Now Dig This! and the Ken Johnson Controversy: A Case For Pluralism in 20th Century Art History

Installation view of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1, © MoMA PS1. Photo by Matthew Septimus.
Installation view of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1. Photo by Matthew Septimus.

Ken Johnson’s controversial review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, currently on view at MoMA PS1 through March 11, has become nothing less than an art world scandal, sparking a deluge of denouncements from readers, an open-letter and petition against the New York Times backed by prominent artists, critics and art historians, and even an attempted rebuttal on the art critic’s Facebook page, with continued debate in the comments section. Some of Johnson’s most problematic assertions focus on questions of originality and “quality,” each clearly sited in the historical standards of high Modernism. “Black artists did not invent assemblage,” he protests. “In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, David Smith and Robert Rauschenberg.” Later, the critic attacks the use of socially-engaged themes during a period in which art was supposed to be purged of realism and representation: “The art of black solidarity gets less traction because the postmodern art world is, at least ostensibly, allergic to overt assertions of any kind of solidarity.”[1]

These accusations would be relevant if Johnson’s concerns were shared by the exhibition’s curator, Columbia Professor Kellie Jones, but Now Dig This! is not intended to de-throne Duchamp and Rauschenberg. Jones presents Now Dig This! as an art historical survey of the African-American cultural scene in 1960s-1980s Los Angeles; she frames the exhibition as an arrangement of episodes rather than a singular narrative. Each gallery focuses on a different theme, style, or institutional network, thus allowing the viewer multiple points of entry into a wide body of artistic and historical material. Johnson’s attachment to the master narrative of Modernism is the first (and perhaps most innocuous) interpretive error of his review, revealing the degree to which this evolutionary historical model remains deeply ingrained in our thinking.

Now Dig This! is an exhibition about pluralism, both in its content and in its curatorial framing. Jones demonstrates how certain popular techniques or styles such as assemblage and Post-Minimalism were reconsidered and filtered through diverse individual subjectivities in the 1960s and 70s. This is, of course, a period dominated by Minimalism and hard-edge abstraction. Yet Now Dig This! reveals several instances in which an informed attention to material formalism converges with social activism, achieving a new form of expression. This is art that can break down the boundaries between “art and life” while remaining rooted in social experience.

If we are able to conceive of art history as a rhizomatic network of ideas and influences, rather than as a singular evolutionary progression, we should have no trouble understanding the ways in which artists such as Betye Saar, Dale Brockman Davis, and John Outterbridge are actually not so epistemologically anathema to the accepted twentieth-century art history. For example, in The Rise of the Sixties, Thomas Crow contextualizes Saar’s work, along with that of Dennis Hopper and Ed Ruscha, within the alternative West Coast cultural scene, demonstrating the plausibility of simultaneously diverse artistic output.[2] We know that multiple stories can be told about any artist, city, or movement, yet Johnson feels that Modernist history is somehow threatened by the revisionist expansion taking place within its terrain.

During my own tour through the exhibition, I couldn’t help but detect some degree of foreshadowing for Johnson’s misinterpretation, which is echoed in the complex historical circumstances from which many of these works emerged. One of the most important contextualizing political events within the designated period was the Los Angeles Watts Riots in 1965, which inspired reconsideration of art’s role in the midst of turbulent social change. The rebellion unfortunately allowed the media a chance to color the Watts neighborhood as dangerous and violent, as a place to be avoided. Half a decade later, and in response to this persistent negative public image, the filmmaker Ulysses Jenkins set out with a Sony Portapak camera to document the 1972 Watts Festival, which commemorated the 1965 riot, and to portray the neighborhood as a creative, thriving, and proud community.[3]

Stills from Ulysses Jenkins, Remnants of the Watts Festival, 1972-3.
Still from Ulysses Jenkins, Remnants of the Watts Festival, 1972-3.
Stills from Ulysses Jenkins, Remnants of the Watts Festival, 1972-3.
Still from Ulysses Jenkins, Remnants of the Watts Festival, 1972-3.

The grainy black-and-white footage provides an intimate view into the real lives of Southeast Los Angelenos at the time, featuring optimistic festival attendees who testify to its positive atmosphere. One woman from Lincoln Heights, for instance, enthusiastically proclaims to the camera, “We’ve got here all colors, all races, this is beautiful! This is the start of what can really be America, if we all stick together we can make it …I am very proud of this festival today, and I hope that in the future we can have more of this!” The film aims to provide evidence against the negative image of a rebellious, isolated black community. In a way, the film itself seems an apt parallel to art history’s concurrent marginalization of socially-engaged artists. Like Jenkins’s work, Now Dig This! counters our misperceptions of the enormous creative production that took place alongside popular artistic currents within this period, both in black Los Angeles and the wider American art scene.

Other works throughout the exhibition present complex art historical positions, dialoguing with mainstream artistic styles at the same time that they express more “subversive” themes. Betye Saar’s assemblage sculptures operate within the material legacy of Dada, while engaging themes of gender and racial identity, mysticism, and the power of images. The upper register of Black Girl’s Window (1969) is lined with picture boxes containing symbols derived from tarot, palmistry, and astrology, and formally invokes earlier neo-Dada works such as Jasper Johns’s Target With Plaster Casts (1955), which similarly embeds symbols denoting violence, the body, and perhaps encoded autobiographical and psychoanalytic elements. Saar’s work is equally rooted in her personal and cultural history; Black Girl’s Window incorporates an antique daguerreotype portrait of her Irish maternal grandmother, paying homage to feminine and familial memory at the same time that it reminds the viewer not to see identity as so starkly black or white.

Betye Saar, Black Girl’s Window, 1969. Mixed-media assemblage. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy Artsconversations Archive
Betye Saar, Black Girl’s Window, 1969. Mixed-media assemblage. Image courtesy Artsconversations Archive.
Jasper Johns, Target With Plaster Casts, 1955. Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. Collection David Geffen, Los Angeles.
Jasper Johns, Target With Plaster Casts, 1955.
Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects.
Collection David Geffen, Los Angeles.

In the center of a gallery themed around the emerging institutional networks for the black Los Angeles artistic community rests a large suitcase spilling over with ephemera. Dan Concholar’s Suitcase (1980) is a literally a “found” object; belonging to the artist’s mentor Charles White, it was discovered in the archives of the New York gallery “Just Above Midtown (JAM)” in 1979. Newspaper clippings, slide transparencies, art supplies, and works on paper were contained within it, and Jones arranges the open luggage as if haphazardly strewn over its podium. Described in one review as a “microcosm of the entire show,” the work utilizes a Duchampian style of display, presents artifacts pertaining to the African American art scene, and stresses the importance of contemporary engagement with the archives of art history.

Dan Concholar, Suitcase, 1980. Collection Linda Goode Bryant, New York. Photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic.
Dan Concholar, Suitcase, 1980. Photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic.

Johnson’s review favors the aesthetically intricate and politically subtle works in the show, heralding David Hammons’s Bag Lady in Flight (1970) as the strongest piece. It is hard to argue against his praise of the work, a poetic mediation of form, material, and social reality, but we must also acknowledge the importance of issues of representation that often precede the use of abstraction and conceptualism. The same cycle can be found in early feminist art in America, post-Cultural Revolution art in China, and apartheid-era art in South Africa. Try as we might to isolate creative innovations from social context, art has long been an important agent in promoting cultural change, and Modernism’s flight from social commentary is just one of many important historical currents that took place in the 20th century. Now Dig This! presents 140 extraordinary artworks that can enhance our understanding of these transformative decades in American history, and provides a model for an art history that considers the multiplicity of motivations that drive artistic creativity.

David Hammons, Bag Lady in Flight, 1970. Collection Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica, California.  Photo courtesy The New York Times.
David Hammons, Bag Lady in Flight, 1970. Photo courtesy The New York Times.

1. Ken Johnson, “Forged From the Fires of the 1960s: ‘Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles,’ at MoMA PS1,” The New York Times, October 25, 2012.
2. See Thomas Crow, The Rise of the Sixties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996): 76-92 (“Dada Hollywood”).
3. For more information, see the exhibition feature on Ulysses Jenkins on the website of UCLA’s Hammer Museum. Remnants of the Watts Festival are owned and distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix.

2 thoughts on “Now Dig This! and the Ken Johnson Controversy: A Case For Pluralism in 20th Century Art History”

  1. You quote me as writing “The use of subject matter weakens a work”. I actually wrote “This use of subject matter weakens a work to the extent that the work depends on it.” Not only is this a misquote but it ignores and completely distorts the entire context in which the quote appears.

    1. Hi Darby, Thank you for your comment and I apologize for the mistake! It may have been more correct for me to simply express that these styles (Minimalism, Op Art, etc), which had dominated critical attention during this period, were characterized generally by a reduction in subject matter and the movement towards formal “purity” in art. I can make an edit to the original post to remove the quotation, since I understand how it may not accurately support the point I intended to make. Again, I appreciate your feedback!

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