Book Review: South of Pico by Kellie Jones

The thread tying together Kellie Jones’s various projects and personas—curator, Professor of Art History at Columbia University, art historian, writer—is her longstanding practice of advocating for African-American artists. When Jones first began researching her new book, South of Pico, published last April by Duke University Press, she ran into Gary Garrels, then Chief Curator of the Hammer Museum. Garrels asked Jones to curate an exhibition around the subject of her research—African-American artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s.

The show, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980, was named one of the best exhibits of 2011 and 2012 by Artforum. “It wasn’t just an opportunity for me,” Jones said in a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “It was an opportunity for the artists. That’s how I looked at it.” Ironically, Now Dig This, which took place years before South of Pico was published, helped Jones write the book upon which it was based. “If you’re just a random researcher, not many people are going to open their homes to you, or open their private collections, or open the Whitney Museum, for instance. Because I was doing a show, I was able to see some things that I had only seen in bad reproductions.”

While the Hammer Museum exhibition showcased thirty-six artists, South of Pico focuses on more than a dozen artists who either journeyed to or came from a Los Angeles markedly shaped by the second wave of the Great Migration, a period when some five million African Americans left the South after World War II for places north and west. The driving force was work, but as Jones writes, “The other driving force, the more telling one, was to find a space of freedom, a safe space.”

“Assemblage was a clear metaphor for the process of change—the transformation of psyche and social existence—required of art in the rhetoric of the Black Arts Movement.”

California was not without prejudice at the time—racially restrictive covenants kept African Americans from gaining access to quality housing and education—but as Jones describes, it was still a place of relative freedom. The Black Panthers had an office in Los Angeles. The Watts Rebellion became a symbol of what that generation of black people would not accept. For Jones, looking at the thriving art scene in Los Angeles is a way to think about history, and how black art worked with what was happening socially.

The book is divided into four main parts, each narrated by a select group. Jones focuses first on Charles White, Betye Saar and Melvin Edwards, artists who resolved to create an African-American art community in Los Angeles despite little traditional support. They held exhibitions in homes, churches and black-owned establishments. Jones then dissects the role of assemblage as art practice, by looking specifically at the work of Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge and Saar. As Jones writes, “Assemblage was a clear metaphor for the process of change—the transformation of psyche and social existence—required of art in the rhetoric of the Black Arts Movement.” Purifoy literally took objects from the debris of the Watts Rebellion (broken glass, smoldering metal, charred wood) and used it as a testament to what had happened—as well as what needed to change. The next section deals with the galleries and museums founded by many of these artists—including brothers Alonzo Davis and Dale Brockman Davis, Suzanne Jackson and Samella Lewis—when no other spaces would exhibit their work. Lastly, Jones moves away from civil rights and black power, and toward abstract and conceptual art, and the Los Angeles artists who started to include performance as part of their process, such as Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, Houston Conwill and David Hammons.

South of Pico is a testament to the pioneers of African-American art in the twentieth century, who forged new paths to liberation and selfhood through their work. Jones shows how these artists pushed against their own obliteration, and generated a zeal for change that would escalate into the 1980s, 1990s and beyond.

—Rachel Hurn