Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 5, 2018
Kellie Jones South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. 416 pp.; 32 color ills.; 93 ills. Paperback $29.95 (9780822361640)

Kellie Jones’s South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s illuminates a blind spot in existing histories of contemporary art in Los Angeles. Those who know Los Angeles know that the area “south of Pico”—dominated by the north-south arteries of Central and Crenshaw avenues, which connect the neighborhoods of Watts, Compton, Leimert Park, and Baldwin Hills—has historically been the center of black life in the city. As Jones writes, Pico Boulevard is a physical “demarcation of division” that also represents a “hidden history of blackness” (15). Written in highly readable, compellingly detailed prose, South of Pico shows that the histories of multiple generations of African American artists are written, palimpsest-like, on these streets of Los Angeles. Beginning with the influential pedagogue Charles White, Jones details how interlocking circles of black artists “coalesced a community” through their art practices and equally consequential community-building endeavors (45). Alongside White, the book features Betye Saar, Melvin Edwards, Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, brothers Alonzo and Dale Brockman Davis, Samella Lewis, Suzanne Jackson, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassenger, Houston Conwill, David Hammons, and Sanford Biggers, as well as countless other supporting figures.

South of Pico unfolds as a sequence of interwoven, biographically driven accounts of these artists’ roles in fomenting Los Angeles’s contemporary African American art community. Through critical comparisons to well-studied artists, institutions, and events that dominate art histories of postwar Los Angeles, Jones helpfully knits the community to a map of contemporary California art as it is already known as well as to established narratives of the Black Arts Movement in Chicago and New York. The book is a scholarly elaboration of Jones’s exhibition Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980, mounted in 2011 at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, a project preceded by the author’s 2006 essay “Black West: Thoughts on Art in Los Angeles” (in New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement, edited by Lisa Gail Collins and Margo Natalie Crawford). Indeed, one of the book’s major strengths is Jones’s palpably attentive material and archival labor, which makes the volume an implicit argument for the value of curatorial work to the crafting of art-historical scholarship.

The diversity of art practices examined in South of Pico are framed as so many stories of African American migration. Jones continually reads artworks according to a dialectical operation of uprooting migration narratives and the subsequent seeking and crafting of new “safe spaces” to call home (23). The book’s frame is grounded in the spatial theories of Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre, Miwon Kwon’s art-historical work on site, and studies of the cultural ramifications of African American migration and diaspora by scholars including Katherine McKittrick, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Huey Copeland. The book’s well-crafted introduction details a second wave of migration from the South that brought many African Americans to Los Angeles between roughly 1940 and 1970. California held special status in black migration narratives as a place of “possibility, peace, and utopia,” explains Jones, a place where African Americans could will “into existence their presence in modern American life” despite continued limitations on their rights and movement (3). Jones’s aim is to illuminate how the work of black Angeleno artists “speaks to the dislocations and cultural reinvention of migration, its materials of loss and of possibility, and sense of reinscription of the new in style and practice” (3). The aesthetic trajectory of the ensuing chapters moves from figurative work featuring images of African American struggle and uplift to abstract, ephemeral, and performative work that responds more ambiguously to the category of black art and reflects broader transformations in contemporary art of the period. Ultimately, Jones argues, these artists endeavored to reclaim and make visible the self-possessed and empowered sitedness of (previously dispossessed and/or overlooked) black bodies and, by extension, black art in urban space.

Chapter 1 opens with White’s arrival in Los Angles in the mid-1950s as a well-known artist confronted with a predominantly white and segregated mainstream art scene. White’s work is crucial to Jones’s narrative for his engagement with the black figurative tradition, the history of the African diaspora, and community-focused exhibition sites and arts initiatives. She argues that White helped transmit a “black folk culture—one that was alternative, nonconformist, and outside commercial mass culture”—to an emerging generation of artists (44). The chapter also begins to highlight the resourceful exhibiting strategies of black artists, who, beginning in the 1930s, built an informal network of private clubs, churches, homes, schools, universities, libraries, black-owned businesses, and upstart galleries to display and sell their work when higher-profile art institutions ignored or actively dismissed them. Chapter 1 further juxtaposes the different trajectories of Saar and Edwards. Saar, born in Watts and trained in craft and design, supported herself in the 1950s by making and selling jewelry and greeting cards and gained recognition slowly. Edwards, on the other hand, was one of the first African American artists to earn recognition in Los Angeles museums with welded steel work that powerfully “signified the history of brutality against the black body” (60).

Chapter 2, which centers on the work of Purifoy, Outterbridge, and Saar, begins with a useful reminder of the folk origins of collage and assemblage, laying the ground for Jones’s argument that black artists’ recourse to readymade materials was not about anti-subjectivity or de-skilling but remembrance and redemption. These artists were “obsessed with history,” mining a dizzying panoply of sources, including African spiritual traditions—particularly of the Nigerian Yoruba culture, but also related offshoots from across the Americas, including hoodoo, Santería, and Candomblé (137). Their transformation of “junk” into art was, according to Jones, akin to social transformation. Like White, Jones heralds Purifoy as an influential connecting figure whose work at the Watts Towers Art Center in the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion was “broad, anti-elitist, and connected to the wider world” (78). Jones relates Outterbridge’s make-do assemblage work to the resourceful, craft-based skills of survival developed by black people since the time of slavery—a master signifier repeatedly evoked by Jones to decipher the diverse practices collected in the book.

Chapter 3, for this reviewer South of Pico’s most fascinating section, concentrates on lesser-known artists and art workers who labored to build a sustainable support structure for African American artists. These include Alonzo Davis and Dale Brockman Davis of Brockman Gallery; Suzanne Jackson of Gallery 32; and Samella Lewis of Multi-Cul and The Gallery, who was also a pioneering author of scholarship on African American art. This chapter also narrates the work of the Black Art Council, formed by black staff members of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and their allies in order to pressure the institution into showing more work by African American artists. Minor successes in the early 1970s led to appreciable advances by the middle of the decade, a time when Los Angeles elected its first black mayor, Tom Bradley. Still, it was not until 1981 that an African American artist—Hassenger—received a solo show at LACMA.

Chapter 4 chronicles the recuperation and creative reinvention of African artistic traditions in the abstract, performative, and installation-based work of Nengudi, Hassenger, Conwill, and Hammons, primarily in the 1970s. Jones insists upon reading these artists’ non-figurative work as representative of racial identity, interpreting it in relation to aesthetic strategies found in African visual arts, masquerade, dance, and ritual, which the artists were in fact discovering through the contemporaneously evolving field of African art history. Despite the absence of the black body, Jones argues, their abstract work evokes black ritual, memory, history, and community. The book’s conclusion turns finally to Biggers, an artist of a later generation who was born in 1970 in Baldwin Hills, as a way to connect the Los Angeles scene to an international conversation. Glossing the history of black-Asian solidarity movements, Jones argues that Biggers’s work continues the redemptive project of black art in an international sphere. The book’s somewhat rushed final paragraphs breathlessly invoke the scholarship of Sara Ahmed, Homi Bhabha, Brent Hayes Edwards, bell hooks, Keith Moxey, Edward Said, and Edward Soja to circle back to the broader theme of migration and its complex relationship to time and space.

Jones’s celebratory survey pointedly avoids direct, critical examination of the construction of what Darby English has called “black representational space,” even as South of Pico illuminates in rich detail the very construction of such in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, 2008). Jones sidesteps poststructuralist critiques of racial essentialism and the increasing destabilization of the category of black art, an omission that becomes most obvious in chapter 4. Although the book’s focus is fixed on a period before such critiques began to be poised (for example in Kobena Mercer’s important 1990 essay “Black Art and the Burden of Representation,” Third Text 4, no. 10), any new scholarship on contemporary black art, including work produced as early as the 1960s, ought to contend in some way with these well-argued challenges to the field. In Jones’s account (following Kwon), site is productively understood as a “discursive formation”; race, however, is not (16).

South of Pico is of broad use to the field of contemporary art history, from specialists to undergraduate students in advanced survey courses. While Jones often leans on other writers’ analyses of specific artworks, the footnotes offer a gold mine of original research on the vast and under-known network of the African American arts community in Los Angeles in the postwar period. Finally, one of the most urgent if unanticipated demands for which Jones’s study may be useful is the increasing problem in Los Angeles of gentrification and the intra-urban migrations it forces. If gentrification is enabled by ignorance of the relationship between geography and cultural history, Jones’s book might be deployed by contemporary cultural and social activists as a weapon against forgetting and for the continued protection of the material and immaterial cultural heritage that is sited in one of the city’s most significant areas—south of Pico.

Natilee Harren
Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History and Critical Studies