2  •  INTRODUCTION
a large craggy stone—more schematic and metaphoric than composed in
detail. He uses alternating pools of ink and cross-­hatching to create the ap-
pearance of a highly textured surface and portray a jagged, rough-­hewn, and
heavy form. In sitting on the rock, Harriet is rendered part of it, her skirt all
but indistinguishable from the craggy plane, her feet blending into the grassy
ground.
White was one of a handful of African American artists, like Jacob Lawrence
and Elizabeth Catlett, who had made their mark in the 1930s and 1940s with
social-­realist styles and themes that revolved around black history and poli-
tics. In the early 1960s, their work received renewed interest from a younger
group who were grappling with their own social and political obligations as
artists against the landscape of the civil rights and nascent Black Power move-
ments. For David Hammons, White’s presence in Los Angeles was a revela-
tion; as he mused in 1970, “I never knew there were ‘black’ painters, or artists,
or anything until I found out about him—which was maybe three years ago.
There’s no way I could have got the information in my art history classes. It’s
like I just found out a couple of years ago about Negro cowboys, and I was
shocked about that.”3
In 1963, so the story goes, David Hammons had set out from Springfield,
Illinois, in his not-­so-­new car. When it broke down just outside of town, he
repaired it but didn’t return the few short miles back home. Instead he kept
going, determined at all costs to keep traveling west and to his destination,
Los Angeles.4 Like many artists heading from the countryside or the small
town to the sprawling metropolis, Hammons was drawn as much to the ad-
ventures of the big city itself as to the locale of culture and avant-­garde ac-
tivity. In the mid-twentieth ­ century, others of his generation also journeyed
west from the midregions of the United States: Bruce Nauman (born Fort
Wayne, Indiana), Ed Ruscha (born Omaha, Nebraska), and Judy Chicago
(born in Chicago) all sought to stake a claim in the Los Angeles art game.
They studied art and began showing their work there in the early 1960s as the
city came into its own as a major cultural capital.
What differentiates Hammons’s story from these others to a certain degree
is its imbrication in another narrative. It is a tale, to be sure, of a larger African
American community in Los Angeles in the same period, one that brought us
cultural nationalism, the Watts Rebellion, the syndicated tv dance show Soul
Train, and the films of Charles Burnett as well as a major community of visual
artists. Like Hammons, most of the artists discussed in this book—­including
Charles White (born Chicago), John Outterbridge (born Greenville, North
Carolina), Noah Purifoy (born Snow Hill, Alabama), and Senga Nengudi
Previous Page Next Page