New exhibit spotlights overlooked artists


WILLIAMSTOWN -- American art history is getting a rewrite. Painters, sculptors, printmakers and performance artists neglected or ignored as being outside the white, male, New York mainstream are getting a second look through a project funded by the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles.

Called "Pacific Standard Time," it brought together more than 60 Southern California cultural institutions two years ago to tell -- through exhibitions and new research -- the story of the birth of the Los Angeles art scene between 1945 and 1980

One of those exhibitions, "Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980," is at the Williams College Museum of Art. It features 140 works by 33 artists active before and after the pivotal Watts neighborhood rebellion -- until now called a "riot" -- of 1965.

Its aim, said Kellie Jones, the art historian who originally curated "Now Dig This" for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2011, "is to find people lost to history and bring them out."

The Getty project "wasn't an end point; it was a beginning," Jones said. "They wanted to produce great publications, do oral histories and find archives so that the next generation of students will have a baseline of research to write more comprehensive histories of our country and its art."

Undertold story

WCMA director Tina Olsen, who described the exhibition as "beautiful and powerful," said it "tells a really important undertold story [with] profound implications for the understanding of 20th century art."

It gives, said Jones, a broader picture of American art history, a "porous" one in which different races and ethnicities interconnect outside New York to produce vital, forward-thinking art.

In an interview at the museum last week, she talked about those interconnections, about the differences between New York and L.A. culture, how "Now Dig This" originated, and what she hopes viewers will take away from it.

Raised in New York and now an associate professor of art history at Columbia University, Jones said she was drawn to the Los Angeles art scene after hearing artists she knew in New York, like David Hammons and Charles White, talk about West Coast colleagues she never heard of. Inspired to know more, she spent decades researching black L.A. culture in the 1960s and 70s for a book due out soon. A 352-page catalog accompanies the exhibition.

When the Hammer Museum asked her to guest curate the show, she said "I jumped on it because it would bring more resources to my book and recognition to these artists."

What excited her about the post-World War II art scene in L.A., she said, was its experimental character, an attitude nourished by its youth and its filmmaking, aerospace, and surfer culture. By comparison, New York's art establishment was older, more about traditional painting and sculpture and more focused on commercial success.

Watts rebellion

Black artists migrating from the South to California after the war picked up on that questing West Coast spirit and, though struggling with racial discrimination in housing and jobs, became part of a vibrant community of whites, Asians and Hispanics experimenting with assemblage, minimalism and performance.

The Watts rebellion of 1965, which left large sections of that mainly black neighborhood burned and looted, 34 dead and more than 1,000 injured was the worst in the city's history until that time. It signaled, Jones said, an end to the African-American community's tolerance of de facto discrimination.

What followed for artists was a period of rethinking their roles and that of art itself within the changing culture and of ways to balance personal expression and broader political agendas.

Whatever choices they made as individuals, Jones said, they could not help but be influenced by the times in which they lived and the art they made was evidence of what happened.

The show, which sprawls over five upstairs galleries, ranges from representative narratives, to assemblages made of found objects, to post minimal and performance art.

Although many of the artists take on tough violent subjects like lynching, police brutality, housing discrimination, joblessness and the Vietnam war, the objects they make seldom exhibit the fist-raising, black-power, "get-whitey" anger one might expect. Instead, they examine the convulsive times in subtlely inventive, often ironic and yet biting ways.

David Hammons' 1973 "Bag Lady in Flight" is a graceful, papery wall-hung piece of "ugly" materials like paper bags, grease and wooly black hair. Maren Hassinger's "River," a stream of chains and ropes. wends across a gallery floor. John Riddle's "Ghetto Merchant" sculpture was fabricated out of a scorched cash register retrieved from the Watts flames. Charles White's 1971 "Love Letter #1" lithograph portrait of a black woman and a rose, comes with form letters urging viewers to write California Gov. Ronald Reagan to free black power advocate Angela Davis.

Little moralizing

Jones said she was pleased to see so little of the work was didactic, or moralizing. And she was especially satisfied that the exhibition was in an "encyclopedic" teaching museum like WCMA where it could play off other objects in WCMA's collection and "make the point that this work is part of world culture."

Olsen, who said her institution sought the show as a loan, supported that observation, saying that Williams faculty from many different disciplines "are really excited about teaching around it."

"Now Dig This" illustrates, Jones says, that "American art is so much more than we imagined."


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