Recovering the Rubble: African American Assemblage Art in Los Angeles

Article excerpt

Los Angeles is the site of the Watts Towers, perhaps the most famous example of folk art in the world. Simon Rodia's constructed his majestic towers from steel pipes and rods, wrapped with wire mesh, and decorated with such found objects as bottles, scrap metal, sea shells, broken glass, pottery fragments, and bits of ceramic tile. Known to millions of Southern Californians and countless visitors, the Watts Towers are the quintessential example of recovering rubble and turning it into majestic works of art. But fewer people, including scholars and professional art historians, are fully aware of how Rodia's monumental achievement helped catalyze an artistic renaissance that has stunning implications for the African American creative community well into the 21st century.

Since the mid-1960s, African American artists in Los Angeles have been unusually imaginative in developing artistic products enabling them to achieve widespread critical recognition and respect. In the face of continuing barriers from mainstream institutions, including major museums and commercial galleries, many of these artists have used nontraditional materials and forms to create a growing legacy of visual art that has brought them national and international visibility. Several prominent African American artists used the Watts rebellion of 1965 as a key catalyst for their collective artistic vision. Even before the smoldering remains of Watts and surrounding black neighborhoods disappeared from national consciousness, artists Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, David Hammons, John Riddle, and others collected and transformed objects and materials into powerful artworks that often expressed trenchant anti-racist social and historical commentary.

"Debris" and "garbage" from the remains of burnt and destroyed buildings and streets became the raw material for an emerging tradition of African American art in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Long before the national recycling movement began, black Los Angeles area artists initiated their own program of creative visual production from the rubble of their own communities. In short, they "recovered the rubble" and in the process brought African American visual art to new heights of visual distinction.

Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) is often regarded as the key visual artist who initiated the African American focus on recovering trash to make art--the father of the African American assemblage art movement in the Los Angeles area. Throughout his career, Purifoy encouraged the use of art as a tool for social change--a premise that has long pervaded African American art history generally. Trained originally as a social worker, he turned to visual art later in life. His distinctive personal style involved the collection of discarded materials that he fashioned together into a creative whole. He taught many other black artists to use common objects to tell the stories of their people, emphasizing that these objects could actually be more effective than traditional artistic materials in communicating the struggles of people who came to America in bondage and who suffered centuries of brutal oppression.

His works made him a major participant in the historic "66 Signs of Neon" exhibition, based on artworks assembled from the debris of 1965 rebellion in Watts. The exhibition included Purifoy and six other artists, including whites, and created 66 separate artworks. Most found no permanent home and the materials returned to the junk heaps from which they originally came. That rebellion, one of many during those turbulent times, revealed the huge pent-up rage among African Americans, frustrated after generations of second class citizenship, poverty, unemployment, police brutality, and other egregious and more subtle manifestations of American racism. In a communication to the iconic African American art historian Samella Lewis, Purifoy revealed his perspective about his emerging artistic strategy:

While the debris was still smoldering, we ventured into the rubble like other junkers of the community, digging and searching, but unlike others, obsessed without quite knowing why. …