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South Los Angeles. August 1972. A crowd of 100,000 spectators fills the Los Angeles Coliseum to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1965 Watts uprisings. Jesse Jackson delivers a rousing invocation, inciting the crowd to raise their fists in solidarity. The occasion: Wattstax Music Festival, the black analogue to Woodstock. Footage from this event went largely unnoticed until the 2004 re-release of Wattstax, Mel Stuart’s 1973 documentary of the landmark concert. A mash-up of interviews and live concert footage, Wattstax highlights the urgent political climate of the 1960s and 1970s that fostered emerging discourses around identity, resistance, visibility, and liberation. Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 and 30 Americans are two exhibitions centered on black artistic production between 1960 and the present that respond to this climate.
Like Wattstax, the title of Now Dig This! signals a project of recovery and resistance. To dig is to prod, to excavate and uncover, to understand, to relish and groove. Now Dig This! highlights the very politics of forging black identity, in Southern California’s artistic landscape and elsewhere, while the 2004 re-release of Wattstax frames the dialogic narrative between Now Dig This! and 30 Americans.
Now Dig This!, organized by the Hammer Museum and curated by Kellie Jones, is part of the Getty Institute’s Pacific Standard Time (click here for review), an initiative focused on postwar art in Los Angeles. Now Dig This! includes 140 works by 33 artists working in assemblage, California pop, installation, and performance, and it features work by Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, John Outterbridge, Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, and other black artists who began their careers in Los Angeles. The exhibition extends the project of The Negro in American Art, which in 1966 showcased the rich, vibrant legacy of Southern California’s black art scene at UCLA’s Dickson Art Center. Many of the works in Now Dig This! were first shown in alternative spaces: artist-run galleries like Suzanne Jackson’s Gallery 32, homes and backyards of friends and art patrons, and independently published anthologies like Samella Lewis and Ruth Waddy’s two-volume Black Artists on Art (Los Angeles: Contemporary Crafts Publishers,1969, 1971).
Upon entering Now Dig This!, viewers encounter two striking works: Melvin Edwards’s welded steel sculpture, The Lifted X (1965), and Charles White’s monumental ink and charcoal drawing, Birmingham Totem (1964), picturing a cloaked figure perched atop a mountain of wood fragments. Both pieces reference two important subjects in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements—Malcolm X and Birmingham, Alabama—introducing the progressive black politics of the era that underscores several works in the exhibition.
Now Dig This! is thematically divided into four sections, though some artworks could easily fit in more than one category: Frontrunners (such as Edwards and White), Assembling, Artists/Gallerists, and Post/Minimalism and Performance. The exhibition includes important contributions to an emergent canon of black conceptual art as well as to exchanges between artists from divergent backgrounds. For instance, Hammons first began experimenting with printmaking practices as a student at Otis Art Institute during the time of Robert Rauschenberg’s own prolific printmaking career. But Hammons extends Rauschenberg’s celebrated practice by incorporating his body as textual surface. In America the Beautiful (1968), Hammons presses his oiled skin onto paper and covers the printed surface with pigment, additionally bringing his body-based printmaking practice into critical dialogue with works like Yves Klein’s Anthromopetries.
Assemblage, the style often identified with California art of the late 1950s and early 1960s, is given considerable attention in the exhibition. Daniel LaRue Johnson, John Riddle, Fred Eversley, and other artists used assemblage to explore the political dimensions of blackness—as color, socio-cultural signifier, site of belonging, and material ripe for critiquing institutions through which blackness was both withheld and constituted. Untitled (Assemblage) (1967) demonstrates Purifoy’s practice of incorporating found objects from the 1965 Watts uprisings’ remains while Saar’s Black Girl’s Window (1969) and Let Me Entertain You (1972) appropriate the window as both a canvas and frame; the latter work is a triptych featuring a blackface minstrel figure, deconstructed and superimposed over a lynching photograph, and refigured as a gun-wielding militant. Saar’s multivalent practice serves as a bridge to Postminimalist and feminist performance practices later employed by Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger, both of whom produced specially commissioned artworks for the exhibition.
30 Americans showcases a shortlist of the Rubell Family Collection’s growing assortment of works by Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, Nick Cave, Mickalene Thomas, Renée Green, and twenty-four other black contemporary artists. There is plenty of crossover between the two exhibitions—from artists to aesthetic strategies—pinpointing instances of identity discourse defined by a relationship to other instances, both past, to which they respond, and future, whose response they anticipate. For example, Suzanne Jackson’s Apparational Visitations (1973) exhibited in Now Dig This! pictures the top portion of a female figure centered in a white background. The figure rises out of a swirling, light-gray funnel located between a flamingo and a red, blossoming, long-stem flower. Instead of a wholly constructed body, the figure’s mid-section is a face: unfinished, composite, retracted. Jackson’s piece serves as an interesting precursor to Wangechi Mutu’s Non je ne regrette rien (2007) in 30 Americans. Known for her collages of cyborg females, Non je ne regrette rien features a maimed figure—part animal, part human, part machine—suspended in the middle of a gray-and-brown, cloud-like background. Severed from its upper half and projected into a cumulous abyss, only the figure’s lower limbs remain. Mutu’s practice brings the mediums of painting and collage into collision, mediums historically dominated by the figurative, literalizing the symbolic ruptures she enacts with her refigurations.
Many of the artists in 30 Americans use figuration, narrative, and other aesthetic strategies oft associated with explorations of identity to interrogate the very nature of representation. Take Xaviera Simmons’s work for example. A woman is seated in a wicker chair in a clearing among an unruly field of sea reeds. Nude. Her hands rest calmly on her knees. Her skin covered in charcoal-colored paint, bright red lips, and neutral unaffected stare accented by the whites of her eyes instantly draw the viewer’s focus. The rounded high back of the chair contrasts with the vertically jutting reeds and frames the upper half of the woman’s body crowned by a thick, curly Afro. The patterned parallel lines of the wicker chair create a visual tension with the vertical reeds, with thin horizontal reeds in the middle of the frame acting as vectors connecting subject and landscape.
The piece is One Day and Back Then (Seated) and was produced in 2007. Trained as a photographer and an actor, Simmons uses a large-format, 4 × 5 camera to capture images of her as subject performing actions within a given landscape. Its companion image, One Day and Back Then (Standing) (2007), features Simmons standing, her nude body now clothed by an opaque, velvety black trench coat. Her hands are tucked away in her coat pockets. The image’s depth of field is condensed compared to the wider angle and expanded field of One Day and Back Then (Seated), causing the figure to advance within the viewer’s field of vision. The viewer’s eye follows the vectored pathway; there is no vanishing point. All sightlines lead to her. Simmons’s direct address to both camera and viewer activates a negotiation between viewing body and photographic object. The eye pans around both images, moving through and between them, coerced by the recession and progression of the figure in the landscape which mimics the negotiation of distance between viewer and image.
Simmons’s work participates in a history of staged photography specific to representations of women and people of color employed by artists such as Carrie Mae Weems. A selection of toned prints from Weems’s series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96) are included in 30 Americans. Each print confronts personal and historical memory by juxtaposing poetic phrases over images culled from the Getty Institute’s photographic archive. Each frame is installed linearly and unfolds one after the other, drawing out tensions between narrative and history, the official and the unofficial. Both Simmons and Weems highlight the production of particular bodies, subjects, and histories by appropriating and exploiting certain legacies of representation that inscribe and produce stereotypes. But the relationship between Simmons and Weems is made even more complex by the historical and cultural specificity of the time in which their respective works were produced. Weems made what are often regarded as her most definitive bodies of work in the 1990s while Simmons’s career began in the early 2000s. Each of these decades represents specific points in the development of discourses around identity and identity performance with which Weems and Simmons both engage. Simmons’s performance of blackface and the female nude suggest a relationship to performance documentation and reveal photography’s relationship to ideological structures by which blackness and womanhood have been constructed. Her strategic deployment of the black, nude body in performance questions its place as a material site or, better yet, a text, constituted through history and culture. But even as her One Day and Back Then images point to performance documentation, they undo this relationship. The works are not documents of a previously performed event per se; the performance is identity itself.
Simmons’s pose, her curly Afro, and the wicker chair in One Day and Back Then (Seated) also reference the iconic sepia-and-white image of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton seated in a similar pose and chair. But unlike Simmons, Newton is pictured holding a rifle and a spear. Newton’s choice of weapons recalls the practice of hunting: of game, of humans as chattel, and of patrolling the police in the case of Newton’s vigilantism. Newton’s chair is meant as a throne; his weapons and the two shields propped against the wall to the left and right of him are meant to mark him as a warrior ready for battle. Simmons’s performance and migration of this image make specific reference to Civil Rights and Black Power politics of which Simmons and other artists in 30 Americans are inheritors. Simmons brings together race and gender as forms of visual hegemony, deconstructs photography as a medium by which this hegemony operates, and problematizes the very nature of an essentialized, solitary definition of blackness that resulted from struggles for black equality and visibility in the 1960s and 1970s.1
Wattstax’s re-release spurred a surge of films dedicated to tracking the sounds of black cultural politics, such as Michel Gondry’s Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005) and The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2010), to name two. Like these films, several of the works in 30 Americans conjure and trouble the iconicity and impact of symbols like raised fists and ‘fros that are associated with the black struggle for liberation and solidarity in America. The work of Simmons, Rashid Johnson, Shinique Smith, Hank Willis Thomas, and others follows the emergence of “post-black” as a fashionable term to articulate a transformation in conceptual strategies of post-Civil Rights generations of artists.2 Simmons’s photographic ethos in One Day and Back Then elucidates a decisive shift in grappling with practices of representation that unsettle limitations imposed by race and gender. Rather than reducing the black body to a fetish object informed by late capitalist markets, Simmons resists a central criticism of post-black production by encoding that which is already (en)coded, tracking a historical relationship between blackness, capitalism, and commodity fetishism.
The artists in 30 Americans signify on the practices represented in Now Dig This! and negotiate difference in a cultural and economic climate that habitually demands its visualization. In a time when the social constructedness of race, gender, and sexuality operate as givens, Now Dig This! and 30 Americans offer up a sound track for interrogating fraught and evolving histories of representation.
PhD candidate, Visual and Cultural Studies, University of Rochester
1 Jennifer A. González’s and Darby English’s work on race and visuality inform my thoughts here. In Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), González interrogates “the history and persistence of race as a form of visual hegemony” (2). In How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), English casts the celebratory rhetoric of black solidarity championed by the Spiral Collective and Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s as a “group compulsion” or group identity that served as a strategy of resistance and inherent belonging. For English, this group formation is both collapsing and generative in its solidarity. In English’s view, this impulse for solidarity is problematic; contemporary black artists are the unfortunate inheritors of a crisis in representation that is bound by a rhetoric of obligation to some essentialist or unifying notion of black culture.
fn2. In 2001, Thelma Golden curated Freestyle and coined the term “post-black.” In the exhibition catalogue, Golden states that post-black artists are characteristically “adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists, though their work [is] steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness” (Thelma Golden, Freestyle, ex. cat., New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 14).