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John Outterbridge: Assembling a Movement

John Outterbridge art
 John Outterbridge, Rag and Bag Idiom I, 2012
John Outterbridge, "Rag and Bag Idiom I,"  2012. Mixed media. 14 ½ x 15 ¾ x 3 ½ inches. The Eileen Harris Norton Collection. | Image: Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.

Watch "Artbound" to see how John Outterbridge contributed to creating the Watts Towers Arts Center.
S11 E4: The Watts Towers Arts Center - Media Manager

It’s a bit strange to think of artists who started changing the game in the mid-1960s as finally having their moment now, but when it comes to the historically monumental contributions of such icons-of-a-certain-age as Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, Charles Gaines -- and, of course, the inimitable John Outterbridge -- that is pretty much the situation. While well-known to most curious local art audiences, it really has only been in the past five to 10 years that these artists and their peers, along with the story of the Watts and Leimert Park neighborhoods where much of their activity centered, have enjoyed the depth of gallery attention and institutional scholarship they deserve.

Outterbridge especially is an interesting case, since so much of his artistic legacy is bound up in his nearly 20 legendary years (1975-1992) as director of the Watts Towers Art Center; his cofounding of the Communicative Arts Academy in Compton where he was artistic director from 1969 to 1975; and other civic and community education-based roles, which may have stolen the commercial momentum from his otherwise universally beloved, respected, and uniquely innovative fine art practice. Nevertheless, Outterbridge’s unmistakably intuitive and complex manner of hand-wrought material transformation, symbolic narrative, tactile and optical juxtaposition of texture and color, and a wittily eerie, sometimes dark and occasionally naughty sense of anthropomorphism became an anchor of one of L.A.’s most innovative and influential art movements.

John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy and Mark Steven Greenfield
"John, Noah Purifoy and I, photographer unknown, shot on the occasion of Noah recieving the Herb Alpert Award at the Huntington."  | Photo: Courtesy of Mark Steven Greenfield.

Outterbridge’s work was prominently featured in several of the 2011 Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, including the Hammer’s "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980" (which subsequently traveled to NYC to the Studio Museum in Harlem); and a concurrent installation, (until that point, it was his first solo show in Los Angeles since the 1990s) “The Rag Factory,” at LAXART. Though represented by powerful NYC gallerist Jack Tilton, his recent exhibition “Rag Man” at Leimert Park’s Art + Practice (in partnership with the Hammer Museum and curator Anne Ellegood, and slated to travel to the Aspen Art Museum later this year) was the first proper Los Angeles solo show focusing on Outterbridge’s recent works, those made since 2000, in his most recognizable style of intimately-scaled sculptural assemblage. 

Outterbridge was born in 1933 in Greenville, NC, and moved to Los Angeles in 1963, barely two years before the Watts rebellion of 1965. He had already established his artistic voice in the realm of assemblage, which he has frequently described as a natural outgrowth of his upbringing in an extraordinarily creative household, headed by his father, a handyman and junk-man by trade, and an avid personal collector/salvager/recycler of the most unique and compelling discarded objects and materials he came across. After the events of 1965, Outterbridge and some of his peers were moved to incorporate the “detritus that littered the streets” into his work, augmenting his existing affection for rags, rubber, and scrap metal with the physical proof and narrative consequence of political and social upheaval and struggle, giving new personal and political and historical depth beyond the formal, stylistic innovation of the nascent California assemblage scene that was beginning to gain traction.

Perhaps it’s no accident that in these current headlines of social unrest and societal entropy challenges that assemblage is suddenly very zeitgeisty again with the new kids, for alarmingly similar reasons of resource/economic scarcity, political symbolism, analytical appropriation, and now also, environmentalism. Anyway at that time, it was not only doing that kind of self-expression and community reliquary talisman that appealed to Outterbridge. He also felt called to take direct action within the civic structures of the city.

"John Outterbridge: Rag Man," installation view
"John Outterbridge: Rag Man," installation view, Art + Practice, December 12, 2015-February 27, 2016. | Photo: Josh White.

Mark Steven Greenfield (an artist himself who began as Watts Towers Art Center director soon after Outterbridge’s tenure ended), remembers meeting Outterbridge for the first time at the Watts Summer Festival in 1968 along with Purifoy and Cecil Ferguson. Outterbridge had already attained some notoriety in the Black community, but hadn't received much recognition beyond that. At the time he and Judson Powell were running the Compton Communicative Arts Academy on Magnolia. In 1975 he took charge of WTAC after Purifoy (who had been the director) left for Joshua Tree, and around the same time that the WTAC was turned over to the city of Los Angeles to be administered by the Department of Cultural Affairs. “The challenges of running the Towers,” remarks Greenfield, “demonstrates the lack of compatibility between government and the arts. It’s the classic shotgun wedding. Government requires a high degree of accountability, as part of its obligation to the general public, given the support from tax dollars. The temperament of most artists is not well suited to this, because of their sense of responsibility to assess and meet the needs of the immediate community. I found myself at odds with the city on many occasions, as did John.”

Nevertheless, Outterbridge, as both the artist and the activist, practitioner and administrator, remains an indispensable figure in the history of the city, no matter one’s perspective. Liz Gordon, who owns and operates the Loft at Liz’s, an art gallery above her iconic Liz’s Antique Hardware store on La Brea, has her own special relationship to rare and reclaimed objects, and mounts an annual exhibition and event series under the moniker “Diverted Destruction” which celebrates found-object assemblage. Earlier this season, the gallery also produced the special exhibition "WATTS," examining the creative heritage of the place and its times. “It was vitally important to have an Outterbridge piece in the "WATTS" show,” says Gordon. Besides being a great artist himself, “As one of the directors of the Watts Towers Art Center he played an important and influential role in the community. I had the pleasure of having him come for lunch a couple of years ago with the artist Dominique Moody who is now traveling in her "NOMAD." Both he and Dominique are truly elegant, soft-spoken people, and also vegans.” 

John Outterbridge and Mark Steven Greenfield circa 1995 - photo by Sammy Davis (NOT Jr.). Photo courtesy of Mark Steven Greenfield
"John Outterbridge and Mark Steven Greenfield circa 1995, photo by Sammy Davis (NOT Jr.)" | Photo: Courtesy of Mark Steven Greenfield.

“I have unwavering respect for John as an artist and admire him for his philosophical insights,” Greenfield continues. “As human beings go, he is exceptional. I'm glad John is finally getting the attention his work deserves. I remember hearing a story once, though I've long since forgotten who told it. David Hammons called John up one night and said something to the effect of, ‘Let’s get out of L.A., this place is a wasteland and there's a lot more happening in New York.’ John had a family to think of, had started a job, [I think it was at the Towers] and had too many things going for him to just pick up and leave. David went to New York, started selling snowballs on 5th Avenue for $50 a pop and the rest is art history. It took nearly 40 years [until the Pacific Standard Time shows] for John's work to get mainstream validation here, and I can't help but wonder what might have happened to his career had he gone to New York with David.”

Anne Ellegood, the Hammer Museum curator whose labor of love was the Art + Practice show “Rag Man” has wondered the same -- and is super happy to be in something of a position to help correct/amend the art historical record. She’s been an avid fan of his work since long before he was featured as a key figure in the Hammer’s PST exhibition "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980." Although the exhibition took place under the institution’s aegis, it was physically located in Leimert Park, a circumstance and context Ellegood appreciated as “ideal, because John had shown with Brockman Gallery, an important gallery in Leimert Park from 1967-1989 that supported many artists of color. I felt it was important to bring John’s work back into people’s consciousness and look at some relatively recent works alongside a few earlier pieces.” The exhibition, which will now travel to Aspen, was restrained and ebullient, with selections from a few salient series tracing an evolution in his use of specific materials as hand-and-machine-tools, wood, bone, fabric, and hair in witty, emotional objects recalling old-timey toys, ritual charms and artifacts, totems of social experience, and items of ordinary household magic.

John Outterbridge, Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series, c. 1978-82. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Tilton.
John Outterbridge, "Broken Dance," from the "Ethnic Heritage Series," c. 1978-82. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Tilton.

As a new generation of artists who also use recycled materials, for the same/different reasons as their forebears, diligently address social and political issues. Often mentioned in dialogue about Outterbridge are artists like Edward Kienholz, Senga Nengudi, Purifoy, Robert Rauschenberg, Hammons, and Saar, as well as figures like El Anatsui, Theaster Gates, Mark Bradford, and artists such as Shinique Smith and Kevin Beasley, who consistently work with textiles -- all of whom demonstrate a range of approaches to the use of non-traditional, experiential, found materials. It is in this dual context -- the history of both the assemblage genre and the art history of the Black experience -- that curators like Ellegood are placing Outterbridge’s considerable oeuvre. “Assemblage using found materials has a long and important trajectory in the history of art-making in Los Angeles,” notes Ellegood, “but also, of course throughout the U.S. and internationally. Of earlier generations, in addition to those already mentioned, I think you can also look at John’s work in relationship to a number of women artists who were working in various forms of assemblage and using unorthodox materials, including Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse, Judith Scott, and others. In L.A., I think a number of younger artists have likely looked to John’s work, including Rodney McMillian, Henry Taylor, Brenna Youngblood, and Kori Newkirk. This does not mean, of course, that their work looks like John’s, but they certainly share an interest in using found materials that may have a particular formal quality, in addition to more pronounced social, personal, or political resonances.” 

So it seems, being retired and in his 80s has not prevented Outterbridge’s work from continuing to teach young artists, nor from galvanizing a community. Though the artist is granting fewer and fewer interviews these days, Artbound had the opportunity to interview him in close collaboration with his daughter Tami Outterbridge, who is increasingly working together with her father in such matters, as she would say, “joyfully.” We asked them a few questions about his personal, artistic, and professional history, and what it’s like to finally be appreciated.

John Outterbridge, "Case in Point," from the "Rag Man Series"
John Outterbridge, "Case in Point," from the "Rag Man Series," c. 1970. Mixed Media. 12 x 12 x 24 in. (30.5 x 30.5 x 61 cm). Hammer Museum, Los Angeles purchase.

Much of the impact and enduring power of your works comes from the way they weave together your personal and family narratives with larger, broader historical events and cultural references, and even more complex issues of society and identity. How do you achieve that balance? Is it something you deliberate, or something that happens organically?

Influences from my childhood are always with me; even now. It’s a forever thing, because it’s quite simply how one’s life begins. And even though you don’t yet know what your life will be, you develop distinct leanings and perspectives, instincts, as a matter of nature. My father and mother collected objects at large; and that was the habit of many in the region at that time. The accumulation of things -- rags, old wood, glass bottles, natural and beautiful things in their variety -- was part of their survival. The categorization of those things was part of their survival. You came into my parents’ backyard and could find something, anything to suit your needs. You see, there weren’t other choices at that time. There were no department stores or supermarkets, no Trader Joe’s. My siblings and I knew how to eat the beautiful sweet grass that danced and grew in the yard and was so healthy and delicious, too. On the front porch, there were colorful rows of watermelons as a matter of storage, but imagine the beauty of that. One day, a little goat who pulled a tiny red wagon showed up. He got there by way of barter. He got there because this little being was the only thing that someone had to pay my father with that day. So, from that day on, while everyone else walked dogs down the street, we walked a little goat who pulled a tiny red wagon. Those kinds of days, those kinds of images… those were my beginnings. And one can’t help but be influenced by the naturalness -- by the beauty of that.

 John Outterbridge, "No Time for JivinGÇÖ," from the Containment Series (1969).
John Outterbridge, "No Time for Jivin'," from the "Containment Series," 1969.

Did you think of your work as political before the events of 1965 further galvanized the ideas behind your practice? Did your work, or the way you made the work, change significantly during that time, or was it more like what you were already doing came into sharper focus?

My work shifted into another focus at that time. It shifted because of what was around you. The way the smoke -- spirit-stuff -- blew into the air during the uprisings… even that touched you in its own way. We became special Americans at that time. We didn’t see it in that way, but we became special Americans at that time -- others… othered. We fought -- just to be around. We had to do so much fighting just to be. We were not just Americans, or even just Black Americans. We were multi-taskers; never real Americans. In other words, we never had the opportunity to be just citizens, because we’ve had to be and become so many things to just to exist. Our realities have been very different, very diversified. I say that because we did not ask to come here. We were brought here. And once we got here, we were kept from being who we might have been. Those truths showed up in my work and in the selective comments that I chose to make about what was around me; about what I was around.

Because of your innovative use of materials and your perspective on their potential in art-making and storytelling -- and the influence of your childhood and father’s occupation, and the deliberate choice to bring that background into your art practices -- please comment a bit on the meaning(s) of your materials choices in that dual context.

My material choices are influenced by a courageous lineage -- the natural selectivity that my mother and father used to simply exist. There was a naturalness; a beautiful response to the realities of their environment. They did so many things, and became so many things, because they had to do and become so many things. My use of materials has everything to do with that -- with the choices we were forced to make. In the lack of one thing, there is an abundance of some other. In cast-offs, there are profound treasures. You choose from what you have and you choose from what you find within a reality that is forced upon you. That’s what soul food is about. Chitterlings and pig feet are all about the notion that, as a people, we’ve taken the scraps, the cast-offs, and made them into something so tasty that one can’t help but suck right down to the bones.

John Outterbridge, Captive Image, Ethnic Heritage Series, c. 1978-82. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Tilton.
John Outterbridge, "Captive Image," from the "Ethnic Heritage Series," c. 1978-82. | Image: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Tilton.

Regarding your tenure as director at WTAC, and speaking as both an administrator and an artist who was working within the city government, but in something of a parallel cultural context, how did that experience affect your own work both during and after?

Administrating was simply an out-front extension of my creative process. That same energy to innovate -- that same attitude that applied itself to my work as an artist -- is what I used and used and used over and over again. At work was that same instinct to gather and pull and sort. That was a time that required knowing how to weave together diversities that did not always mesh. For example, I was able to work with both the police department and the local gang culture in very unorthodox ways. Both could have been deterrents to what needed to get done; but, instead they supported me and the work I was doing there. You work with what and who is there and you create what you need when it is not there.  Assemblage, all over again.

Regarding your work with the Communicative Arts Academy in Compton, what would you like people to know about that institution?

Too many important things happened there, too many, for me to even begin to speak to. But, I will just say that it was a birthing place, an incubator, an oasis, a gathering spot. It was a bright, colorful place that we raised up on the other side of the train tracks and where we raised the roof with songs and plays and music and movements that didn’t happen anywhere else in the city. It was where we came to express who we were and who we were becoming -- a thing that we are still trying to do now. Art is an alive thing. It moves. Changes. Questions. Believes. Art has the audacity to be anything that it needs to be at a given time.

John Outterbridge, "Rag and Bag Idiom II," 2012
John Outterbridge, "Rag and Bag Idiom II," 2012. Mixed media. 19 x 18 ½ x 2 ½ inches. | Image: Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York. 
John Outterbridge, "Rag and Bag Idiom III," 2012
John Outterbridge, "Rag and Bag Idiom III," 2012. Mixed media. 34 x 14 x 7 ½ inches. | Image: Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.
"John Outterbridge: Rag Man," installation view
"John Outterbridge: Rag Man," installation view, Art + Practice, December 12, 2015-February 27, 2016. | Photo: Josh White.

Top image: "John Outterbridge: Rag Man," installation view, Art + Practice, December 12, 2015-February 27, 2016. | Photo: Josh White.

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