Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980

A Conversation with Cynthia Burlingham

Cynthia Burlingham, deputy director, Curatorial Affairs at the Hammer Museum, talks with Choice about Now Dig This!, a new digital archive of the exhibition that travelled to Los Angeles, Long Island City, and Williamstown from 2011 to 2013. The exhibition and archive chronicle the legacy of Los Angeles’s African American artists.

Image of Cynthia Burlingham
Cynthia Burlingham was appointed deputy director, Curatorial Affairs at the Hammer Museum in 2011 after serving as deputy director of collections since 2001. She became director of the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts in 2005 after serving since 1992 as associate director and senior curator. While overseeing the departments of exhibitions, publications, academic programs, and public programs, she also manages all Grunwald Center collection and exhibition activities, in addition to overseeing the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, the Armand Hammer Collection of 16th- to 19th-century painting, and the Daumier and Contemporaries Collection of paintings, works on paper, and sculpture.Burlingham has curated numerous exhibitions, including , A Strange Magic: Gustave Moreau’s Salome [2012]; Outside the Box: Edition Jacob Samuel [2010]; Rembrandt Prints [2010]; And Then Again … Printed Sets and Series, 1500-2007 [2008]; Masters of American Comics [coordinating curator] [2005]; The Eunice and Hal David Collection of 19th- and 20th-Century Works on Paper [2003]; The World from Here: Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles [2001]; Visionary States: Surrealist Prints from the Gilbert Kaplan Collection [1996]; and The French Renaissance in Prints [1994]. She coedited Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield with Robert Gober, and she served as editor and essayist for the publication on the history of the Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA in 2007. Her forthcoming projects include Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo, to be presented at the Hammer in fall 2018. Burlingham holds an M.A. in art history from Oberlin College and has lectured and written extensively on the history of the print from the 16th through the 20th centuries.

Can you briefly describe the exhibit Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980, and discuss the recent expansion of the Hammer Museum’s digital archive?

Now Dig This!was organized by the Hammer in 2011 as part of Pacific Standard Time, a collaboration of more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California to recover the historical record of mid-20th-century art in Southern California. The exhibition opened at the Hammer Museum and traveled to MoMA PS1 in New York and the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, MA. Dr. Kellie Jones, a professor at Columbia University who was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, guest curated the show. It was the first in-depth survey of the legacy of Los Angeles’s African American artists, including Melvin Edwards, Fred Eversley, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Alonzo Davis, Dale Brockman Davis, Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, and Charles White. The exhibition chronicled the influence of these pioneering artists on the creative community and artistic practices that developed in Los Angeles during this historic period, and explored the significant contributions of African Americans to the canon of Los Angeles-based art. The Now Dig This! digital archive was funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The archive is an opportunity to give new life to one of the Hammer’s most significant exhibitions. With the show long past and the catalogue now out of print, we thought it was important to make sure that the extensive research and scholarship that went into Now Dig This! isn’t lost. The digital archive was conceived as a site where materials from before, during, and after the exhibition’s three-venue tour could be assembled and presented to a whole new audience. We knew we wanted to include documentation of the works of art and didactic texts from the exhibition, symposia, and lectures at each venue, and the artist biographies, essays, and chronology from the catalogue. And we wanted to augment the archive with links to resources from the past five years, to reflect how Now Dig This! has contributed to the conversation since the exhibition ended. Devising a digital platform to communicate the exhibition’s expansive narrative in a cohesive way was a big challenge, which our project team, led by Project Manager Philip Leers and Associate Director of Digital Content Susan Edwards, took head on, and we’re thrilled by the results.

Installation 1
Installation 1 at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer.

How does Now Dig This! chronicle a history of radical activism in Los Angeles? What kind of social and political relevance does the archive hold?

The period that Now Dig This! documents was a time when radical activism came to the fore worldwide, and the community of black artists in Los Angeles (as well as the network of friends like Ron Miyashiro, Virginia Jaramillo, and Andrew Zermeño, who also appear in the show) served as a microcosm of this critical moment, when movements for civil rights and black power intersected with feminist, youth, and antiwar movements. The works of art presented in Now Dig This! respond to these movements, and to precipitating events like the Vietnam War and the Watts uprising of 1965. The various essays in the exhibition catalogue recount how the artists’ community consolidated their strength through the establishment of art organizations and spaces like Gallery 32 and the Watts Towers Arts Center. The two years that our team worked on the Now Dig This! digital archive proved the relevance of the materials time and again, especially in today’s environment. As we witnessed the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the rise of movements like Black Lives Matters and #SayHerName, it was impossible not to recognize the connections between what the Now Dig This! artists were responding to and what we were seeing on the news. The current political climate has brought about another moment of burgeoning political and social activism, and the images and words in the Now Dig This! archive give visitors a sense of how our moment fits into a larger continuum of action and ideas.

Installation 2
Installation 2 at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer.

What was the process of acquiring and selecting materials like? Do you plan to digitize any other collections/exhibits in the future?

The process of acquiring and selecting materials was aided by our retention of all of the physical and digital exhibition files, which saved us a lot of hunting. We employed graduate student researchers who combed through the files and searched the internet to give us an overview of everything available. From that, we selected what we thought were the most pertinent resources. As a rule, we tried to be comprehensive: if we thought it might serve our users, and could get permission to include it, we did. That inclusive mindset helped us create a product that offers more than a virtual exhibition or digital exhibition catalogue might. For example, most exhibition websites don’t link to press reviews of the exhibition, but in taking a retrospective look at Now Dig This!, we could imagine that, for a researcher, critical response to the show could be an important piece of understanding it in context.

We launched our second digital archive, documenting our 2014 exhibition Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology, in March of this year. That exhibition focused on the intersection of appropriation and institutional critique in contemporary art. We also have collections-focused digital archives planned for the future; the first, on the work of activist and printmaker Corita Kent, will be coming soon.

What is the intended audience for Now Dig This! ? How do you see undergraduates, for example, using this archive?

From the beginning, we built this digital archive with students, scholars, and researchers in mind. Those users informed the materials we included as well as the features we developed for the site, like interactive footnotes and a tool that generates a citation for the page you’re on. We looked to models in the digital humanities sector, and also did usability testing with scholars, students, and artists in order to ensure the site would be useful for these audiences. Already we’ve heard from professors who are including the digital archive in their syllabi, which is very exciting. We hope that students at all levels will be able to take advantage of it. We envisioned the digital archive as a hub that you can visit to learn about Now Dig This! and its subject matter, whether you’re an undergraduate working on a term paper or a scholar writing a book. If we find ourselves in the footnotes, we know we’ve done a good job.

Installation 3
Installation 3 at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer.

What are some other ways in which the Hammer Museum seeks to further represent and support the work of marginalized artists and communities in Los Angeles?

The Hammer’s mission statement asserts our belief in the “promise of art and ideas to illuminate our lives and build a more just world,” and that last part drives much of what we do with regard to marginalized artists and communities. We strive to reflect the diversity and vitality of the city we serve, whether it’s in our curatorial programming or our robust public programs, which consistently deal with social justice, inequality, and other pressing issues in myriad ways. Our Public Engagement program, supporting artist-led projects in discourse with the public at large, is one of the few of its kinds in any museum.

What seems most compelling about Now Dig This! is the variety of artistic styles and disciplines it encapsulates—be it assemblage, post/minimalism, or performance art. Was it ever a challenge to represent these variant styles in a single archive?

Representing such a variety of forms and media is always a challenge, but the digital archive gave us the advantage of showing the work in context. Each work from the exhibition is represented by a large, zoomable image (or a video, in some cases), but you can also read the label text that appeared with the work on the Hammer gallery wall. You can click on “Themes” to see how the work fits into the thematic groupings that Kellie Jones used to structure the exhibition. You can read a biography of the artist of the work, or consider how it relates to the historical and critical frameworks discussed in the eight essays from the exhibition catalogue. Or you can visit the Documentation section and see the work as it was installed at the Hammer, MoMA PS1, and the Williams College Museum of Art. By offering a variety of vantage points from which to look at the work, we’re able to give users a fuller picture of the range of work in the show.

Installation 4
Installation 4 at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer.

Can you point to a few works that you find particularly representative of the collection and explain why?

Betye Saar’s Black Girl’s Window (1969) is a perfect encapsulation of what makes her such an important figure in the history of art in Southern California. The assemblage is autobiographical, bringing together elements of her personal history, like a daguerreotype of her grandmother, with the astrological and mystical iconography that appears throughout her work. The constellation of images here, nine small vignettes representing love and death and family above the silhouette of the titular black girl with her hands against the glass, looking back at you, presents a complex rumination on personal history, gender, spirituality, and race. I also love that in one of the archival photos you’ll find on the website, taken by Robert Nakamura, you can see Saar standing in her L.A. studio in 1970, with her hands resting on this very work.

Noah Purifoy’s Pressure (1966) is powerful in its simplicity. It consists of only a flattened steel can in the middle of chipped white frame, both of which Purifoy salvaged from the debris of the Watts uprising, so that they occupy some middle space between everyday object and historic artifact. In her introduction to Now Dig This!, Kellie Jones writes that Purifoy was an artist who “reinterpreted Watts as a discursive force, emblematic of both uncompromising energy and willful re-creation, using the artistic currency of assemblage.” A piece like Pressure exemplifies how Purifoy imbued the detritus he found on the streets of L.A. with meaning by recontextualizing it in his assemblage work. The title adds to the layers of meaning: seemingly, it refers to the pressure that crushed the can, but it also evokes the social and racial tensions that exploded into the Watts rebellion.

Additional Information on the Installations:

Installation 1: Foreground: Houston Conwill, Drum, c. 1975–80; standing behind, from left to right: Dan Concholar, Suitcase, c. 1980, John T. Riddle Jr., America’s Problem Solver, 1970s; right wall: Fred Eversley, Untitled, 1984; background: works by Sister Karen Boccalero, Elizabeth Leigh-Taylor, Suzanne Jackson, and others. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer.

Installation 2: Foreground: Betye Saar, Spirit Catcher, 1977. Immediately behind, from left to right: Betye Saar, Indigo Mercy, 1975 and Dale Brockman Davis, Viet Nam War Games, 1969. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer.

Installation 3: Foreground: Maren Hassinger, A Place for Nature, 2011; background: works by Senga Nengudi and David Hammons. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer.

Installation 4: Foreground: Melvin Edwards, The Fourth Circle, 1966; hanging: Melvin Edwards, Double Chain, 1966; wall: three works by Charles White, from left to right: Harriet, 1972,Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man), 1973, and Mississippi , 1972. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer.

Visit Now Dig This! at

This interview was conducted by Emma Raddatz. She is a student at Wesleyan University and an editorial intern at Choice.