OpEd: Here we go again!: Ken Johnson’s Art Review “Forged From the Fires of the 1960s: Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles,” at MoMA PS1

By Bridget R. Cooks

On October 1, 2011, Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 opened at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in Los Angeles with a celebration of over 2,000 in attendance. Curated by Professor Kellie Jones of Columbia University and assisted by research fellow Naima J. Keith, Now Dig This! was a part of the Getty Museum’s ambitious county-wide exhibition project, Pacific Standard Time which focused on art in Los Angeles, 1945-1980 through exhibitions and programs at nearly 100 partner institutions.  Jones’ exhibition revisited the art produced by many of the city’s leading creative Black artists and friends in their circles.  For some visitors, the exhibition introduced them to new names they were unfamiliar with; for others it was a time for remembering and reflection; for many of the artists, whose styles and approaches to the visual world are as variant as their careers, the exhibition was a long overdue recognition of their early work that was made in L.A.

I was lucky enough to be asked by Jones to organize and moderate a panel at the Hammer of four women, now legendary, filmmaker Barbara McCullough, graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, curator Josine Ianco-Starrels, and artist Suzanne Jackson. Our two-hour discussion of their careers confirmed the depth of their diverse talents as serious contributors to the era and their influence ever since. The event, like the exhibition, was as much a reunion of long friendships, as it was the introduction of an earlier generation of contemporary artists to a generation of youth who were catching up to the art and film history of the city.

(Watch a video of this event: http://hammer.ucla.edu/watchlisten/watchlisten/show_id/823945/show_type/video?browse=none&category=0&search)

Organized into four sections, Frontrunners, Assembling, Artists/Gallerists, and Post-Minimalism and Performance, the exhibition showed multiple works by over thirty artists. Jones showed objects that had never been exhibited before, as well as art from private collections and public museum storage facilities that had not been available to see by museum audience in decades. Jones’ vision and research were made to seem effortless in the galleries that presented cross-generational conversations between artists within a context of Post-World War II Los Angeles.

What little press the exhibition received in the city agreed that Now Dig This! offered a significant opportunity to enjoy and learn about the history of Black artists in Pacific Standard Time. Los Angeles Times reviewer, Christopher Knight, wrote in his October 11, 2011 review that the exhibition, “tells an important story that is not so much unknown as underknown.” He discusses included works by several artists including painter/gallerist Suzanne Jackson, a young David Hammons, and assemblagists Daniel LaRue Johnson, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar. Knight was also provoked to consider possible influence between artists in the exhibition and outside of the exhibition namely regarding the influence of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1967 print Booster (created in Los Angeles’ Gemini Gel studio) on Hammons’ body prints.  Although Hammons is one of the most well-known artists in the exhibition, this kind of intellectual curiosity about the Now Dig This! artists and their work can lead to increased recognition of their importance that will have lasting effects after the exhibition has closed.

(See other L.A. based press about NDT! by Peter Clothier, Jori Finkel, Holly Myers, F. Finley McRae)

Now Dig This! is the only one of the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions that has traveled. After making its New York debut at MoMA PS1 in October 2012, New York Times arts reviewer Ken Johnson attacked the validity of the exhibition, and made condescending criticisms of its curator, and the artists.

(See Johnson’s review: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/arts/design/now-dig-this-art-black-los-angeles-at-moma-ps1.html)

E-mails between artists, art historians, cultural historians, gallerists, and museum professionals quickly circulated about the review. In response many submitted letters to the Times in criticism of Johnson’s review. I submitted the following letter to the editor (The Times limits letters to 150 words):

Letter to the Editor

Response to Ken Johnson’s Art Review “Forged From the Fires of the 1960s: Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles,” at MoMA PS1

How disappointing to read Ken Johnson’s review of the Now Dig This! exhibition. His review echoes those of Hilton Kramer’s NYT 1970s reviews of exhibitions of art by Black artists (See “’Black Art’ and Expedient Politics,” June 7, 1970, and “Black Art or Merely Social History?” June 26, 1977).  Johnson’s review presents the real paradox concerning exhibitions of art by Black artists: Art critics are unable to reconcile Black ability with artistic production. Johnson makes a strange proposal that art is best understood by viewers who have the same race as the artist.  Indeed, all art is a reflection of the artist’s life experience. However, looking at work by a Black artist does not pose “a problem for its [presumably White] audience” or divide viewers by race.  Ultimately, Johnson’s review argues that the lack of knowledge about Black artists and the history of exhibitions of their art leads to misinformed reviews.

I knew of at least three other people who had written similar letters and we all waited for the Times to respond. In the meantime, a petition at ipetitions.com was started by Colleen Asper, Anoka Faruqee, Steve Locke, Dushko Petrovich and William Villalongo, signed by over a thousand people, and sent to the Times on December 3, 2012.

I sent a follow-up letter to the editor to find out when selected letters to the editor about Johnson’s review would be published, I received this unsigned single sentence e-mail from the Times: “Our policy is not to publish letters on reviews.” This was disappointing news for two primary reasons. First, not publishing our letters was an act of censorship that allowed Johnson’s review to stand as the uncontested consensus of thought about the exhibition. Second, the publication of Times letters to the editor has been a way to contribute to and document public discourse about politics, art, and culture. This policy ends the potential of that discourse in the Times.

In response to the Times, I sent a link to the petition and asked for a more substantial response to the petition’s demand for a response to Johnson’s racist and sexist journalism. Jonathan Landman, culture editor for the Times sent a response to the authors of the petition.

(See Landman’s response and the authors’ replies: http://galleristny.com/2012/12/heres-the-new-york-times-response-to-the-ken-johnson-petition/)

This back and forth between the New York Times and anti-racist and anti-sexist interests in the art world is significant because it offers proof that the realization of Black artistic talent, respect, and freedom by mainstream art critics is still a struggle. This is not news to most of us, but it is something that many of my students and others their age do not acknowledge as truth. It is also important for the older liberal multiculturalist contingent to see that we have not overcome all forms of oppression, nor are Black artists seen as equal to White artists today. Specifically concerning the New York Times’ history of racist art reviews, although Hilton Kramer passed away on March 27, 2012, his philosophy of anti-Blackness has been renewed through their choice of Ken Johnson.  This kind of replacement shows that there is a deep investment in White supremacy at the Times, and that time passing does not signal, or equate, the development of political thought and progress.

My friend, the New York based artist Dennis Delgado, shared with me Kenya Robinson’s November 30, 2012 post “Soul Seasoning” from the Huffington Post. The performance artist expresses her annoyance for all of the attention that Johnson’s review received, and questions why those of us in the “Othered Art World” are so put out by Johnson’s review. I like Robinson’s post and I agree, likely as many others who wrote letters to the Times and signed the petition do, that we don’t expect the White art world to change because anti-Black racism is an American tradition presented as a matter of quality control in the art world. Our struggle against racism, and the documentation of our contestation must continue along side the continuation of racial hatred. Black artists, curators, art historians, and art enthusiasts are not waiting for racism to end to get our work done. We’ve never needed the mainstream art world’s approval to be who we are.  The discourse around the Times review is more evidence of the stand-off between those who know that Black life is valuable, and those who fight to protect the privileges of Whiteness.

Bridget R. Cooks
Associate Professor
Departments of Art History and African American Studies
University of California, Irvine
Author of Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (University of Massachusetts Press: 2011)

I recommend the following links:

Editor’s Note: Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 remains on view at MoMA PS1 in New York City until March 11, 2013: http://momaps1.org/exhibitions/view/352


Author: Camara Dia Holloway

I am an art historian specializing in early twentieth century American art with particular focus on the history of photography, race and representation, and transatlantic modernist networks. I earned my PhD at Yale University in the History of Art Department. Besides my leadership role as the Founding Co-Director of the Association for Critical Race Art History (ACRAH), I am recognized for my expertise on African American Art, particularly African American Photography, and as a seasoned consultant for exhibitions, museum collections, and symposia/lectures planning.

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