9/16/13

Black Art on Exhibit at Williams College

72 Degrees: Los Angeles Art from the Collection
Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980
Williams College Museum of Art
Until December 1, 2013.

Betye Saar
Most visitors venturing to the Berkshires hamlet of Williamstown, Massachusetts, head straight for the Clark Art Institute. There’s nothing wrong with that, as the Clark is an American treasure, but it’s stunning how few people ever set foot in the Williams College Art Museum. T’is a shame, as it’s free, easy to find (on Route 2, just past the village’s only commercial street), and does exactly what a small museum should do–borrow freely, mount non-blockbuster shows, curate intelligently, and present the works in easily accessible ways. If there were a prize for art labels written in plain English, Williams would win hands down.

With many of the Clark’s galleries closed until renovations are finished next June, you’ve no excuse for not hitting the WCMA. Another good reason to go is to take in the sort of “small” shows that have become its signature. Through the end of November, Williams has two shows that spotlight Los Angeles artists, most of whom are African American. The two, 72 Degrees: Los Angeles Art from the Collection and Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, run together seamlessly on the second floor and the only real difference is that Williams owns most of the works in the first show, but not the second. Both feature assemblages, graphics, sculptures, paintings, lithographs, and mixed media works and, as the title alerts, most of it comes from 1960 to 1980. This is, of course, a crucial period in both LA and national history. Think civil rights movement, Watts, Vietnam, Black Panthers, urban tension, police brutality…. Above all, think full personhood–a moment in which black identity is asserted boldly and without apology. The works presented in these shows could be viewed as a sort of visual rap and, if you don’t always get it, so be it–it’s not about you!

A handful of the artists–Betye Saar, Mel Edwards, David Hammons–have made a splash in the art world. Others, including John Outterbridge, combined art with social activism and is perhaps better known for the latter activity. But if neither these names, nor ones such as Alonzo Davis or Noah Purifoy ring a bell, two thoughts come to mind. The first is that it’s time to educate yourself; the second is that you can do so at the WCMA without being overwhelmed.

John Riddle--Gradual Troop Withdrawal
You probably won’t like all of the art, whether you get it or not. I was mesmerized by John T. Riddle’s Gradual Troop Withdrawal, as powerful an anti-Vietnam War work as I’ve ever encountered. His solider is rendered as a metal ribbon who is literally coming unwound before our eyes. (And check out its similarity’s to Robert Capa’s 1936 photo Death of a Loyalist Soldier.) By contrast, I have to say that I read Senga Nengudi’s artistic statement and found it interesting conceptually but, for me, her works fashioned from ripped panty hose didn’t link idea to object in interesting ways. But what do I know? I overheard several people raving over her work. And therein lies still another tale. With 140 works representing 33 artists, there’s food for lots of thought, but in doses everyone can digest. --Rob Weir

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