Catching Up with Kellie Jones Guest Curator of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980
Q: Welcome to WCMA, Kellie. Can you tell us a bit about how the installation of Now Dig This! will differ from its installation at the Hammer and MoMA’s P.S. 1?
A: Every space is different. The Hammer was a full show, and we got everything in it. At P. S. 1, we had to cut down substantially. Here, we’re able to add back most of the show. So, that is always very exciting. The galleries here have a lot of natural light. We really hadn’t had the benefit of natural light in the other two venues, so that really changes the way you see some of these pieces, and it’s very, very exciting. The museum is also an encyclopedic collection, so that’s exciting, because the other two venues are contemporary art venues. I love art from all time periods, from all people. I just love art. I don’t care where it’s from, how old it is, how new it is. I just love it. And to have that dialogue between these works and older things, particularly things from Assyria, or other very, very ancient things, or even things from the nineteenth century or the 1940s, is fantastic. That is really something that was unexpected in how much more you can get from the show. The Hammer is also a teaching institution of sorts, although not a classic one as you have here. So that will also be the other exciting part, to have the students, you have the Clark Institute, you have so many institutes here in this area dedicated to the study of art–not just the appreciation, which is wonderful– but to really studying it. It’s a great way to think about what the Getty mandate for the Pacific Standard Time project meant, which is to have these shows not be an endpoint, but a beginning. I think the opportunity to have the further study here, with all of the institutions you have here and all of the students and the wonderful professors, but also the context of art history, is phenomenal. So, I’m just so pleased in ways that I, myself, didn’t realize.
Q: Is the number of works the same, or have you had to scale it down?
A: Well, it’s not the original number, but there are more than were at P.S. 1.
Q: How do you feel the show was received in L.A.?
A: Great reception in L.A. We had the benefit of Pacific Standard Time and that whole program, which was in force. I worked on the show for three years, so that project was building for three years. [I had] the resources of the Getty and the public relations of the Getty, and, really, the city of Los Angeles, so it was really amazing to be part of a city-wide project. So that was great. But also, this was one of the most popular shows of Pacific Standard Time. That was another unexpected thing. But it was great because people were nervous, you know, “Oh, this is a show about African-Americans and their legacy and their friends. Is anybody else going to like it beside those people?” But, in fact, a lot of other people liked it, too. When we use terms like “Black Art” or “African-American artists,” people get afraid that it’s going to limit its popularity. But, in fact, people become interested in that part; so it really was very popular, and I was very happy about that. You know, I was going along doing a show—I’ve been doing shows for over 30 years, curating (but a lot of my shows have that kind of reception, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised)—it was very exciting. The reception in Los Angeles was very exciting. I really think the reception here will be great. I just have a feeling.
Q: In Los Angeles, the show was a part of this vast collaboration among sixty L.A. cultural institutions over six months. Does the show lose anything or get changed someway in its presentation at WCMA by not being seen in that context?
A: It’s different, but I don’t think it loses anything at all. I think these shows are meant to stand on their own. In fact, one of the things that was a disappointment was that more of them didn’t travel. Secretly, they’ve begun to travel. But it was the economy and the time. So for things that weren’t as well-known, people weren’t putting down money at other institutions to travel things that were not “blue chip,” that they didn’t know. Once the shows hit, then people started to come and see these shows, and they were blown away. Then, plans for traveling the shows were made. Normally, that’s not how it’s done. Normally, you book all of that before the show goes up, but it didn’t happen that way. So the goal was that people would want to see these on their own, and, in fact, that has happened. So, I think, it’s, of course, still valid without its L.A. home, because a lot of these artists left L. A. in the end anyway, or at least half, and are not even living in L.A. anymore. Many of them are living in New York, some in Colorado, Baltimore, and elsewhere. So, yes, I think the L.A. context was very special, but I don’t think it has to be there to be understood, and, in fact, I think here is a great place because of the art history context of the area.
Q: What’s been your favorite part about installing the exhibition here in Williamstown?
A: Working with the crew! You have a great crew, and I enjoyed working with Kathryn Price [Curator of Special Projects and WCMA’s coordinating curator for the show] and Hideyo Okamura [Manager of Exhibition Design and Planning/Chief Preparator at WCMA]. It’s been awesome working with the crew. When you have a great crew, it works out. So that’s been my favorite part. And also, just the difference of the institution, the natural light, and the art historical context, as I said. This whole show is about art history. There’s another way you can look at this show and say, “Oh, it’s just about black people, and it has no historical context.” But my shows are always about art history, because I trained myself as an art historian, and I believe there are parts of art history that are under-discovered, and this is one part, and it’s a part that I have dedicated myself to. So I’m very committed to the art historical understanding of these works, and I think probably in this venue that will be most on view and most appreciated because of the area, because of the collection itself, and because it’s a teaching institution, and that’s what they try to show. It’s about teaching the history of art and the history of these objects and the history of different civilizations through these objects.
Q: Any unforeseen hurdles?
A: Not really. Every day tweaking, different institutions and different ways of working, of putting things up. No, everything’s gone pretty smoothly.
Q: Do you have a favorite artist among the group?
A: No. Can’t say you have a favorite child, so you never say you have a favorite artist. But I have some favorite titles. One is by John Outterbridge. It’s a piece called Jive Ass Bird. The second one is Senga Nengudi’s piece Only Love Saves the Day. So those are my two favorite titles.
Q: No doubt you are familiar with Ken Johnson’s review in The New York Times of Now Dig This! from when it was at P.S. 1. He sees a paradox in the use of assemblage by these artists as opposed to the modern development of its use by Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and others. He felt that the assemblages in the show are politicized as expressions of social solidarity in contrast to the original playful mode of assemblage. He wrote that most of the work in Now Dig This! promotes social solidarity, thereby dividing the audience into those who will “identify with the struggle for black empowerment, and others for whom the black experience remains more a matter of conjecture.” How do you respond?
A: I don’t agree, and I think the whole show is about not agreeing. You can’t start off talking about Picasso, Schwitters, and assemblage, and not think about the whole history of found object art in other cultures, going back to twelfth-century Japan, where you have people doing a kind of papier collé and writing on it. So, I don’t believe that, as an art historian, and I don’t agree with that. The whole thing about the show is that … It [couldn’t have been] one of the most popular shows of Pacific Standard Time if it does what he says, because there were not only black people going to the show. I just don’t agree with his statement at all. He has his opinion. I don’t agree. I think the show does much more. First of all, art historically, it’s inaccurate because he’s starting that history of assemblage and collage in 1912. But, as somebody who’s actually done a lot of reading and teaching about it, I would not say that Picasso and Braque invented that, necessarily. They gave it an authorship, but other people who were what I would term “weak authors”–in other words they were unknown artists, they were women, they were people of color, they were people from other cultures—were doing this for centuries. So, that alone, you can’t start that history there. If you want to say Western, if you want to frame it that way, then sure. But no, I still don’t agree, and if you throw in Rauchenberg, you’re really throwing things for a loop because these people were contemporaries of Rauschenberg! But I don’t agree with that assessment of what the work does, being divisive. I think it shows another side of a use of materials, and nobody tells you how you’re supposed to use materials. What may be happy for some people may not be happy for others. So I just think it was a wrong-headed statement.
Q: How does a sense of this issue relate to the coincidence in timing of the show’s opening and reaction to the Zimmerman trial?
A: That’s a hard one because, even though people will say this show is political, it’s hard to put that on it in some ways. But I don’t know. I have to think about that one for a while. It’s hard to just match it all up. The one thing I would say for now is regarding a clip I saw on Twitter of Stevie Wonder at a concert in Quebec, Canada, the day of the verdict, where he made an announcement that his music is for all people all over the world and that he would never perform in Florida as long as they have the Stand Your Ground law or any state in this country that has those laws or any place in the world that has a law like that, and that was his statement. He said “I’m one person, and that’s what I can do.” I was really moved by that. What was important was that he said, “my music is for all people.” I kind of feel like that’s what [the exhibition] is about, you know, more than the divisiveness that Johnson sets up or anything else. It’s made by black people (though there are some other people in there, by the way), but it’s made for all people. Art is made for all people. It may be about a certain experience, as Gutave Caillebotte’s or anybody else’s is made from their experience in their daily lives, and reflects that, or refracts that, but it is not only for those people. For me, that kind of democratic spirit has been a part of my understanding of art. So, if somehow that idea of democracy and equality is part of our viewing experience of art, [for me, it is particularly so] in an encyclopedic museum [where] you are met with something from France, from India, from Indonesia, modern, contemporary, or made last night.
Q: You mentioned the inclusion of other artists. How does the inclusion of white artists who were friends with the primary subjects of the exhibition shift the viewer’s perspective in thinking about the show as a whole?
A: I hope it does. They’re white artists, they’re Latino artists, they’re Asian artists in the show as well as other African-American artists who were not part of the main L. A. crew, in fact, other African-American artists from northern California. Part of how the show started, the main figure, the most well-known figure in the exhibition is David Hammons (and, certainly, in this area, there’s a great history with Williams College in particular). So part of the long, long road to getting to the show and my own attempts was working with David for many years and knowing him, and his telling me about all of these L.A. people I had never heard of and eventually finding out more and more. Eventually [I found] this whole community that really had just been undersung, not known, and then even outside of the black community ([where] we would cite David Hammons in L.A.), there’s a larger art community. Because our communities are always larger. We just never talk about them. You know, we talk about the Picassos; we talk about the [Jackson] Pollocks. We start to talk about the Lee Krasners. We start to talk about the Mark Tobeys. So it was a way to say these are communities, and–having grown up in an art community, I know this to be true—were not closed off. When Daniel LaRue Johnson and Virginia Jaramillo meet at Manual Arts High School in the fifties—same school that Philip Guston goes to, same school that Jackson Pollock goes to—and they meet as high school students, as artists, and as sweethearts, and then they get married, and they’re still married in 2013, and they’re still making art in 2013–you can’t cut those people out of the story. We do because it’s easier, because that’s how we’ve been taught, and then you have something, a compensatory form where you do a black show because nobody has any black people in their shows, so you do that. When I was contracted to do this show, I had voices on one side and the other, one saying, “There are going to be 50-plus shows. Don’t give up any real estate. Get as many people in there as you can.” That’s one view. But my view was different. My view was let’s show a larger community. But, on the other side, there was this other thing, that people were frightened. The show is called Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980. It doesn’t say “black art,” and it doesn’t say “black artists,” and there’s a reason. People were afraid of that. They were afraid of the word “black” and, if the word “black” is anywhere in the title, and there are people who are non-black in there, those people will somehow become black or something. Other art-world constituencies were upset with that word and having a problem with that idea. So, on the other hand, there were people who were afraid of just that little word, only because there were people like John Altoon in the show, Sheila de Bretteville in the show, Mark di Suvero in the show, who were in a show with that word in it, and that it would be confusing. But why? If you just have labels and you tell people, and you talk about it, and you have video recordings, and you have audio recordings, and you have a catalogue, and a brochure. You explain it, that even though the majority of the artists in the show are black, they had friends who were non-black and they still have friends who are non-black and that’s the way life is. And people know this is true. If that word “black” weren’t in the show, I think that it wouldn’t have been as problematic, but I think the fact that you are talking about “What is black Los Angeles?” [changed it]. We know that somebody like Michael Jackson or James Brown or Stevie Wonder, these are international figures with worldwide followings. The impact of that music worldwide is known. It comes from a black man who was born in Detroit blind. What I wanted to think about is the kind of black culture of the sixties that we know. We know of it from the Black Panthers and that kind of radicalism, but we also know it in Soul Train, and clothes, and Afros, and style, and language, and music. So I wanted to talk about the influence of that culture in art in this time-period and what was the influence of African-American cultures in the city of Los Angeles, in the country, and in the world. So that is really my idea about the show, and also, at the time as well. I’ll just use Noah Purifoy as an example. He becomes the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center in 1964. When it first becomes a municipal site with a designated cultural center, he becomes the first official director. A year later, Watts is in rebellion. He’s there. At the end of the rebellion, he decides to make a sculpture show with detritus of the rebellion. It was called 66 Signs of Neon. It opens in 1966 in the spring in a high school in L.A. There are not only African-American artists in that show. He invites his friends, teachers who were in the Watts Towers Arts Center and Gordon Wagner (a white artist in Now Dig This!), to make work and put it in the show. But what is interesting about it is that [Purifoy] is still the leader. He’s the point person on the show; he’s in all of the articles and so on. So even though there are non-black people in the show, they allow that leadership because it is a time for black leadership. So, at that time, the artists and other people understood that, this is a time for this, this is the time. So that’s really what the show is about, understanding this, and it’s not about separatism and all this; it’s about leadership and focusing on what African-Americans have given this country. It’s just another way to do it.
Q: Finally, do you have any other curatorial project on the horizon?
A: Nothing that I’m talking about at this minute.
Q: Thanks so much for your time, Kellie!
—Posted by Jane R. Becker, Class of 1988, WCMA blog writer