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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 is on view at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through March 11, 2013.