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Review: MoMA PS1's Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980

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In protest of the 1970 arrest of Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners launched a letter-writing campaign. Politicians and notable figures across the United States, including then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, received note cards expressing the committee's utter disgust with and indignation about Davis' arrest and demanding that the injustice be redressed posthaste. The cover of the note cards featured a captivating image of a beautiful, solemn-faced, afro-clad black woman and an intricately rendered pink rose set against the backdrop of a swirl of textures, an image that did not necessarily bespeak the forcefulness of the committee's written objections. Artist Charles Wilbert White, in an act of solidarity with Davis, the committee and, more generally, black radicality, consented to the use of his 1971 color lithograph Love Letter #1 for the cover. White, who at the time was teaching at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, had maintained a lifelong commitment to producing art that not only captured the grace and determination of black people but registered a call for social change. The circulation of Love Letter #1 as a part of the protest of Davis' arrest exampled this commitment and, indeed, the importance and influence of both a civil rights and black power politics for many of the artists working in and around Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. Powerfully, the exhibition Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980, which is on view at MoMA PS1 through March 2013 and launches with White's Love Letter #1, brings together and spotlights the work of many of these artists.

Curated by Kellie Jones, Associate Professor of Art History at Columbia University, Now Dig This! first opened at UCLA's Hammer Museum in October 2011 as a part of the Getty Foundation's initiative Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980. The exhibition features 140 artworks by 35 artists, including Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy and Betye Saar, and documents the vibrancy of the black arts scene and community in Southern California in the '60s and '70s. In so doing, Now Dig This! offers an important rejoinder to those art historical, critical, curatorial and museological practices that refuse to acknowledge the significance of the scene and, crucially, of black artists to the history of 20th-century American art. As Jones notes, "The artists that have been included in Now Dig This! represent a vibrant group whose work is critical to a more complete and dynamic understanding of twentieth century American art. Their influence goes beyond their immediate creative circles and their legacy is something we are only now beginning to fully understand." Indeed, Jones' showcasing of the artists and works in Now Dig This! exposes and, significantly, challenges the colluding forces of racism and sexism that have often engulfed, overdetermined and, surely, forestalled a more dynamic perception of art.

Jones' curation of the exhibition is exquisite. While put together, the show's five segments -- "Front Runners," "Artists/Gallerists," "Assembling," "Postminimal Art and Performance" and "Los Angeles Snapshot/Friends" -- establish a rough chronology of the black arts scene and community during the period. Jones organizes the artwork around key themes, highlighting the contexts out of which they emerged. "Front Runners" and "Artists/Gallerists" chronicle the emergence of Southern California as a vital part of the national arts scenes. Edwards and White, along with Alonzo Davis, Dale Brockman Davis, Suzanne Jackson, Samella Lewis and William Pajaud, played instrumental roles in creating spaces for black artists to develop their craft and have their work exhibited and appreciated. They taught courses in art history and practice, established galleries, edited anthologies on black art and, significantly, produced work that commanded attention. Edwards' "August the Squared Fire" (1965), one of the first pieces encountered in Now Dig This!, does just that: commands attention. At first blush, the sculpture presents itself as a fixed mass of twisted, welded steel. A closer look, however, reveals the piece's subtle movements: movements that, no doubt, excite movement, movements that gesture toward Movements.

Jones notes that in the aftermath of the Watts Rebellion of 1965, many black artists in Southern California began experimenting with assemblage, the artistic process of creating two- or three-dimensional compositions from found objects, as a way to communicate the ferocity of the event and to highlight some of their spiritual, political and social concerns. "Assembling" gathers the assemblages of Outterbridge, Purifoy, Saar and John T. Riddle. Purifoy's "Pressure" (1966), which is composed of detritus gathered from the rebellion -- a melted, deformed steel can bounded by a wooden frame replete with chipped white painting -- is particularly evocative, conjuring the heat that precipitated the rebellion and that, no doubt, persisted in its wake. Saar's "Black Girls Window" (1969) is equally expressive, at once evincing a feeling of anxiety and a spirit of protest. In fact, what becomes rather clear in moving through "Assembling" are the myriad ways that the artists exhibited reworked and remixed abandoned or discarded objects to create new narrative meanings in what were surely tumultuous times.

Many of the works in "Postminimal Art and Performance" not only inspire new narrative meanings but reconceptualize what constitutes the art object. Live events and ephemeral art often prove confounding for curators. Within the history of art, they tend to go unremarked. Given that, the looping of video of Hassinger's performance "High Noon" (1976) alongside several of video/performance artist Ulysses Jenkins' pieces is particularly noteworthy and, once again, evidences the thoughtfulness of Jones's curatorial practice. Indeed, given their frequent collaborations during the period, it is fitting that Jones places Hassinger's impressive installation "Place for Nature" (recreated in 2011) in conversation with Hammons' body print "The Wine Leading the Wine" (1969) and Nengudi's ephemeral sculpture "Only Love Saves the Day" (recreated in 2011) in this section. The pieces each illuminate the ways that artists continued to experiment with different materials and dematerialized practices. Moreover, they illustrate how an interest in the body and, correspondingly, performance began to inflect various artistic practices.

Beautifully, Now Dig This! embraces an expansive understanding of "community." Thus, "Los Angeles Snapshots/Friends" spotlights some of the more informal affiliations and relationships between black artists and artists of other ethnic backgrounds and those located in other parts of California. Among these artworks, a particular piece of ephemera stands out. In 1970 Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, the pioneering graphic artist who founded a design program for women at CalArts and, later, the arts and education center The Woman's Building, produced a graphic to help recruit new design students. The text read, "If the designer is to make a deliberate contribution to society, he must be able to integrate all he can learn about behavior and resources, ecology and human need. Taste and style just aren't enough." If there is one theme that is threaded through all the artwork exhibited in Now Dig This, it is that taste and style weren't enough for many of the artists working in Southern California between 1960 and 1980. The artists presented in Now Dig This! conjoin aesthetic concerns with cultural, ideological and political critique to produce artwork that, on the whole, is affecting and galvanizing. Jones' corralling of this work into a single exhibition is nothing short of a stroke of genius. Indeed, Now Dig This! is a winning accomplishment -- one worth digging. To be sure, I dig.