At roughly 350 pages, Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, is a conceptually massive, literally heavy and generally ambitious catalogue that questions our expectations of what an exhibition catalogue should be. Published by Prestel in conjunction with the Now Dig This! exhibition currently on view at PS1 MoMA, it showcases the artwork of thirty-five artists, and contains eight main essays written by predominately African-American critics, professors and art historians. The exhibition catalogue, in stark contrast with the exhibition itself, is an intellectually dense web of verbiage that seeks to outline and explain the racial divisions that existed in Los Angeles during the 1960s, 70s, and 1980s.
While it’s difficult, and arguably unrewarding, to read all of the catalogue’s scholarly essays written by authors with an intimidating level of pedigree, the book’s text cumulatively paints a rough picture of Los Angeles at a time when race and culture were changing in tandem together. Now Dig This! focuses on the unmistakable, though clearly overlooked, contributions of black artists. The art world, contemporary or historical, is a messy place where the hierarchies of race and class have power over the cultural value we associate with artists and their work, and it comes as no surprise that an economically segregated Los Angeles fell victim to these rules of repression and control. Just as LA was emerging as a major hub for contemporary art, Now Dig This! illustrates how creative, black artists subverted the dominant hierarchy, perspective, and aesthetic.
The surprising specificity of the exhibition catalogue simultaneously helps and hinders our understanding of it. Though the abstract for Now Dig This! states, “the catalog[ue] offers the first in-depth survey of the incredibly vital legacy of Los Angeles’s African American artists,” the book seems to be anything but a survey. The catalogue is certainly a beautiful and comprehensive publication, but there is not a single essay in it that even remotely resembles a “survey.” The essays assume that their readers have an in-depth, working knowledge of the Black Arts Movement, an assumption that makes the book very smartly written and also willfully exclusive of most of its readers. If the purpose of Now Dig This! is to cast light onto a shadowy subject, should the catalogue be so overwhelmingly difficult to engage with?
Bits and pieces gleaned from the essays, however, do serve to show us that the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles came about through many different channels, mediums, and supporters. The movement was not the result of a rise in the number of African-American artists, but rather the complicated progress achieved by struggling curators, professors, writers, musicians, and cultural critics all working to create a new artistic community. Each essay in Now Dig This! touches on a different microcosm of the Black Arts Movement, and while the catalogue might create more confusion then it dispels, there is an important value in the specificity of each essay: collectively they bring to the forefront creative people we’ve otherwise forgotten, overlooked, or dismissed. Instead of describing a movement, Now Dig This! captures the unfamiliar and important faces that were pivotal to it.
In her introduction the catalogue’s editor Kellie Jones states, “lacking representation in mainstream institutions, African American artists opened their own venues in the 1960s and 1970s,” going on to say that, “these spaces, and the artists who ran them, played an important role in the progressive struggles of the period.” In Find the Cave, Hold the Torch, LACMA curator Franklin Sirmans dives into an extensive look at the life and legacy of the Los Angeles curator Walter Hopps. Hopps cofounded the important Ferus Gallery, and was an early champion of the uniquely West Coast aesthetic of assemblage, a technique many black artists of the time employed. “In some quarters it has been said that Hopps might have been too much like an artist himself — a risk taker who disdained the rules of institutional bureaucracy,” Sirmans states.
The essay “Black Art In LA,” curator Karin Higa discusses the photographs of Robert A. Nakamura. In 1970, the Asian-American filmmaker took portraits of black artists like Betye Saar, Charles White, David Hammons, and John Outterbridge, working in their studios amidst the clutter of their artwork. “The simple act of photographing black artists cannot be underestimated in a period when representations in the mainstream media were nearly nonexistent,” Higa explains. The historian Daniel Widner, in The Art of Creative Survival, makes the case that “more than any other artistic medium, theater highlights the tremendous variation present in the cultural activities of LA-based African American artists of the 1960s and 1970s.” In Defending Black Imagination, the Northwestern professor Jacqueline Stewart mulls over the cinematic contributions of the “LA Rebellion,” a school of black filmmakers who sought to undermine the dominant narratives in Hollywood.
Sampling topics from the essays in Now Dig This! makes the catalogue feel like volume two of some larger, longer story of which we’ve missed part one. Because of essays like the ones mentioned above, it’s more than likely that the catalogue’s authors, experts that they are, were too caught up in their own particular genre of interest. Writing about theater, performance, filmmaking, music, and an array of other media, Now Dig This! communicates less than it could have by overcomplicating an already complicated topic. The editor, Kellie Jones, compounds the situation by not giving her readers any essays that speak simply or generally about the topic, and thus we bounce from one seemingly unrelated subject to another.
The exhibition that the catalogue is supposed to accompany, compliment and explain is simple, well organized, engaging and most of all, accessible — all things the catalogue isn’t. The artist’s highlighted by the exhibition fit surprisingly well into the canon of their contemporaries, making the art of Now Dig This! less segregated than the society that produced it. The readymade collages of Dale Brockman Davis recall the boxes of Joseph Cornell, the sculptures of Fred Eversley of the work of the California minimalists, the linocuts of Samella Lewis of the paintings of Aaron Douglas.
As I floundered to find a footing, rhythm, and sense of purpose in the catalogue’s essays, I wondered if it’s reasonable to fault a book for being too educational, specific or wordy. I came out the other side of Now Dig This! in much the same state of uncertainty in which I entered it, and continue to question the purpose of exhibition catalogues. Are they there to explain the art and elaborate upon the context in which the artwork was made? Are they designed to educate the viewer of a certain movement in a themed show? Should an exhibition catalogue be more like a textbook, something art historical in nature? Again and again while reading my way through Now Dig This! I asked myself these questions, coming at last to the conclusion that what an exhibition catalogue shouldn’t be is exclusive. When a little too much careless conceit is thrown into a book like Now Dig This!, full of smart but obtuse essays, it can overwhelm the engaging and accessible art it sought to showcase.
Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.
Related review of Now Dig This!: “The Fantastic and Revelatory Story of Art and Black LA” by Jillian Steinhauer