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”

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”

A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 2

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.

Las Palmas Dr. in Fullerton on 28 December 2011

Itinerary: 24 exhibitions
Money spent on parking: $37.75
Money spent on tickets: $56.50
Tanks of gas: 2ish
Freeways traveled: the 5, the 57, the 55, the 73, the 133, PCH, the 60, the 10, the 710, the 605, the 110, the 105, the 210, the 91
Exhibition catalogs purchased (so far): 3
Tchotchkes purchased: Eyebolt, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville (1972/1978) from Otis Continue reading “A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 2”

A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 1

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.

Las Palmas Dr. in Fullerton on 21 November 2011

Itinerary: 10 exhibitions, 1 panel
Money spent on parking: $26
Money spent on tickets: $10
Tanks of gas: 2.5
Freeways traveled: the 10, PCH, the 60, the 5, the 91
Exhibition catalogs purchased: 1
Tchotchkes purchased: Corita mugs ($52.50 for four)

My November trip to PST was only four days long, so I packed in as much as I could, the priority being exhibitions that would close before my next trip. This emphasis made for a diverse and surprising itinerary.

Continue reading “A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 1”

“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”