility of expressing rage and revolution in a more visually evocative manner than less obvious use of the metaphors and symbolism of agit-prop. Instead of making art from a slogan like Burn Baby Burn the piece is an assemblage of the resultant charred ruins. The aftermath hip hops its mantra.

In Boston during the 1960s the best know, black, protest artist was Dana Chandler, Jr. His painting were stridently primitivist narrative and cartoonish. It is the kind of work that one most closely associates with the protest art of the era. There was a continuity with the stylistic mannerisms of Social Realists of the 1930s. The works by Samella Lewis in this exhibition illustrate that connection. The linocuts "Field" "Migrants" and woodcut "Twentieth Century Wisemen" recall the graphic style of Robert Gwathmey, William Gropper, Mervin Jules or Leonard Baskin.

What makes Now Dig This! uniquely compelling is that the outrage and protest of this group of concerned artists took new and original forms of expression.

There is a ravishing simplicity, for example, in the assemblages of Dale Brockman Davis. In “Swept” the work is stunning on many levels. There is the utter reductive rightness of the composition that resonated with compelling minimalism. We embrace its basic combination of rectangles, matte areas of color, natural textures of distressed wood, and the exquisite addition of a well worn end of an old broom. Its natural angle is attached perfectly into a lower right corner offering a funky alternative to the otherwise rigid geometry.

One can feel the voodoo and gris gris in the alchemical elements of the witty and evocative assemblages of Betye Saar. Today she, and her daughter Allison, are stars of the art world. It was wonderful to see the origins of her work from the 1960s including “Black Girl’s Window” from 1969. She was among the first to deconstruct racists elements of popular culture in her works. Saar is a precursor of Kara Walker, Ellen Gallagher and Fred Wilson.

Typically “Bag Lady in Flight,” from the 1970s and reconstructed in 1990, by David Hammons enchants on several levels. The choice of materials, common brown shopping bags with handles, is both simple and generic as well as hilarious. With tongue in chic sophistication the always witty and clever Hammons appropriates and sends up the high art glitz of Futurism. Instead of  “Dynamics of a Dog on a Leash” (1912) by Giacomo Balla we have the balletic movements of the “Bag Lady.” The single most stunning object in the exhibition is his graceful and delicate relief sculpture, the ephemeral “Flight Fantasy” 1983.

The most lingering impact of this exhibition was the opportunity to see a number of works by Charles White (Born Chicago 1918 died Los Angeles 1979) one of the rarely celebrated greatest masters of his generation. Being an artist of a senior generation, and mentor to many in this survey including Hammons, his formal training (The Art Institute of Chicago), and approach was more academic and illustrative. His career included working for the WPA and involvement in the leftist movements of the 1930s. The imagery reflects those roots but in the most stunning and poetic manner. The exquisite “Love Letter #1,” a 1971 lithograph with documents, is used for the cover of the exhibition catalogue. In particular his “Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man),” 1973, oil wash on board, just blew my socks off.

There were six large works by White forming the heart and soul of this exhibition. It is the largest number of works by White that I have seen in one setting.  That just ain’t right.

The stretched fabric sculptures of Senga Nengudi are witty and inventive. They recall the use of those materials in Conner’s sculptures and I wondered if there was an association. There were similar responses to the stuffed pieces like “Jive Ass Bird” from John Outterbridge’s "Rag Man Series." One also thought of Bauhaus artist Hans Bellmer’s dolls or even the female grotesqueries of Niki de Saint Phalle.

Oops. There I go playing art critic. My bad. It’s what we do, playing compare and contrast. Perhaps the influences are not so direct and about the zeitgeist. More like the aura of The Beach Boys “Surf’s Up” Mamas and Papas “California Dreaming” or Eagles “Hotel California.”

In that sense the elegant, minimalist, superbly crafted, cast polyester resin “Untitled” abstract sculptures by Fred Eversley seem like malaprops in this survey of black artists. They are an aspect of the Californian movement of the Finish Fetish. In this context his work is unique by not reflecting the social and political imperatives of his generation. Is it mandated that black artists must create works that reflect on social and political conditions? Consider, for example, the abstract work of sculptor Martin Puryear or the painters Sam Gilliam and Ellen Banks. During the 1930s, for example, Stuart Davis was criticised by his leftist peers for painting cubist versions of egg beaters.

Taking on such a broad overview, particularly of cultural movements in states of growth and transition, there are inevitable high and low points. We encounter mediocre works and wonder why they are included. Those are complex curatorial decisions. Reading the essays and biographic notes, for example, we learn that some of these marginal artists were important in other ways as teachers, community activists and organizers.

If you just walk through an exhibition the work has to stand tall and strong on its own terms. Again, that’s what critics do. Most often we don’t have the time or motivation for extended research. Too soon there is the next show and daunting catalogue to deal with.

But we have learned from these ongoing racinated exhibitions at Williams College to look long and hard, to dig ever deeper. Indeed, Now Dig This! Exactly. It builds on the 2012 exhibition and programming of Asco Elite of the Obscure a Retrospective 1972-1987. That project explored the Chicano culture of Los Angeles. It inspired an extended dialogue with Patssi Valdez one of the four Asco artists.

Having experienced that exhibition there was the sense of exploring the subculture of Los Angeles from a different perspective. I was hoping for more possibilities of connecting the dots of similarities and differences between black and Chicano responses to the police state, riots and racism of Los Angeles. There is a third element in its cultural equation; the mainstream white establishment. Then consider a wild card connection to the fantasy of Hollywood and its economy of dreams. Patssi talked about that in some of their ersatz "movies" and costumes.

A focus on black and Hispanic culture is an ongoing mandate of the college and its museum. As a resident of the Berkshires, and neighbor of Williamstown, it is ironic that ethnicity and cultural diversity are all but invisible in our community. Far from the urban centers which inform them these projects risk becoming precious and academic.

As George Clinton might say, where be dah funk in Williamstown? Off the hook man.

Burn Baby Burn.