Alain Locke’s 1925 book, The New Negro, chronicled the Harlem Renaissance in an unprecedented celebration of African-American music, literature, theater, and the visual and sculptural arts. In South of Pico: African-American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (Duke Univ., Apr.), curator, art historian, and MacArthur Fellow Kellie Jones explores a similar period of creativity, during which black painters, sculptors, collagists, and mixed-media artists created a vivid and vibrant art scene that portrayed the promise and peril of black life in that tumultuous time.
The title, as Jones writes in the book, comes from a saying among black Angelenos that “all black folks live south of Pico Boulevard.” She adds, “While this is, of course, an exaggeration, we can indeed find major black communities south of Pico, from the core of Central Avenue to Watts and Compton South to Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills.... ‘South of Pico’ is also a metaphor for African-American migrations and the ancestral home of most Angelenos.”
Jones’s interest in L.A.’s black artists began in the 1980s. “It started when I went to graduate school at Yale,” Jones says from her office at Columbia University, where she is an associate professor of art history and archaeology. “I met artists who had been in L.A., like David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassensinger. In 1986, I did an interview with Hammons, which is in my previous book, EyeMinded. He talked about people I never heard of, like Noah Purifoy and John Riddle. All hidden figures, with amazing and untold stories.”
Jones had three decades of experience as a curator—her exhibitions include Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964–1980, and Basquiat—when she traveled to Los Angeles in 2007 to begin research on this book. She ran into an old friend, Gary Garrels, who at the time was director of the Hammer Museum. Garrels encouraged her to turn her book on black L.A. artists into an exhibition. “He said, ‘I want you to create a show based on your research for Pacific Standard Time’—an initiative to study the work of local L.A. artists—‘to get funding for the study of art history in Southern California.’ My project was the first one. And it allowed me to do further research. It allowed me to give back to the artists and create digital archives for them. In the end, many artists benefited from that: their prices went up, and they got into a lot of other shows. I worked on the exhibition from 2008 to 2011, which slowed down the writing of the book. But I got back to it, and now the book is here!”
Among the works pictured in the book are Betye Saar’s evocative, astrology-themed etching House of Tarot (1966) and Hammons’s Hair and Wire, Venice Beach (1977), which fuses human hair with flexible wires. Artists such as Saar, Hammons, Hassinger, Nengudi, Purifoy, and Charles White—to name a few—created art that dealt with themes such as the western route of the Great Migration and racial unrest.
“As [artist] James Outterbridge says, ‘The studio was in the street,’ ” Jones notes. “That was where they got their inspiration. Some of the earliest exhibitions that I document come right after the Watts Rebellion. Noah Purifoy was doing shows using [materials] from the rebellion in the artwork. This actually changes what it means to make art in a time of social struggle.”
Jones was exposed early to thinking about art and social struggle. The child of an interracial marriage between poet-educator Hettie Jones and the late literary giant and political activist Amiri Baraka, Jones was born in 1959 and grew up in the cultural hothouse of downtown Manhattan in the ’60s and ’70s. (Her younger sister, Lisa Jones Brown, became a screenwriter, authored Bulletproof Diva, and wrote for the Village Voice; her half-brother, Ras Baraka, became the mayor of Newark, N.J.)
Jones considers her parentage a blessing. “Who has two parents who are poets?” she says. “For them, it was about the economy of writing: how you have to be very specific about words. And, for all of us, words are fun. So, it’s about the idea of the love of language, the specificity of language, and about making the world a better place. Both of my parents are about that. I learned that from them.”
And, as she eloquently wrote in her 2011 book of essays, EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art: “Growing up as a colored child in New York’s East Village—the Lower East Side or Loisaida as we called it then, using the name that our Latino neighbors gave our home—was a great gift. It was filled with neighbors of all kinds—hippies, a variety of black folk, Ukrainians, Puerto Ricans, and above all, creative people of every stripe and creed.” Jones laughingly recalls, “The main takeaway from growing up around Archie Shepp, dancers, musicians, and painters like Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, Howardena Pindell, and Al Loving is that I just thought that everybody knew artists.”
But when Jones, who had decided on a career as a writer and art scholar, enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts (as one of the first female students to attend that institution), she did not know that the artists she knew and loved were not known or written about in textbooks. “In college, when you start studying art, all of the artists are dead,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘All of the artists I know are alive!’ ” So, Jones adds, when there were no courses on what she wanted to study in college, “I was able to combine black studies, Spanish, and art history to create my own major, and I’ve been doing that ever since.” Amherst, she says, “was where I formalized my thinking, writing, and ideas about African-American art.”
Jones went on to earn her master’s and Ph.D. from Yale, where she studied with Robert Farris Thompson, a noted authority on the art of the African diaspora and author of Flash of the Spirit. She describes him as an “inspiration and an exemplar of method, and a beautiful writer, with a generosity of spirit as a scholar, and as a mentor, too.”
Jones’s writing has appeared in a number of publications—among them Artforum, Third Text, and NKA—and she was the inaugural recipient of the David C. Driskell Award in African American Art and Art History from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, among other accolades. But she was not well known to the public at large until she won the MacArthur “genius grant” in 2015, along with its cash award of $500,000. “When they called they did something very moving,” she says. “They have a whole committee in the room while you’re on the phone. And they basically make a statement about you, and why they are giving you the award, and what you’ve given the world. I was in my mode of being under the radar. But I’m not under the radar anymore.”
Eugene Holley Jr. is a freelance writer who contributes often to Publishers Weekly.