Review: ‘Hard Edged’ art at California African American Museum widens perception of black artists’ work
The initial efflorescence of important African American art in postwar California, especially Los Angeles, is typically seen as emerging through assemblage techniques. Found objects were cobbled together into resonant talismans with social and spiritual heft.
That was a central focus of “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980,” the marvelous 2011 survey at the UCLA Hammer Museum. Now comes a sprawling show at the California African American Museum that seeks to slightly shift the frame of reference.
“Hard Edged: Geometrical Abstraction and Beyond” is more a sketch than a finished show, absent a catalog and a fully developed thesis. But it is provocative. And the abundance of compelling work, including a surprise or two, makes it well worth seeing.
Near the entry, Daniel LaRue Johnson’s 1964 painting “Big Red” starts things off with a sly challenge. When included in the Hammer show, it represented the assemblage strategy. It does here too, although now the emphasis is on its use of assemblage specifically as a foil for geometric abstract painting.
The roughly 5-foot composition recalls contemporaneous abstract paintings by artists such as Billy Al Bengston, in which a sign-like field of slick color was marked with a centralized emblem. Johnson began to affix ruined objects to his abstract paintings in the aftermath of the notorious 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., a crime so awful that it galvanized the nation. Finding ways to adapt abstraction to an aesthetic of dissent, he made a picture whose brash color alone shouts an alarm.
The CAAM show, organized by curator Mar Hollingsworth, includes paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, video and installations by 46 artists. They range from well-established — Jacob Lawrence, Noah Purifoy, Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, etc. — to mid-career and younger artists, including Holly Tempo, June Edmonds, Rashid Johnson, Brenna Youngblood and Bre Gipson. Most works are from the last dozen years or so, although a good number span the prior half-century.
The earliest is a small, intense 1948 woodcut on rice paper by Elizabeth Catlett. It shows a head in three-quarter view, its sharply jagged features a seamless fusion of traditional African, German Expressionist and Cubist faceting of forms.
Los Angeles Times photographers document the year in arts and culture.(Los Angeles Times)
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Kerstin Anderson takes charge of Maria von Trapp with a spirit so joyful, a physicality so lithe and coltish, and a soprano so flawlessly soaring that only Frau Schraeder, Capt. Von Trapp’s jilted fiancée (Teri Hansen), could possibly resist her charm. Read the Oct. 1 review >>(Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.'s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley in Los Angeles on July 9, 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of “Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album “Wildheart,” explores L.A.'s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
One askew eye stares straight out. The other is a blackened lozenge, either blinded or looking inward.
The little print’s jagged black-and-white sharpness is the apparent “Hard Edged” feature heralded in the show’s title, which refers to the geometric abstraction of the 1950s and 1960s known as “hard edge” painting. The subtle addition of the letter “d” to the end of the standard term denotes a certain brittle toughness. Hard edged underscores a social and political dimension to the exhibition, rather than purely an aesthetic one.
Geometry is considered quite loosely. Sometimes it is even a bit of a stretch — for instance, merely the rectilinear box inside of which an assemblage might be constructed. The show has numerous examples.
The finest is Hammons’ devastating 1988 “Skillets in the Closet,” an enigmatic, worn and weathered cupboard whose open door reveals 13 rusting cast-iron skillets hanging from twisted coat-hangers on a rack. The floor below is covered in a tattered piece of floral linoleum, its pattern evoking a field indoors.
The online Racial Slur Database says that skillet is derogatory slang that sometimes refers to blacks, sometimes to mixed races. In this context, the dangling skeletons in Hammons’ sarcophagus-like closet are a disturbing allusion to lynching, tucked away out of sight if never fully out of mind. This bleak, hard-edged sculpture embodies our American family cupboard.
Textiles of a different sort — namely, quilts — are conjured by Lisa Soto in a pair of suspended planes of shimmery metallic color made from crocheted squares of wire. The squares, inelastic and visually fragile, are transparent, the wires in their open weave catching the light.
One large textile plane is suspended in front of the other, while both hang from invisible monofilament attached to a small motor hidden near the ceiling. The motor makes the layered, floating quilts slightly jostle and shimmy, their animation evoking a living spirit — the spirit of historical family legacies that quilts so often embody.
That’s what the exhibition, which features many more intriguing works, also means to do to. It could benefit from a tighter, more explicit illumination of its abstract geometries (not to mention a catalog), but “Hard Edged,” nonetheless, widens the social field in which postwar African American art should be considered.
‘Hard Edged: Geometrical Abstraction and Beyond’
Where: California African American Museum, Exposition Park, 600 State Drive, Los Angeles
When: Through April 24; closed Mondays, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
Info: (213) 744-7432, www.caamuseum.org
Your essential guide to the arts in L.A.
Get Carolina A. Miranda's weekly newsletter for what's happening, plus openings, critics' picks and more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.