When Kellie Jones’s exhibition Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 landed at MoMA PS1 in the fall of 2012, after having first been staged at the Hammer Museum in LA, it opened some eyes. Until then, those of us who are not much in touch with the Southern California scene (and not black) had some basic parameters for the art of that place — from the “abstract classicists,” of whom John McLaughlin became the most renowned; the “finish fetish” of John McCracken and company; “light and space” à la Robert Irwin; and on through the cool Pop of Ed Ruscha; the transgressive performance art of Chris Burden; the wry conceptualism of John Baldessari; Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley’s wallowing in abjection: this was what had made the national and international scene — and no black artists were on the bill. A good example of how this played out in practice might be the 1997-98 traveling exhibition Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997, which started its tour at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark and ended it back home at the Hammer. The only “noir” on its checklist of some fifty artists was David Hammons.
Thanks to Jones and Now Dig This!, it’s clear that Hammons was not an isolated figure during his time on the West Coast. He was connected to a scene that included artists — Melvin Edwards, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi among them — who, like him, eventually made their way east, where the public quickly lost sight of their California roots. But there were others, such as John Outterbridge and Noah Purifoy, whose work was hardly seen outside California, or Betye Saar, whose work became known but was not well understood. Jones, having successfully demonstrated in Now Dig This! not only what she called “the integral role of African American artists in Southern California in the development of the U.S. art scene during the latter part of the twentieth century,” but also the outstanding aesthetic quality of their work, left us hungry for more. But aside from the exhibition catalogue itself (its essays are now available at hammer.ucla.edu/now-dig-this/essays/) information about the artists and their milieu was hard to come by. The only other easily available source on this scene was in a couple of brief but dense chapters in an excellent book that itself had been strangely overlooked, Richard Cándida Smith’s The Modern Moves West: California Artists and Democratic Culture in the Twentieth Century (2009).
Jones now comes to the rescue with her new book South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, a deeply researched, panoramic depiction of how black artists made not only great art, but their own art world in Los Angeles during two crucial decades. Better still, she understands this art history as part of a bigger story: “nothing less than black people willing into existence their presence in American life” and “their resolve to make a new world in the aftermath of human bondage and stake their claim in the United States.” Rooted in the migrations of twentieth-century African Americans, the art of Saar, Outterbridge, Purifoy and the rest, is thus, as she puts it, one of “dislocations and cultural reinvention.”
Jones’s text moves deftly through this broad picture: the epic of black America creating itself against the odds; the middle ground in which we see the nuts and bolts of an art scene as it is painstakingly constructed, not only by artists, but by dealers, collectors, and others concerned with the nurturing of a culture; and close readings of particular artworks. What makes it work is that at each level, she articulates the ideas that she ascribes above all to Purifoy as an artist and thinker of assemblage: “the tension between the striving for excellence and perfection and the inadequateness of the tools given; transforming this notion of lack into something useful, aesthetic, and in the service of good; altering trash and shoddiness into that from which beauty flowed.”
Quite simply, the history, not just of art in Los Angeles, but of modern American art generally will have to be reconceived on the basis of South of Pico and Now Dig This!. It will no longer be possible to make exhibitions like Sunshine and Noir as if this great welling up of creativity had never taken place. Some major artists are about to muscle their way into the canon.
And if the art history of Los Angeles has been so badly misrepresented up until now, what are the chances that the “local histories” (to borrow Donald Judd’s term) of Chicago and New York have been charted any more accurately? The historians have their work cut out for them, and we critics will have to do our part too. There is going to be much more said about all this in the years to come, but for now I want to end with some words from Purifoy: “There must be more inside of Art than the creative act; more than the sensation of beauty, ugliness, color, form, light, sound, darkness, intrigue, wonderment, uncanniness, bitter, sweet, black, white, life, and death. There must also be a me who is affected permanently.” Jones reveals an art that will affect us permanently, whoever we are, wherever we come from, if we hold ourselves open to it.
South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (2017) is published by Duke University Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.