Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles1960 - 1980
UCLA Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
October 2, 2011 through January 8, 2012
A visionary gem of an art exhibit, Now Dig This! represented a vital component of Pacific Standard Time, the broad retrospective of the Los Angeles art scene from 1945 to 1980. The grand scale of this ambitious collaboration of more than 60 Southern California cultural institutions, spearheaded by the Getty Foundation, surveys a large historical period. The opportunity to take a more in-depth look through the lens of African-American artists provided a stunning perspective shift and an intriguing counterpoint to the rest of PST.
Curated by Columbia University professor Kellie Jones, the exhibit had the feel of a time capsule, reflecting the prevailing society, culture, and historical events of the 1960s through the 1970s. Featuring140 works by 35 artists, Now Dig This! offered a graphic portrayal of the times, and gave a sense of how the civil rights and Black Power movements influenced the vision of African-American artists. Included in the Hammer exhibit were works by Melvin Edwards, Fred Eversley, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Alonzo Davis, Dale Brockman Davis, Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar and Charles White -- artists whose work has sometimes been overlooked or overshadowed by that of their more mainstream (read: majority white) counterparts.
By the 1960s, Los Angeles had acquired stature as an important center for art and culture. Ferus Gallery was in its heyday, and white California artists like Ed Ruscha, Judy Chicago, Edward Keinholz and Bruce Nauman were helping to build recognition for the local fine arts scene. Meanwhile, the artwork and activism of local African-American artists like Betye Saar, Charles White, Melvin Edwards, William Pajaud and Samella Lewis also contributed to raise LA’s profile on the national art stage, leaving a legacy that went on to influence a generation of artists that followed.
The diverse styles and broad range of media included in Now Dig This! - painting, drawing, assemblage, sculpture and woodcut –were united by a consistent narrative thread. Themes of pain, protest, identity, and religion, reflected a distinct cultural heritage with eloquence. Among the pieces featured in Now Dig This! -- only a few of which are touched on here -- many chronicled historical events, or their aftermath. Several works by Charles White served as an introduction to the exhibit. An established social realist, White was known for his lyrical depictions of the black figure. In 1956, he relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles, where he taught at Otis Art Institute, influencing several young artists whose work was also featured in the Hammer show.
Birmingham Totem, (ink and charcoal on paper, 1964) is White’s sensitive portrayal of a boy draped in a blanket sorting through the debris left by the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church in Alabama. White captured the subtle nuances of emotion in the fine details of the figure’s closed eyes, features and hands. In White’s portrait of Harriet Tubman, Harriet (oil wash on board, 1972), he juxtaposes a glaring splash of red above a woman’s head, like blood bursting from a gunshot. There is shock value at being confronted with some of the ugly truths of the past, even when conveyed through graceful works of art. Wanted Poster No. 6 (oil wash on board, 1969) is one example of White’s striking series extrapolated from the Wanted posters of escaped slaves. Here, a beautiful female silhouette emerges from the background, with the inscription, V A L U A B L E printed across the foreground.
A group of fine-tuned sculpture and relief pieces by Melvin Edwards showed the artist’s fluency in the language of welding –or wedding - metal bits into wholes. Some Bright Morning, (welded steel, 1963), the first in Edwards’Lynch Fragment series, is composed of welded pieces of chain tools and found tool parts. A piece entitled Cotton Hang Up, (1966) is suspended from the ceiling, a dramatic commentary on the history of cotton and its connection to the African-American community. Here, flexible and inflexible steel elements combine to explore linear planes and three-dimensional space.
Woodcuts by Samella Lewis, one the female artists featured in this exhibit, are figurative compositions evoking human drama in a more subdued way. Her woodcut Field, (1968) shows field hands working under the sun. The fist of one figure is raised defiantly, in the black power salute. In Migrants, (1968), a group of seven figures is seated, apparently in the middle of nowhere. The woodcut is flavored with a profound contrast between light and shade. A tangible mood of despondency is conveyed in the expressions on the migrants’faces.
The work of Betye Saar, another of the female artists whose work was featured, incorporates elements of African-American folklore and religion. In her mixed media assemblage Gris-Gris Box, (1972), Saar fashioned a doll, with delicate embroidery delineating the facial features, surrounded by a crescent moon, feathers, spherical shapes and beads, referencing traditional healing practices. In Black Girl’s Window, (1969, 35.5 x 18 x 1.5 inches) she mounts an assemblage piece in an actual window frame. The woman looks out, her hands pressed against the glass. Symbols hover above, each framed in individual panes. In addition to her diorama-like assemblage pieces, a series of Saar’s color etchings and collages reflect a variety of themes such as feminism, astrology, the tarot and spirituality.
The Watts Rebellion of 1965 had enormous impact on local African-American artists –even providing material for the construction of art. John Riddle and Noah Purifoy made assemblage pieces from salvaged wreckage. Riddle’s mixed media piece Ghetto Merchant, (1966, mixed media 41 x 18.5 inches) is a powerful witness to history. Using debris he found in a bombed out storefront during the Watts Rebellion, Riddle turned to assemblage for its ability to communicate the physicality of black Los Angles in the wake of the uprising. The piece looks almost like a musical instrument transformed. In another of Riddle’s sculptures, Untitled (Fist) (c. 1965), the artist makes a profound statement with brilliant simplicity. This mixed media piece is composed of an inverted rake, its teeth bent like fingers in an upright clenched fist.
Another local artist, John Outterbridge, commented on the plight of the African-American community in his Containment Series. In the piece Eastside Westside, Outterbridge used soldered metal mounted on wood to portray the geographical and territorial divisions that characterize the urban terrain of Los Angeles. From an aerial perspective, he showed how the freeways box in South Central Los Angeles like a jail. Some of Outterbridge’s pieces are more lighthearted, like Untitled, (1974-76), -- a mixed media sculpture of a doll carrying a wooden bowl on her head. The figure reclines, legs akimbo, toes pointed in a dancerly pose, beads adorning the strings of her hair. His piece Captive Image No. 4, from the Ethnic Heritage Group, is an assemblage of a figure with back and white stripes on its legs and the number 12 on its torso -- referring to a prisoner. In place of a head is a radio or TV screen with an antenna, suggesting he is tuned in.
With fitting irony, one of the pieces in the exhibit was, in effect, a time capsule: Dan Concholar’s Suitcase (c. 1980) presented as a mixed media piece, is actually a suitcase which belonged to Charles White. Concholar, a student of White’s, recently found the suitcase above a gallery in midtown Manhattan, where it had sat untouched for 30 years. Inside is a collection of items from the period surveyed in this exhibit -- including assorted tools, photographic slides, and an issue of Life Magazine. It was fascinating to see the work of some of the same artists featured in Now Dig This! at the Getty Center exhibit, Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950 –1970. Viewed in the broader context of the art community at large, the work raised its own distinct voice, though its deeper significance was somewhat diluted.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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