MoMA PS1 Exhibit Explores L.A. Artists’ Civil Rights-era Community Activism

A new exhibit that opened Sunday at MoMA PS1 is as much about a nascent arts community as it is about community activism.

David Hammons’ “The Wine leading the Wine,” c. 1969.

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The new exhibit Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 opened this Sunday at MoMA PS1, the New York Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary arm in Long Island City, Queens. Hailing from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the exhibit consists of works by 33 California artists and is as much about a nascent artist community as it is about social commentary and community activism.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the violence of the Watts Rebellion in L.A. a year later, art served to unify the African-American community and provide a platform for expressing social discontent. The exhibit is testament to what the Hammer Museum called the “nexus of creativity and influence” of these artists; however, their legacy is only now beginning to be fully understood, according to Kellie Jones, curator and associate professor at Columbia University. They were more than individual artists — they spoke for their community and exposed two decades of the urban condition in Los Angeles.

The exhibit explores the power of this artist community, galvanized by the social, political and economic transformations in the black communities of Los Angeles. Jones explains that the decision to title one section of the exhibit “Assembling” was meant to allude to “assembling and marching” — to the “coming together as a community.” According to Jones, assemblage, or the use of found objects in art, was being used throughout the U.S. at the time, serving to reveal the existence of societal problems. Artists featured in Now Dig This! used objects from “stereotypical African-American life,” such as hair and gold chains, to comment on the African-American condition.

What community upheaval leaves behind: a steel can makes a strong statement. Noah Purifoy’s "Pressure", c. 1966.

The Watts Rebellion of 1965, the largest urban riot at the time, was a pivotal event and focus for these artists. Noah Purifoy, for instance, claimed that Watts “made him a true artist.” He and fellow artists used junk pulled from the rubble of the race-fueled riot to create art that was both beautiful and politically charged. “Pressure,” at right, was created from a melted steel can, rescued from the Watts detritus. In its simplicity, it represents outrage in the face of racial tension.

David Hammons used assemblage to expose the social undercurrents of L.A. African-American communities, but his haunting series of Body Prints — created by the artist covering himself in grease, pressing himself against paper and revealing the print with black powder — leaves an equally strong impression. A piece entitled “Wine Leading the Wine,” a play on the expression “blind leading the blind,” is explained as the artist’s comment on the incompetence of community leaders, “whose followers are equally useless.” Hammons described the impetus behind his work in the 60s as a “moral obligation as a black artist to try to graphically document what I feel socially.”

Now Dig This! runs Thursday through Monday until March 11, 2013, at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson St. in Long Island City, Queens.

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Tags: new york citylos angelesracemuseums

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