Now Dig This!, MoMA PS1, New York

In August 1965, the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles span into six days of fires, violence and destruction that left 34 people dead. That trauma still blazes at the centre of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, a scorching, revelatory exhibition at PS1 that includes nearly three dozen artists and nearly as many temperaments, techniques and styles. The galleries buzz with anger, violence, optimism and prayer. Decades after the riots, the urgency endures, but in the meantime other qualities, too, have emerged, especially the balance of craftsmanship and metaphor. Much of the work here has a defiant, straight-up beauty, boiling with political fervour but rarely degenerating into propaganda. It is passionate without being preachy.

Curator Kellie Jones treats these volatile substances with insight and panache. The first gallery confronts you with two very different sensibilities. Melvin Edwards’ muscular wall reliefs bristle with hooks, chains and spikes. Wrought from scrapyard finds, the sculptures erupt from the walls in blistering rage. Axe heads, bolts and crankshafts become abstracted features that adapt the language of African masks for the industrial-age inner city. In the ironically titled “Some Bright Morning”, a nose-like blade juts in profile from a wheel rim, and a humanoid blob of metal dangles ghoulishly from the end of a thick chain. This is the first in Edwards’ 25-year “Lynch Fragment” series – brutally poetic objects that meditate on slavery, as well as on more recent forms of bondage and exploitation.

Charles White’s allegorical portraits hang almost demurely beside Edwards’ constructions, offering a radically different version of political art. White applied the social realist style of the 1930s to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, using the black body as a site of suffering and transcendence. In the ink-and-charcoal drawing “Birmingham Totem”, a nude boy, mantled by a prophet’s robe, crouches atop a pyramidal stack of splintered wood. This is White’s pensive memorial to the four young girls killed in the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That act of terrorism triggered a tsunami of outrage and mourning, which White channelled into a sombre, taut resolve. “The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force,” Martin Luther King, Jr, said at the victims’ funeral, and “Totem” envisions a biblical child rising out of the rubble, skinny but strong.

White treated the African-American figure as a kind of two-dimensional monument; his student Dave Hammons turned it into a ghost. Hammons coated his body in butter and pressed it against large sheets of paper that he would then sprinkle with powdered pigment. The result is a set of self-portraits as a nearly invisible man, wispy, negative images that seem to fade before our eyes. The show contains enough early Hammons to qualify as a mini-retrospective, and his delicacy and wit contrast with the tough context. In “Bag Lady in Flight”, he uses paper grocery bags, grease and hair to do what Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” did in paint: render movement as a fan-like succession of planes and lines.

The most resonant moments in the show are wordless exchanges among disparate artists. In one gallery, the intricate compositions of Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge weave a gorgeous three-part counterpoint. Saar trained as a printmaker, but shifted gears after seeing a Joseph Cornell retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. Her first Cornell-inspired boxes drew on occult iconography, astrological signs and Tarot icons. But the Watts riots, followed, three years later, by King’s assassination, led her to more radical forms of enchantment. In “Black Girl’s Window” Saar painted a grid of colourful signs – a skeleton, a lion, moons, stars, a fierce eagle bearing a shield emblazoned with the word “Love” – on the upper panes of a wood-framed casement window. On the lower half, the silhouetted girl presses her face eagerly against the glass, still imprisoned, but not for long.

Elsewhere in that same room, Watts shows up more baldly, less veiled in wistfulness and symbol. Purifoy credited the riots with jolting him into making art, and he began by ennobling the detritus of a ravaged neighbourhood. Like an archaeologist of his own time, he scrounged around the ruins, collecting crushed shoes, sections of banister railings and chair backs, shaving brushes, shoehorns and framed diplomas – broken bits of bourgeois aspiration that had been shattered by history. These he assembled into an untitled altarpiece, a powerful ode to endurance and regeneration.

Outterbridge surveyed the same landscape from a greater altitude. He mounted scraps of metal on to wooden boards for his “Containment Series”, a suite of dark abstractions that seethe beneath their soldered seams. The rhythms of geometric areas suggest a map of LA, with the thick lines of molten metal resembling the freeways that cut one neighbourhood off from the next, turning the poorest areas into vast open-air jails.

What distinguishes so many of the artists in Now Dig This is the way their passions keep bubbling even as the history fades. Though they all shared a powerful racial identity, they drew on an ecumenical range of sources: the West Coast tradition of assemblage, Dada, Surrealism, Rauschenberg, and especially Duchamp. John T. Riddle, Jr’s “Untitled (Fist)” consists of a rusted rake, balancing on its handle, the tines balled like fingers into the Black Power salute. On one level, Riddle is making an insiders’ art-historical joke, invoking Duchamp’s store-bought snow shovel, titled “In Advance of the Broken Arm”. But Riddle’s rake makes Duchamp’s shovel seem precious by comparison: it carries echoes of swords beaten into ploughshares (or the other way around), of a pitchfork wielded in anger, of a community’s need to rebuild, and of the fierce power of a humble tool. It is a work of elegant fury.

‘Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980’ continues until March 11,

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