Kevin Beasley is an artist in his early 30s whose work with sculpture and sound has drawn on his upbringing in rural Virginia and, from his current home in New York, his communion with markers of African-American history, among other sources. Disused housedresses suggestive of empowered domesticity and abstract samples from the music of deceased ’90s-era hip-hop stars are just two aspects of his work’s evolving internal language. Kellie Jones is an art historian who grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s in New York with epochal parents—the writers LeRoi Jones (a.k.a. Amiri Baraka) and Hettie Jones—and whose work as a curator and scholar has focused in part on hidden histories of African-American art.
Over dinner at Red Rooster in Harlem, Beasley and Jones joined ARTnews to discuss Jones’s new book, South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (Duke University Press), and Beasley’s recent project at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, an installation inspired by a historic image of black activist Huey P. Newton and an altarpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome. For Jones, dinner included Helga’s Meatballs, a dish created in tribute to Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson’s grandmother, and iced coffee. For Beasley, the Fried Yardbird and a Harlem Mule (scotch, ginger beer, lime, and basil). —Andy Battaglia
Kevin Beasley: I just spent five weeks in California and, when I left L.A. for the Bay Area, I got your book: the energy, the vibe—everything about it is amazing.
Kellie Jones: Thank you! You went to [collector] Pamela Joyner’s spot? I remember you mentioned that when we saw each other at her book launch. Did it turn out to be everything you thought?
Beasley: It’s a small compound she has in Sonoma County with her husband [Fred Giuffrida, with whom she helms the Joyner/Giuffrida collection of African-diasporan art]. It’s a house that you can work in, and there’s a garage you can use as a studio, with tools and anything you need. It’s like a vacation from the diligence of being in the studio. You can relax and have the means to make work. I produced a lot more ideas because I wasn’t tied to the regularity of my studio. It was out of my routine, so it has been rejuvenating to come back, rethink, move things around.
ARTnews: Before we get to the specifics of California, let’s wind back to the beginning: What are your earliest memories of art—when were your interests kindled?
Jones: Let the artist go first.
Beasley: I was always drawing, but when I was about 9 or 10, my mom intervened. At the public school I was in, there were no art classes I could take. If you were on an academic track that was advanced for whatever reason, there was always a conflict with anything considered extracurricular. So my mom was like, “You’re going to take private lessons,” and she would drive me every Saturday to a little shopping center where this woman and her husband taught classes. It was a framing and art supply store. They would show me techniques of shading, drawing cartoons and video-game figures and all sorts of things. Then I remember an acceleration of materials. They would start everyone with graphite and move you into colored pencils, pastels, watercolors, and then slowly graduate you to oil. By the time I was 13, that was all I was doing: oil paint, turpentine, killing brain cells.
Jones: You had to become an artist after that. [Laughs]
Beasley: I was cultivated by my parents: there was always support from my mom and dad, and that was pivotal for me.
ARTnews: Kellie, how about your early years?
Jones: I was born into a family of artists. I grew up in downtown New York, so I was always around artists and musicians like Al Loving, Jack Whitten—I used to babysit Jack’s daughter. I was around the people who made SoHo. Elizabeth Murray was my elementary school art teacher. In my book EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Duke, 2011), I describe a painting by Bob Thompson called LeRoi Jones and His Family, from 1964. It was unfinished, and I actually signed the painting: you can see “KELLIE.” Joseph Hirshhorn bought it before it was finished and, to every director of the Hirshhorn Museum, I say, “I signed that, so you can give me the painting.” It doesn’t really work. [Laughs] That’s one of my earliest memories—my earliest memories are all about artists.
When I went to college I was shocked that people thought artists meant dead artists, because all the ones I knew were alive. That was a gift. I never wanted to become an artist because I didn’t want to be broke, but I realized it was a great privilege to have grown up with artists. Both of my parents were poets—who has that opportunity?
ARTnews: When did you start traveling to California?
Jones: I started going to L.A. in the ’80s. One of the first places I went was Charles White Park in Altadena. I was amazed by a park named after an artist; I like that. The genesis of the South of Pico project in particular came from my work with David Hammons as a curator. In an interview with him from 1986, he told me about all these artists I’d never heard of, particularly Noah Purifoy. I wanted to know where David came from. David became well-known in the ’90s as a genius, but he actually comes from a community, and I wanted to know more. He talked about it very reverently. He always gives credit to that California scene for nurturing who he is. So the seed was planted, and then, working with Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, and Melvin Edwards, I heard more about artists I’d never known. People always say New York is the center of the art world, and that we started talking about ideas of multiculturalism and diversity in the art world in the ’80s and ’90s. But for me, it begins with these people coming from L.A.
ARTnews: Kevin, how much or little did artists in South of Pico figure into your early education?
Beasley: I grew up in a small town, and it wasn’t until I moved to Detroit that I had access to shows in person. The first working artist I met was a local artist I apprenticed with. He wasn’t featured in Artforum or ARTnews. Going to Detroit introduced me to artists like Hammons. It’s hard for me to know how they influenced my work, but I know that it hasn’t been conscious—in part because these artists weren’t getting big features like Richard Serra or other white artists who were having major shows and retrospectives. Martin Puryear’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2007—that, to me, felt like the first time I’d seen a major retrospective of a black artist in person.
Jones: That’s the way the history was. It was the largest show of an African-American artist at MoMA, period. Up until that point, they were in smaller spaces. If you go to art school as a person of color, you don’t fit into the histories that are normally told there.
ARTnews: You grew up exposed to that history from birth. Were you aware that other people were not steeped in the same knowledge?
Jones: I had no idea. I got to college and I was shocked. I also went to an arts high school: some of my peers were Hilton Als, Whitfield Lovell, Fred Wilson. Three of us from that high school are MacArthur geniuses, from a public high school. It was a diverse place, and we would look at books and nobody looked like the people in our school. We would think, “Hmm, this is weird.” Later, when I got to college, I realized none of the books had the people I knew, so I had to search them out. When you’re a child, you think the whole world is like your world. Growing up in New York, you think everyone knows the world as a varied place—but sometimes they don’t.
Beasley: When I think about the exclusion of people like Hammons from books, it’s systemic in the way it functions and operates to exclude people from the conversation. There’s energy to remedy that with what institutions are doing now, but it’s like, Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series on view at MoMA—really, that just happened, after such a long time? It’s good but also frustrating.
ARTnews: When you went to Detroit for school, it took a little while before you moved fully into art. What was your trajectory there?
Beasley: My initial interest was in automotive design. I felt I had an artistic ability but didn’t want to be broke, and I had an interest in car culture. My dad was really into it, and my first car was a 1970 Dodge Dart Swinger—bought it for $900 and fixed it up. My first teacher was actually on the design team for that car. In Detroit you had access to designers who worked directly in the industry, but there were all these ethical issues—like what the auto industry stands for—that were severely problematic. Detroit is a brown city, and it’s struggling intensely on all levels. There’s racism and segregation; people are leaving. I realized I didn’t want to put my creative energy for the rest of my life into that industry. I felt like what was most important to me was taking my creative energy and addressing things that were important to me.
ARTnews: We’ve talked some in the past about your aversion to the design concept of “planned obsolescence.” How did that figure in?
Beasley: Money and technology don’t necessarily mix, because technology affords us something else: possibility. The idea of making income and revenue always controls business decisions. In order to continue gaining revenue, you’ll design a product that will last only a year or two. You design it that way intentionally, knowing it’s going to be obsolete. For me, it was overwhelming to think about that, so I was like, “Fuck this, I’m going into painting.” I just walked over to fine arts and said, “OK, I’m going to put my energies to this and have more control over the kinds of questions I want to ask. And if I bring something up in a conversation or critique, the room would consider it rather than suppress it.”
ARTnews: One theme running through South of Pico is how these artists related to the materials they used in an attempt to transfigure objects that had been neglected or disused—and how radical such a choice was at the time.
Jones: What’s radical is to see the years of intense assemblage practice. Part of that is tied to urban renewal and tearing down buildings, many of them in black or mixed neighborhoods. The essence of the work was basically built on the destruction of neighborhoods of color. That’s assemblage in one aspect, for artists like Edward Kienholz or Bruce Conner, who were going into these neighborhoods and thinking about this stuff. Kienholz’s installation Roxys (1960–61) is made from buildings on the Central Avenue strip in Watts, which was a thriving black center until it was labeled “blighted” and torn up. That’s where he got his stuff, from a nightclub that was torn down. The destruction of a black space becomes the fire for making art.
For African-American artists, one of the key events was the Watts Rebellion of 1965. People like Purifoy decided that, since they have already been getting into assemblage, they’re going to take from the destruction and do a show, which became “66 Signs of Neon” [a collective work and exhibition]. That started this thought of consciously taking aspects of black rebellion and refiguring them into art. It’s different from urban renewal—something instead about rebellion and the efficacy of rebellion as the basis for art. Through this black agency, or black power, artists said, “This is what happened, and we’re going to make something live from it.” It was an interesting turn, and you see John Outterbridge, Purifoy, Betye Saar, and John T. Riddle Jr. really move into it. Hammons is there at the time and approaches it in a slightly different way. These are his mentors.
ARTnews: It’s interesting to think about work by those artists in contrast to the “finish fetish” art then gaining favor elsewhere in L.A.
Jones: Finish fetish is an L.A. version of Minimalism, taking things and shining them up, taking the dusty edge off. It turns on materials from the aerospace industry, which is big there, versus the kind of industrial East Coast aesthetic of Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris. It’s all about car-customizing and surf boards—very California. And then you have “funk” in the Bay Area, which is a kind of more aestheticized assemblage.
ARTnews: Kevin, when you began thinking of your project for the Hammer Museum, how did you conceive of working there, in a different place?
Beasley: It was the first major thing I’ve done in L.A., and it all started with the chair [from an iconic photograph of Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party]. That image burns into your retina—it has stayed in my life for a very long time. The Bernini altarpiece I saw when I did an exchange program in eighth grade and went to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I was awestruck. But it all really came when I started loosely searching for that chair on eBay and Craigslist, not really knowing what I’d do with it but wanting to have it. It took me three years to find—people throw them out because they fall apart and are not worth selling. That decor—no one really wants it.
When I found the chair, I brought it into the studio. I looked at it and was thinking about it next to sculptures of mine of housedresses that referenced configuration and bodies or the lack of bodies. The conversations for those were around Renaissance sculptures, so I went directly to Bernini at St. Peter’s. I was apprehensive because they’re both iconic, and putting them together means having to answer a lot of questions. But that’s what made me pursue it: putting two powerful representations from very different places in one context and then thinking, “What is my relation to it? How can a conversation take place?” We’re talking about the Black Panther Party and Catholicism and how, for artists, sculptures are meant to represent the ultimate, most powerful presence in the world. I have no connection to St. Peter’s beyond going and being amazed. As an artist I was interested, but I didn’t see myself in it. Whereas this image of Huey Newton—I could immediately see myself in that.
ARTnews: How is the space at the Hammer significant for you?
Beasley: I learned the space in the Hammer was actually specifically constructed for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester—that’s why it has an arched ceiling, to provide an ethereal experience when you were looking at this da Vinci that the Hammer actually sold. Bill Gates bought it, and it funds their programming. So that means, in some weird loop, the sale of a da Vinci allowed me to have a production budget. It’s a long stretch, but it’s also not that far. All throughout, I tried to interject references, like guinea fowl feathers instead of a dove—the guinea fowl is native to Africa, a bird of protection and defense—or putting Zulu and Maasai warrior shields in a space with housedresses that come from a shop in Harlem. I was able to take my experience and things I was thinking about and put them in that space.
ARTnews: Kellie, in South of Pico you write powerfully about a sense of place in relation to Los Angeles. What was most distinctive about L.A. during the period your book covers?
Jones: What we know about African-American culture in the 20th century doesn’t really take into account how things were changed by a massive migration of people all over the country. L.A. was kind of the end point of that migration. Communities are more separate there than in New York, but people created communities where they could go. Because there was no real place for black people to show, they had to create their own. For me, it parallels the way, if a black person got hired in a shipyard or in the aerospace industry, they would have these informal schools in people’s garages and teach each other the necessary skills. Have you seen Hidden Figures [the 2016 film about African-American women working at NASA], when Octavia Spencer gets a book about IBM from the white section of the library and teaches a whole group of women how to program computers? That’s real—that’s what happened.
Beasley: That was one of the remarkable things I found in the book: how, for so many of the artists, their connection to the community was synonymous with their practice—it was just something they would do. There is a collectivity in that. Even if the work is different and you get into arguments about how to arrive at a certain idea, the fact is that you’re still in all of it together. I think about Purifoy, how he didn’t really consider himself an artist, but then the space that he created was so generous to artists and the kinds of conversations and things they were making. It was so much about creating a particular kind of energy that would cultivate a free-thinking but also challenging space. That’s what I want, but it’s really difficult.
ARTnews: What do you think are the prospects for that kind of collective energy now? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
Beasley: L.A. seems more viable for that. Look at the Underground Museum and Noah Davis—what he embarked on, his vision, what he wanted to do, and, before his untimely death, what that involvement was like. The institution is doing a lot of amazing work now too. In New York, honestly, it doesn’t seem viable unless you have lots of funding, which is what it ultimately comes down to. In L.A., it still feels like you don’t need the kinds of money you need in New York. I have a really pessimistic view of New York being able to cultivate.
ARTnews: How about the notion of political art in the present? Kellie, how do you feel about the prospect of art meaning what it did in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s?
Jones: Art always responds to its time. There are so many creative posters at all these marches, pussy hats—there’s always a response. When I worked on the exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” [at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014], people were shocked to find that artists like Frank Stella and Jim Dine had done work that was political, that sold in galleries to support racial equality. The Stella we had was called Malcolm’s Bouquet, which was painted in 1965 after Malcolm X died. At that time, the idea of political art for canonical artists wasn’t really talked about because it might change their sales. But, also, art historians were not as interested. I didn’t even know about these works until I started doing research.
Someone like Norman Rockwell—I’d tell people he was an artist of the civil rights movement and people were like, “What?!” His works that are most radically about the diversity of our country he couldn’t do for the Saturday Evening Post, so he left after decades and went to Look magazine, because they allowed him to do works where people are seen as equal, not in a hierarchy of white subject over black subject. And then think of Philip Guston, when he starts doing those Ku Klux Klan pictures, going from abstraction to figuration in conversation with people like Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, Betye Saar. People haven’t really thought about conversations that American artists were having at the time about changing the world and changing our country. Those conversations were happening, and they will happen again. They are happening.
Beasley: I can’t go into the studio without thinking that there’s some kind of politics to what I’m doing. For me, I’m trying to understand the kind of works I’m making. Where are they going? What are they for? For some of these things you don’t have as much control as you think, but for a lot you do—to make a decision, to put something out, to invite someone into your space, to have a conversation. I feel like artists have potential in political movements by the simple fact that we’re here. Artists have always been a part of political movements, as human beings willing to voice opposition or support. There will always be responders, and I think it has an impact because it affects people’s way of reading and understanding the world with a different perspective than you would get from political talking heads. There are other forms to the way people receive information and experience the world, and artists are part of that.
ARTnews: Where do you see it most prominently?
Beasley: On a local level, streetwise, come to Harlem and just walk around. When I was at the Studio Museum [as an artist-in-residence in 2013–14], I used to love walking down the street, because I knew that every day I would see an image of civil rights leaders without having to search for them. Just walk down the block and they’re there. That reminded me: that’s what artists can do.
ARTnews: There is a resonant quote in South of Pico from John Outterbridge: “When I use the term art,” he says, “I always think of it as whatever I need it to be. You’re lucky when you can do selfish things that have relevancy to someone else. Who needs a little box that I build out of my anguish? Maybe I do for the moment.”
Jones: I think art and creativity are an intervention. Artists like Purifoy and Outterbridge were all about creativity, and without creativity we can’t change. That’s what artists bring into the world. For Outterbridge, that was a privilege, and it also came from histories of black people creating vernacular installations and yard shows that were about beautification and protection—things you would put on your property, like scarecrows to protect your crops but also to protect the land from confidence men and the like. Outterbridge drew on that, having grown up in the South and seeing how people marked the land in ways that gave them power. It could be some throwaway thing recycled, but it is actually an object invested with great power of possession in a space that is inequitable.
Beasley: Did you read about how Nina Simone’s house has been bought by Rashid Johnson, Adam Pendleton, Ellen Gallagher, and Julie Mehretu? They pooled their money and bought the house she grew up in, in North Carolina. To take over a historical space—to have it, keep it, maintain it—as artists, that’s something we can do.
Jones: That’s part of what’s interesting to me about your work: you being from the South. Many artists in the book are from the South or part of that generation that came out of the South. Charles White, who was born in Chicago, his family was from Mississippi. Every black person in modern and contemporary times is touched by that. My family was from South Carolina, and reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration , I saw some of the same stories, almost word-for-word, in the book. It’s amazing how much the world is touched by that movement, that migration of people, which still resonates. I see it in your work, in the kind of burden in your work recently and the confluence of urban and Southern space remade through your housedresses and other things.
ARTnews: Do you go back to the South? Have you gone back since the presidential election?
Beasley: I did the Rauschenberg Foundation residency in Captiva Island, Florida, last December. Captiva Island is in the Gulf of Mexico. My gallery said I should come over to Miami for Art Basel Miami Beach, but as I was turning it around in my head I was like, “I’m in Florida: I’m not going to get in a car and drive three hours across the state—that’s like a death sentence.” It was the first time I thought maybe I shouldn’t. I didn’t need to go, and I could just avoid something maybe happening. I didn’t need to go find a problem, find an issue. But that was already there before the election, which was just the most public declaration of how deep-seated racism is. No one can deny it, not a single person, so that emboldens people and made me think, “Do I have to go home to Virginia for the holidays?” Instead I invited my parents here, and we drove around Harlem and went and saw family in Brooklyn.
Jones: That’s also a parallel with people like Outterbridge, who couldn’t go to school near his home [he was born in Greenville, North Carolina] so he had to go farther away, to Chicago and then California. He knew he couldn’t go back there, and Hammons and Purifoy knew they couldn’t go back. I think it’s the same idea: something is still home, but there’s that space in between—between appreciation and reality.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 24 under the title “Kevin Beasley & Kellie Jones.”