Can You Dig It?

In the Sixties and Seventies, a vibrant community of African-American artists and collectors thrived in Los Angeles, right under the establishment’s nose. Kevin West surveys “Now Dig This!”—a new exhibition that aims to give them their due.

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David Hammons’s America the Beautiful, 1968

Can You Dig It?

In the Sixties and Seventies, a vibrant community of African-American artists and collectors thrived in Los Angeles, right under the establishment’s nose. Kevin West surveys “Now Dig This!”—a new exhibition that aims to give them their due.

IN 1963 JOHN OUTTERBRIDGE LEFT CHICAGO for a new life in sunny Los Angeles. Born in North Carolina and an alumnus of Chicago’s American Academy of Art, Outterbridge, then 30, was making art but supporting himself with a day job as a city bus driver. L.A. beckoned as the kind of place where Outterbridge might be able to work full-time as an artist—something that was just then becoming imaginable for an African-American. “People were really coming to this area for change—to be artists,” says art historian Kellie Jones. “Outterbridge was doing well in Chicago, but he was driving a bus. He heard that L.A. was ‘cool’—and that it was warm—and the idea was to be able to work in the arts.”

Today Los Angeles is a global capital of contemporary art, and artists working here—including such stars as Mark Bradford and Edgar Arceneaux—can earn their place on the international art scene without regard to skin color. But that was hardly the case when Outterbridge hit town almost 50 years ago. At that time, the city’s large cultural institutions and influential private galleries were essentially “segregated,” says Jones, or at least strikingly inattentive to African-Americans. She points out that when painter ­David Hammons—who later crossed over to achieve mainstream success as a conceptual and performance artist in New York in the Nineties—arrived in Los Angeles from Springfield, Illinois, in 1963, his reaction to the nascent black art scene was utter surprise. “He said, ‘I didn’t even know that there were African-American artists, just like there were black cowboys,’” Jones ­recounts as she sits in the café at UCLA’s Hammer Museum to discuss the exhibition she has curated, “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980.” “All of the artists in the show were born in a segregated country.” Opening on October 2, “Dig” is the Hammer’s contribution to “Pacific Standard Time,” a sprawling look at postwar Los Angeles organized by the Getty and involving some 70 collaborating institutions.

According to Jones, although the establishment largely ignored African-American art throughout the Sixties, the first generation of black artists in L.A. “willed” their community into existence by organizing exhibitions in homes, community centers, black-owned businesses and churches. After the 1965 Watts Riots, a new creative neighborhood took root in the Leimert Park area around Crenshaw Boulevard and Vernon Avenue—the first black-owned commercial galleries opened there, followed by African-American art writers, critics, and a black collector class composed mostly of doctors and attorneys. It was L.A.’s African-American SoHo.

“What was happening here in the Sixties and Seventies was really a cultural renaissance,” says attorney Stan Sanders, 69, who began collecting art in 1970 and was close to a number of artists in the Hammer show. “Guys were welding [sculpture] in their backyards. Outterbridge was collecting the detritus of Los Angeles and creating something beautiful.”

Even today, the legacy of the city’s black arts community will likely surprise many visitors to “Dig.” L.A.’s art history has typically been examined through the work and careers of such white artists as Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and Bruce Nauman, as well as through accounts of mainstream galleries like Ferus and the short-lived Huysman Gallery. The parallel story of L.A.’s black scene has only begun to be documented, and many of the movement’s seminal names—artists and collectors alike—will be unfamiliar even to knowledgeable art enthusiasts.

“Dig” includes some 140 works by 35 artists, most of whom have rarely been displayed in museums. Among them is Betye Saar, who was born in Los Angeles in 1926 and worked as a jewelry designer before creating the prints for which she became known. But numerous other “Dig” artists came to L.A. as part of the Great Migration—the African-American diaspora out of the South, often by way of Chicago, Detroit, and other northern cities. One of the earliest was William Pajaud, who came from New Orleans via Chicago in the Forties and later painted scenes from black history at a time when African-American studies had not yet emerged as its own field. Pajaud also became an important steward of L.A.’s black arts legacy when, from 1957 until 1987, he curated the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company’s 200-piece corporate collection, which was perhaps the single most important trove of black art from Los Angeles until it was broken up and sold in 2007. Another key early figure was painter and muralist Charles White, who came in 1956 from Chicago, had a solo show at the University of Southern California two years later, and went on to teach at Otis College of Art and Design, where Hammons was among his students.

“You have one or two artists who went and made it in New York, like Hammons or Mel Edwards,” says Leon Banks, a doctor and the patrician godfather of the black arts scene, and a lender to the Hammer show. “People don’t think of them as being L.A. artists, but they are.” Now 86, Banks was raised in Washington, D.C., where he had his first taste of art at the city’s public museums and later caught the collecting bug while serving as an Air Force captain in England. He moved to Los Angeles in the early Fifties; once his medical practice gained traction, he began buying abstract art by Mark Rothko, Sam Francis, and Robert Rauschenberg—as well as “Dig” artists, including painter and mixed-media artist Daniel LaRue Johnson and his Hispanic wife, painter Virginia Jaramillo.

In stark contrast to the vast wealth of the most prominent white collectors in L.A. over the past half-century—the Norton Simons and Eli Broads—Banks was typical of the middle-class black professionals who collected, joined museum boards, and helped found the California African American Museum (CAAM) in the late Seventies and build its permanent home in downtown’s Exposition Park in 1984. “It didn’t take a whole lot of money,” says Banks, who is still making the gallery rounds and attended a recent Kehinde Wiley opening at the Roberts & Tilton gallery in Culver City. “Most of my things came from the artists. It was a meeting of the minds.”

This also explains why, despite Banks’s affinity for abstract art, one of the artists who is represented the most in his collection is David Hockney. The two first met around 1960, at the home of collector Beatrice Gersh, when Banks stepped outside to tend to a nosebleed from a recent sinus operation and met the young British artist, who had gone out to smoke. The two quickly struck up a friendship. “His studio was about 10 blocks from my ­office,” Banks says. “Sometimes at lunchtime I’d go and we’d play chess.” Hockney has since painted Banks twice, once in 1980 and again in 2000. The portraits—as well as numerous other Hockney works—hang in Banks’s low-slung, taupe-colored midcentury home in upscale View Park.

IN THE YEARS AFTER THE WATTS RIOTS, protests calling attention to the contributions of black artists forced public institutions—funded, of course, by taxpayer dollars—to take notice. In 1970 a group of workers from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, seeking legal counsel for a manifestation against what they saw as a failure by the museum to engage its black constituency, walked across Wilshire Boulevard into Stan Sanders’s law office. It became his unexpected entrée into a new art-world vortex.

“At that time, LACMA had no African-Americans on its board of directors and no African-­Americans among its docents,” Sanders explains. “The highest-ranking African-Americans in the whole firmament of employees and volunteers at LACMA were the preparators—the guys who actually handled the art.” Sanders signed on to a group that became the Black Arts Council—which advised the museum—along with Banks, advocate Samella Lewis, and Aurelia Brooks, CAAM’s first executive director.

Sanders admits that he didn’t know much about collecting contemporary art at the time, but learned by going on regular gallery and studio visits with Cecil Fergerson, a preparator he met through his involvement with the Black Arts Council. He was drawn into the dynamic and intellectually compelling milieu. The Brockman Gallery, run by Dale and Alonzo Davis, was “a gathering place,” recalls Sanders. Named after their grandmother, it was the city’s first black-owned commercial gallery and existed for 30 years. (By comparison, Ferus was open for nine.) Equally important to the scene was Lewis, who came to Los Angeles in 1964 to study Chinese and tirelessly championed L.A.’s black artists. Lewis opened a series of galleries that culminated with the Museum of African American Art and somehow found the time to run the Black Art Quarterly and publish the two-volume Black Artists on Art, which surveyed the work of nearly 150 contemporary artists—all while teaching full-time at Scripps College in Claremont.

“There was ferment,” Sanders says. “There was this cross-­fertilization ­between young professionals and artists. We were mostly just hanging out together, but even if what we did was roll a joint and talk all night, we mixed the politics with the art.”

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.”

Other medical students she knew were doing the same. Simmons recalls Banks and older physicians as important role models, including cardiothoracic surgeon George Jackson, who commissioned painter Suzanne Jackson to cover one exterior wall of his private practice with a mural. One small detail of the LACMA show, however, helped clarify Simmons’s sense of mission as a collector: She couldn’t help but notice that most lenders of the show’s historical material had Jewish surnames.

“It was really eye-opening for me,” she recalls. “The major pieces of our work were not owned by us. That’s a reason I’ve tried to assemble a collection that is museum-worthy.” With the exception of Hammons, few of the artists in the “Dig” show have been widely pursued by contemporary white collectors or large public institutions, although Banks, Lewis, and others have steered select pieces into the permanent collections at the Oakland Museum, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Whitney in New York, and LACMA. That attitude is quickly changing, however, with a growing awareness of the historical importance—not to mention the rising market value—of black L.A. artists.

Recognition on the scale of the “Dig” show would have seemed unthinkable when Outterbridge was scraping by as a bus driver in Chicago. Equally unimaginable at that time was the establishment’s embrace of an African-American artist such as Walker, who has had solo exhibitions all over the world, including a midcareer survey at the Walker Art Center. Contemporary star Mark Bradford even eschews labels of race, such as “African-American artist”—which shows just how much has happened since Stan Sanders was arguing politics and art with Hammons, Outterbridge, and other members of the “Dig” crowd back in the Seventies.

“People would wrestle with that,” Sanders explains, “like, What is a ­Negro? We didn’t quite know what a Negro was. We had arguments all night long about whether the word should be capitalized.” He recalls with a chuckle that the birth certificate of a former law partner, who was born in Los Angeles in 1940, categorized his race as “Abyssinian.” Sanders’s wife, Debbie, shakes her head at what now seems a historical absurdity—one which only underscores how fluid yet intractable the issue of race continues to be in America.

“My parents were ‘colored,’ ” she says. “I was a ‘Negro.’ My daughters were ‘black.’ And now my granddaughter is ‘African-American.’ Go figure.”

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