Hammer Museum Opens “Now Dig This!” Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980

The Hammer Museum presents “Now Dig This!” Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 an exhibition, on view October 2, 2011 – January 8, 2012, that chronicles the vital legacy of the city’s African American artists.

The work of these practitioners was animated to an extent by the civil rights and Black Power movements, reflecting the changing sense of what constituted African American identity and American culture. The power of the black community strengthened nationwide as racial discrimination began to lessen as a result of new legislation and changing social norms. As there were plentiful opportunities for African Americans to make a livelihood in Southern California, Los Angeles soon had a substantial black population, and social, political, and economic changes drew transplants from around the country. Galvanized by these transformations, black artists worked to form a cultural community that became an important part of the city’s thriving arts scene.

Now Dig This! examines a pioneering group of African American artists whose work, connections, and friendships with other artists of varied ethnic backgrounds influenced the creative community and artistic practices that developed in Los Angeles during this historic period. The exhibition presents 140 artworks by these artists and the friends who influenced and supported them during this period and explores and celebrates the significant contributions of African Americans to the canon of Los Angeles–based art.

“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,” says exhibition curator Kellie Jones.

During the 1960s and 1970s, artists in Southern California developed an aesthetic language that reflected their West Coast surroundings and explored various approaches to art making, including assemblage, “finish fetish,” California pop, installation, and performance. Several prominent black artists began their careers in the Los Angeles area, including Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar. They were part of a unique support system that involved a confluence of artists, curators, scholars, and gallerists in Southern California. Samella Lewis, Suzanne Jackson, and Dale Brockman Davis and Alonzo Davis opened galleries that became important outlets and gathering places for black artists. Lewis, a noted art historian, also wrote books and articles that established a benchmark for the documentation and analysis of the work of contemporary African American artists.

In the fall of 1966 UCLA’s Dickson Art Center inaugurated its new building with the exhibition The Negro in American Art. Although the exhibition was national in scope, a significant portion of the artists were from Los Angeles and were part of a group working with Noah Purifoy and the Watts Towers Arts Center to reclaim the remains of the Watts uprising, which had taken place just one year earlier, by using them to make art. Seven artists in the current exhibition—Melvin Edwards, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, Raymond Saunders, Ruth G. Waddy, and Charles White—were among the more than forty who participated in the 1966 show. Moreover, three of the works presented in the earlier exhibition—Edwards’s The Lifted X and August the Squared Fire, along with Johnson’s Big Red, all from 1965—are on view here. Now Dig This! expands on this legacy and considers the activities of African American artists in Los Angeles during these pivotal years through a broader lens. —Kellie Jones, Guest Curator

Now Dig This! is presented as part of Pacific Standard Time, a collaboration of more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California, coming together for six months beginning in October 2011 to tell the story of the birth of the Los Angeles art scene and how it became a new force in the art world. Organized by the Hammer and curated by Columbia University professor Kellie Jones, Now Dig This! will chronicle and celebrate this nuanced and multicultural history of Los Angeles.

“Pacific Standard Time is a very significant event for the city of Los Angeles. The deep and remarkable history it explores serves as a foundation for the thriving creative community of artists living and working here today,” remarks Hammer director Ann Philbin. “Now Dig This! reveals a specific moment when a group of African American artists, gallerists, writers, and collectors generated a nexus of creativity and influence that is largely unknown to the general public.”

Image: John Outterbridge No Time for Jivin’, from the Containment Series 1969 Mixed media. 56 x 60 in. (142.2 x 152.4 cm). Mills College Art Museum Collection, Purchased with funds from the Susan L. Mills Fund.

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