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

Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at MOCA

Last summer I travelled around the American Southwest in search of Smithson, Heizer, and Holt. This summer MOCA’s “Ends of the Earth” exhibition made me rethink everything I thought I knew about Land art. Here’s why…

It was a tumultuous summer for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which became embroiled in controversy following the forced-resignation of highly respected chief curator, Paul Schimmel. Dissent on the board reached a feverous pitch and culminated in the resignation of all four of MOCA’s artist board members: Barbara Kruger, John Baldassari, Ed Ruscha, and Catherine Opie. Director Jeffrey Deitch and billionaire donor and Life Trustee Eli Broad received the brunt of the blame and accompanying criticism, with many decrying the dismissal as an indicator of a new, less intellectually rigorous direction for the museum. Frequently lauded as providing some of the most ambitious and intelligent exhibitions in the country, MOCA now faces charges of descending into a pit of sensationalism and fluff.

In the midst of this drama, MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary featured a show that characterizes the type of exhibitions that have earned MOCA a reputation as a forward-thinking, ambitious institution. Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 presented a groundbreaking, in-depth look at the myths and realities of the Land art movement. Simply presenting a museum exhibition of works typically associated with the outdoors was a provocative move on the part of curators, Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon. The nearly 200 works by 100 artists ran the gamut from photos, videos, performance, and drawings, to sculptural installations involving materials such as rocks, dirt, and growing grass. In taking a revisionist stance, the curators re-evaluated four central misconceptions surrounding this specific moment in 20th century art-making, thereby presenting a more nuanced perspective of this fascinating period.

Micha Ullman, Messer-Metzer, 1972. Courtesy the artist. Image courtesy MOCA.org.

To begin, Ends of the Earth challenged the notion that Earth art was a distinctly and quintessentially American movement. Continue reading “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at MOCA”

A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 3

Editor’s Note: This review was written in March 2012. It has been reprinted here in its original form.

For someone interested in Los Angeles art, Pacific Standard Time (PST), the Getty Initiative that connects over 60 Southern California cultural institutions and museums in an 11-month exploration and celebration of postwar Los Angeles culture, feels like a limited-time offer for an all-you-can-eat buffet. I have been visiting my parents’ home less and less over the past few years, feigning adulthood, but the advent of PST has rekindled my interest in visiting the old ancestral stomping grounds. This school year (2011-2012), I am capitalizing on my family connections and making three trips to Southern California—over Thanksgiving break, winter break, and in February for the CAA conference—to take in as much of PST as possible. Here, I’ll report on my pilgrimage in a series of three posts.

Santa Barbara on 26 February 2012

Itinerary: 2 exhibitions, 4 CAA panels
Money spent on parking: $8
Money spent on public transit: $33
Money spent on tickets: $5
Tanks of gas: 1.5
Freeways traveled: the 134, the 101, the 210, the 57, the 5, the 60, the 10
Exhibition catalogs purchased: 1
Tchotchkes purchased: 0 Continue reading “A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 3”

“Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” at MCASD

by Sarah Zabrodski

Bruce Nauman, "Green Light Corridor," 1970 (installation photograph, 2008). Image from Robin Clark, ed. "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface." San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011.
One of the most interesting highlights of the massive Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time initiative is the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s exhibition focusing on Light and Space art of the 1960s and 1970s. Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface is spread across MCASD’s three venues in downtown San Diego and La Jolla. The focus on so-called Light and Space art is unprecedented and long overdue. While the artists included under the umbrella of Light and Space art have rejected the idea of a cohesive movement or a common theoretical premise, the moniker is applied generically to art that deals with light as its primary material.

Most of the work included in Phenomenal was created not in San Diego, but in the Los Angeles region well over 100 miles away. This trend makes the MCASD location a somewhat puzzling choice. Yet over one-third of the works on display are drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection, and a handful of works are site specific to MCASD. Moreover, the La Jolla location overlooks the ocean, making it an ideal vantage point from which to contemplate the effects of light and space on Californian artists. Continue reading ““Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” at MCASD”