When the DJ at UCLA’s Hammer Museum recent opening cued up Notorious B.I.G.’s hip-hop anthem “Juicy,” the crowd erupted with a jubilant roar, pounded the floor with funky dance moves, hands in the air, backbones slipping, hundreds of diverse faces expressing joy and infectious energy. This wasn’t your grandfather’s art museum function. The next night, with a splashy film chronicling the postwar Los Angeles art scene projecting across the complex of granite buildings at the Getty Center, Pacific Standard Time (PST) officially launched its ambitious, sweeping program of exhibitions. Perched on a Los Angeles mountainside overlooking the ocean and stunning views of the city, the space inspired awe. The meteorological perfection of a Southern California evening enveloped the hum of “glad to see you (and me) here” among the be-glittered, be-dangled art world celebrants.
“Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980,” the stunning exhibition conceived and organized by Kellie Jones and now showing at the Hammer Museum, UCLA as part of PST is now up ready to be dug until January 2012. The show’s opening night hosted a record-breaking crowd of two thousand or so revelers eager to view the much-anticipated show and, of course, to party with the people and lovers of art.
As the partner of historian and curator Prof. Jones, I’ve experienced the show from many angles—as idea, as process, as context, and as subtext. Indeed, from my birds-eye view and earshot range, I had a singular opportunity to contemplate these themes as well as witness some of the immediacy, if not, urgency of their impact on the ground as “Now Dig This!” premiered the first weekend in October. “Revelatory,” “amazing,” “awesome,” “historic,” “rigorous,” “beautiful,” “game-changer” were some of the words expressed to Jones as she moved around PST events and negotiated the thick buzz surrounding her new show. Drawing supporters from across the country—renown art historians, curators, artists, colleagues and collectors, dealers and museum directors—everybody it seems was, indeed, digging this, that, and a third.
The show’s only conceptual constraints are its Los Angeles focus and the demarcation of its historical arch, 1960-80. Otherwise, its brilliance disciplines the various media of abstraction, sculpture, video, painting, assemblage, installation, performance art, music, and because of the show’s ephemera and the lavish illustrations in the exhibition’s catalogue, photography. Unless you’ve been exposed to what goes into such a feat, it’s probably difficult to grasp the intellectual and creative fortitude it takes to pull off something like “Now Dig This!”
One has to do the research and then conceive of the vision. Once funders and museums sign on, there’s the coordination of essayists, archives, artists and their families, the permanent museum staff, the press, book and exhibition designers, other museums, dealers, private collectors, foggy memories, oral histories, curators, conservators, exhibition designers, a team of gallery preparetors, public relations people, and more. Beyond an encyclopedic knowledge of the physical, historical and aesthetic dimensions of art objects (and not to mention the
stories of their creators), curating on this level takes commitment, curiosity, and love. This kind of love: as we were leaving for the last time a huge Houston gallery that displayed paintings of the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition she had co-curated, Prof. KJ turned to me and said “wait, I have to walk through one more time. I’ll never see them together like this again.”
Okay? This was the moment I began to understand the weight of such exhibitions, particularly for an art historian specializing in non-canonical yet brilliant and intrinsically provocative works that are sometimes owned and collected by major institutions but not shown and in an area in which once active artists vanish into obscurity only to be unearthed, historicized, theorized and presented in context by “eye-minded” scholars like Jones. “I put this piece in the show because I often teach it,” she said in passing during one of her curator’s tours. “Now I won’t have to only teach it from the page.”
And thanks to Prof. KJ’s vision, the Hammer’s crackerjack team (trust me, they can really throw a party!), and the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time, we can until January 8, 2012 stand in the galleries and try to hear what these objects are communicating to the rest of us. More than one observer has mentioned the rich diversity of people who showed up, showed off, and showed out as they celebrated the opening of “Now Dig This!” The average Joe and Jane, the Hollywood elite and everybody in between knew this was the hot spot. Indeed, one of the show’s focuses is how the cultural space of black Los Angeles during this period was one in which artistic alliances were cultivated across racial lines, despite the obvious tensions of these times. I believe that in herconviction to represent these intercultural connections in the exhibition, some of which were revealed to her through copious archival research and interviews, Prof. KJ modeled an important principle. Life really can imitate art. Or is art, life itself? Either way, if you don’t know, now you know and now dig this: this lady KJ got some serious game.