Who Watts Why

The untold history of the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles

David Hammons, Black Mohair Spirit, 1971, body print and mixed media. Hammons’s groundbreaking work resonated far beyond L.A.


While Los Angeles was summing up its own local history with “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980,” this hefty tome, L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints, countered with an alternate view of the city’s art, showing it as tough, profound, and not the least bit dated. This compelling book about the city’s Black Arts Movement fills an astounding gap. The nine separate but overlapping essays and excerpts from oral histories —by artists, art historians, curators, and moonlighting artists like Dale and Alonzo Davis (who founded the multicultural Brockman Gallery in 1967) and Greg Pitts (a.k.a. Angaza Het-Heru), who offers a linguistic taste of the 1960s and ’70s—plus wonderful photographic documentation, add up to a revision of a time and place we thought we knew. Edited by Connie Rogers Tilton and Lindsay Charlwood, the texts reveal stunning evidence of unknown or forgotten African American artists in Los Angeles at the time, who were doing groundbreaking assemblage work that shifted the course of history, and not only in L.A.

Duchamp and Schwitters had their first U.S. museum retrospectives in L.A., thanks to Walter Hopps; so did Joseph Cornell. Warhol had his first-ever solo there. These shows obviously influenced emerging black artists. As John Outterbridge points out, “We just had a network of spies that were on staff” doing security and installation work. Together, these essays provide a context for David Hammons’s early body prints and “Spade” series (1971–79) as well as for Outterbridge’s “Rag Man” series (1970), Mel Edwards’s “Lynch Fragments,” Betye Saar’s rebel “Jemimas,” and Senga Nengudi’s pantyhose-and-sand sculpture—all strategies for the re-representation of blackness.

Southern California art may have seemed to veer from Light and Space and Finish Fetish sculpture (the surfer variant of Minimalism) to the Zen-inflected, Hollywood stuntman–infected Conceptualism of Baldessari, Ruscha, Burden, and Nauman. But this book provides indisputable grounds for a gritty, more engaged, and influential history of that moment. The Black Arts Movement was provoked by what art historian Kellie Jones describes here as “a militant intellectual culture” of black power and pride—a separatist, vernacular, confrontational, performative, and populist art made by blacks for blacks, to be understood not by the art world but by “the street.” It was largely provoked by the Watts riots of 1965, which French theorist Guy Debord called “a potlatch of destruction” and “a rebellion against the commodity.” Outterbridge describes it less metaphorically: black artists, he says, “would be working art processes out of the debris of the revolt itself.” A central figure was Noah Purifoy, former modernist furniture designer and first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center. He collected three tons of debris from the Watts riots and turned it into “66 Signs of Neon,” a 1966 exhibition in a junior-high-school gym that took its name from the melted neon signs he’d recycled.

Who knew that Thomas Pynchon, who saw the show, would write in amazement about the art? Or that Purifoy, who had given away all his possessions, would then reinstall “66 Signs of Neon” in the Annual Los Angeles Home Show, that year, as a calculated critique? Ideas about readymades and assemblage had ricocheted from Europe to L.A., and then back to Paris. And, though Joseph Beuys was then barely known out West, these African American artists seemed to manifest his vision of art as social practice. But they did it independently, before the fact.

Kim Levin is an independent art critic and curator.

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