By Cameron ShawDecember 22, 2011
Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980 by Kellie Jones
L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints by Connie Rogers Tilton
IN 2006, THE HARLEM ART SPACE Triple Candie hosted an exhibition they called David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective. After five years of trying to get the locally based Hammons to show in one capacity or another, the nonprofit gallery put together "the most comprehensive assembly ever either in exhibition or book form" of the artist's work.
The trouble or the boon (depending on your stance) was that there was no actual artwork by Hammons on display. Instead, Triple Candie showed 95 bare-bones reproductions: four decades of greased bodies, bottle caps, chicken wings, brown bags, basketballs, snowballs, and barbershop cuttings reduced to photocopies and computer printouts taped to plywood. Rumors began to fly that Hammons was outraged. Alternatively, some whispered that the inscrutable artist, often accused of pulling the wool over his audience's eyes, was once again mocking our perennial blindness. In the end, the exhibition was exactly what it purported to be — unauthorized — but the gesture perfectly aligned with Hammons' ongoing assault on the conditions of making and showing art (especially while black) in our hyper-consumerist society.
In a 1986 interview with Kellie Jones, recently republished in her book EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, Hammons states plainly, "I can't stand art actually. I've never, ever liked art, ever." Yet all these years he's kept making it, and continually found ways to remind us of this old avowed hatred, not only through what could be termed his "art of protest" but also through his performance of the artist's role. As curator, Okwui Enwezor pointed out in Artforum:
Hammons is legendary for his style of public refusal, reticence, and shallow distance from conventional art-world celebration. One might view this absence as a carefully staged form of visibility, understanding Hammons's stance as its own performance, a form of asceticism that stokes an ever-greater desire for his rare exhibitions.
It is precisely this rarity that makes any book on the artist feel like a gift. L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints is the most thorough examination to date of Hammons's early work and features installation shots, ephemera, and many never-before-published photographs of Hammons in the studio, including images from the La Salle Avenue space he shared with Senga Nengudi. It's an incredibly impressive book, but also a problematic one, in part because there have been so few monographs devoted to Hammons. As the catalogue acknowledges, it began as a project to research the artist's body prints from his time in Los Angeles during the 1960s and early '70s and then "quickly expanded into an exploration of Hammons's peers, their work, and a more general investigation into the art produced in Los Angeles by African-American and multicultural artists during this period."
As an exhibition, L.A. Object — which debuted at Tilton Gallery in New York in 2006 and then traveled to Roberts & Tilton in Los Angeles in 2007 — could be considered revelatory in any context, let alone that of a commercial gallery. Dealer Jack Tilton, who met Hammons in 1976 shortly after he arrived in New York, was granted unparalleled access to the artist's body prints. True to their name, Hammons used his margarine-coated body as a printing press, applying powdered pigments to the moist impressions left on paper, then further embellishing them with silkscreened and collaged elements. Pairing this early work (Tilton rounded up 30 prints) with pieces made by Hammons's West Coast contemporaries scratched the surface of a history of black artists that had largely been buried by time, the same history now being more deeply excavated by the exhibition Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, curated by Kellie Jones as part of the monumental institutional collaboration Pacific Standard Time.
Though L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints made for a striking exhibition, it never quite makes sense as a book, notwithstanding the fact that it appears nearly five years after the show's opening. Divided into five main sections, one of which is an overview of the period, the book is dramatically uneven in its treatment of Hammons and the three other artists it claims as foci: Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, and Betye Saar. For starters, Hammons is the youngest of the four artists (Purifoy was 26 years his senior). While an essay by Yael Lipschutz brilliantly outlines the spiritual and artistic transformations of Purifoy in response to the 1965 Watts Rebellion, Hammons, in the same 1986 interview with Jones, says that he saw Purifoy as a teacher rather than a peer. This is not to refute a multi-generational perspective critical to the development of the Black Arts Movement as a creative offshoot of the Black Power agenda. But while the book attempts to turn Hammons into a hub of the L.A. artistic community, it simultaneously develops a vision of the artist that seems to defy that notion.
There's no doubt that Hammons, with his brutal sense of parody and uncanny ability to retrofit Duchampian wordplay for identity politics, is one of the most important artists — conceptual, black, or otherwise — to emerge in America in the last 50 years, and he was a constant presence in the black arts scene developing in Los Angeles during his decade-long stint in the city. But in contrast to figures like Purifoy (despite his mounting frustrations), Outterbridge, or Charles White (another of Hammons's teachers), who all seemed to relish the dual roles of educator and lightning rod, Hammons preferred to push himself to the perimeter of things - a stance he took more aggressively in later years. This obstinacy manifested as an unwillingness to acquiesce to the requests of a curator, as Josine Ianco-Starrels recounts in her brief anecdotal essay about trying to corral Hammons for two shows in the mid '70s. Similarly, Outterbridge relates, in a two-decade-old interview (the only text in L.A. Object devoted to him), an incident where Hammons approached him at an opening upset by the sight of a price tag applied to a work that was dedicated to Outterbridge's father (Outterbridge, in fact, did not intend to sell the work, precisely because of its sentimental value). In regard to Hammons's intense sensitivity, Outterbridge concedes, "He had an edge on everybody." However interesting, lines such as this contribute to the fullness of the portrait of Hammons in a larger narrative meant to draw our attention to Outterbridge. It's as if the editors tried to make one book and unintentionally ended up making another. With the exception of the incisive essay by Tobias Wofford that dissects Hammons's early practice, specifically his Spade series, in terms of linguistics, Hammons seems to be always in the picture, but slightly out of focus.
The technique of juxtaposing a range of contributions to produce a multifaceted perspective on the period and its artists is more consciously mastered in Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles (also part of Pacific Standard Time). Here, micro-histories and personal recollections never feel like mere asides, and they meld with broader historical overviews to present a clearer, more comprehensive portrait of Los Angeles from 1960-1980. Much about the book's approach can be gleaned from its title. The first part — an exclamation and affirmation, a call to attention and an imperative to listen — underscores the political directives of the Black Arts Movement and the book's primary methodological lens. The second is an equalization of art, race, geography, action, identity, and place. It's not just that the art is black, or even the artists; in Now Dig This! Los Angeles itself is black. This is the Los Angeles of my parents' generation — rallies, rebellions, and reassessments of black consciousness — whose worldview was defined by the dissolution of my grandparents' dream of the Great Migration: that black life would improve with relocation to the West Coast, which instead brought new uncertainties.
The title is particularly telling, not only in contrast to L.A. Object, which never seems to make the jump from object or artist to artistic context, but also when compared to a 1966 show held at UCLA's Dickson Art Center (now the Hammer Museum) called The Negro in American Art, a discussion of which opens Now Dig This!. In the latter exhibition, negritude or blackness are but a small part of American art, which implies the desire and struggle for inclusion in mainstream (read: white) American canons. "Black Los Angeles," on the other hand, suggests the creation of a whole new space in which to exist as political and creative beings. It also implies an ownership of that space, as exemplified by artist and art historian Samella Lewis (who founded the Museum of African American Art in 1976), brothers Dale and Alonzo Davis (who opened the pivotal Brockman gallery in South L.A. in 1967), and other important and underrecognized figures (Lewis and the Davises do, it must be said, find their way into L.A. Object as well).
Now Dig This! provides an understanding of the varied participants who helped fulfill the creation of this symbolic new place, not just the visual artists and gallery owners, but also the writers and curators, filmmakers and theater companies. In her essay "Defending Black Imagination" on the "L.A. Rebellion" School of filmmakers that emerged from UCLA between the late '60s and the early '80s, Jacqueline Stewart articulates the period's primary challenge for artists across disciplines: "how to keep the imaginations of black people alive in an environment that threatens to both crush black creativity and exploit it."
But Now Dig This! doesn't limit its legibility to the black artistic experience in the city. The book specifies the role that non-blacks played in shaping this experience, seeking to demystify the interactions between communities. Curator Karin Higa, for example, provides a close reading of Japanese photographer Robert A. Nakamura's portraits of the artists participating in the 1970 exhibition Black Art in L.A. held at the Da Vinci Art Gallery at Los Angeles City College. The essay is both personal — her father was Kazuo Higa, the director of the Da Vinci Art Gallery who collaborated with Alonzo Davis to organize the exhibition — and at the same time lucid on the interaction between Asian American and African American activists. "At that time, black art became a key source of identification," Higa writes, "not just for African Americans but in the broader Third World sense of people-of-color coalitions."
Further expanding our expectations of what a book on black art should be, Franklin Sirmans devotes his essay to Los Angeles–born curator Walter Hopps. Though Hopps is well-known and white, Sirmans presents his extraordinary career as an indicator of the radical milieu of Los Angeles that permeated even its institutions, especially in regard to Hopps's tenure at the Ferus Gallery and the Pasadena Art Museum. Sirmans's essay supports a discussion of the works that were being seen in the city by artists and residents, black and otherwise. Today, it's hard to imagine the aesthetics of Purifoy's assemblage or Hammons's embrace of the readymade completely divorced from a discussion of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, or Joseph Cornell, but it was Hopps that brought these important exhibitions to Los Angeles, solidifying his vision of a link between European modernism and the city. Though Hopps receives a brief mention in L.A. Object, Now Dig This! allows for these apparent detours to be fully realized, effectively mapping black Los Angeles, and again bringing the place to life.
Cameron Shaw is a writer based in New Orleans.
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