Of course, in a national cultural landscape fueled by protests, crackdowns, and counterreactions on the fronts of civil rights and Black Power—all set amidst the pop-culture stardom of Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Muhammad Ali—artists of all stripes were highly engaged politically. That was especially true of African-American artists, who quickly set about digging into pointed questions about black history and identity. Sanders recalls the artists he knew making art about “their own rage, to a very large extent, but also about the ordinary lives of ordinary people.”
“Dig” curator Jones says that for some black artists who wanted to participate in the era’s profound change without necessarily making overtly propagandistic works, the tension between politics and personal expression was “a conundrum.” Outterbridge, John Riddle, Johnson, Saar, and sculptor Noah Purifoy worked in assemblage, a style strongly associated with white artists in Southern California in the late Fifties and Sixties. But in the hands of African-American artists it took on a distinctive cultural and political resonance. Riddle was inspired by his experience of sifting through the postrebellion rubble in Watts, while Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger made ephemeral but deeply personal assemblage with scraps of pantyhose and wire, among other materials. Hammons worked with human hair collected from African-American barbershops.
The question of audience was another major concern. On the one hand, as Jones explains, black artists wanted their work to be “legible” to inexperienced viewers—demonstrators, picketers, and other young political activists—yet they also aspired to contend with their own more informed understanding of art history. “They were cognizant of not making art for a mainstream, wealthy, white collector population,” she says, “but they still wanted to be a part of the history of art.” By 1976, LACMA responded to the efforts of the Black Arts Council with the exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950”—one of the first museum shows of its kind and also the last major L.A. exhibition dedicated exclusively to African-American art until “Dig.”
Among those who saw the exhibition was UCLA medical student Joy Simmons, now a 58-year-old radiologist with a wide-ranging collection of contemporary African-American art. Simmons grew up in Los Angeles (her high school art teacher was Brockman Gallery cofounder Alonzo Davis), attended Stanford, and had entrée into the New York black art community through an aunt on the board at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She began collecting as a medical student—through Brockman, of course. “When I bought my first piece, it was only $50,” she recalls, sitting in her Baldwin Hills home among a collection that now includes work by contemporary artists Kara Walker, Mark Bradford, and Kehinde Wiley. “Then, every time I could scrape something together, I’d buy art.”