Art and the City

K. Curtis Lyle at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 2011 | The Pulitzer/Flickr/Creative Commons

Over 900 people came out last Saturday to the opening at the Craft & Folk Art Museum to see Timothy Washington's "Love Thy Neighbor." Fever about the Black Art scene in Los Angeles has been steadily building since Kellie Jones' landmark exhibition, "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960 - 1980" was held at the Hammer Museum in 2011. This week L.A. Letters showcases this community further and discusses four African-American poets that have made major contributions to the city's literary community, even if they no longer live in Los Angeles or are not officially associated with local spaces like Leimert Park.

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Before discussing these poets, the California/International Arts Foundation, under the direction of Lyn Kienholz, is organizing the first comprehensive survey of African-American artists' work from Southern California to be shown abroad. Slated for the 2015 Venice Biennale in Italy, 35 Los Angeles-based African-American artists, including Timothy Washington, Mark Bradford, John Outterbridge, Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, Charles White, Kehinde Wiley, and Richard Wyatt Jr, among many others, will be displaying their work overseas. Curated by Jill Moniz, this landmark exhibit, titled "Black SoCal," is consistent with the mission of the California/International Arts Foundation, which has organized and circulated more than 100 exhibitions featuring hundreds of artists from Southern California in dozens of museums and venues across the world. Though this series of events is not scheduled until 2015, a series of warm up events around town will begin the build-up in February 2014. As noted in this column before, the legacy of arts in Southern California is alive and well.


"Art and the City," published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2009, is one of the first books to catalog the many art movements in Los Angeles over the last century. Author Sarah Schrank provides the social and historical context of different art communities, such as the Black Assemblage Movement of the 1960s and the Chicano Mural Movement of the 1970s. Schrank goes all the way back the 1910s and meticulously details the backstory of avant-garde Los Angeles artists, like Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, and denizens of spaces like Barnsdall Art Park and the different venues of the Beat Generation in Venice. One of the books' central theme is, "As Los Angeles grew in geographic size, economic power, and demographic diversity, art became an increasingly volatile site for public debate over what kind of city Los Angeles would be and who would control its cultural terrain." Schrank shows how the city's art scene has evolved over the last Century.

Neighborhoods like Leimert Park, Boyle Heights, Venice, Watts, and Echo Park often dominate certain journalistic narratives about the local art scene because of the high concentration of artists in these districts. Similarly, venues like the World Stage and Beyond Baroque are often noted as incubators for the local writing community. All of this is true. Simultaneously though, the size of Los Angeles assures that thousands of artists and writers are isolated from these scenes and quietly working in the corners. These artists and writers are destined to unveil their work when the time is right. There have even been a few artists that began their life or career in L.A. that ended up migrating elsewhere, like Jackson Pollock and Roy Ayers. Both of these legends eventually made their names in New York.

The same is true of poet and novelist Paul Beatty. Born in West Los Angeles, Beatty burst onto the American poetry scene in the early '90s as performance poetry was coming to rise at the Nuyorican Poetry Café in the Lower East Side of New York. After winning many poetry slams, Beatty's 1994 book, "Joker, Joker Deuce" was published by Penguin, and is considered a seminal volume that united hip hop with classical poetry. Beatty was also one of the first to walk between both the performance world and academic poetry space. After gaining fame from the New York poetry scene, Beatty got his M.F.A. at Brooklyn College and even studied with Allen Ginsberg. After appearing on MTV and touring internationally as a poet, Beatty has turned to fiction writing. His 1996 novel, "The White Boy Shuffle," is a fictional account about growing up in Los Angeles, that is clearly autobiographical, displaying his razor sharp wit. Beatty's most recently published the novels are "Slumberland" and "Tuff."

''Black Angeles'' album by Michelle T. Clinton and Wanda Coleman
''Black Angeles'' album by Michelle T. Clinton and Wanda Coleman

Michelle T. Clinton is a pioneering poetess that produced a series of groundbreaking poems in the late 1980s and 1990s. As a contemporary of Wanda Coleman, Ruben Martinez, and Sesshu Foster, Clinton, like Paul Beatty, walked between the literary and performance worlds. Her work illuminated not only the volatile themes of Rodney King Los Angeles, but the politics of alternative lifestyles and the inconsistencies of multiculturalism. Clinton's work was equally received in the performance art scene, as well as the hybrid Punk Poetry scene of the mid-90s. In her 1994 book, "Good Sense & the Faithless," she acts as a lightning rod advocating the rights of woman and people of color. In her poem "Manifesting the Girl Hero," she writes, "I'm standing at the edge of this patriarchal situation/& you know I got a problem." Clinton also did a number of recordings, including a vinyl LP with Wanda Coleman. I have not heard as much from her lately, but she's a legend already on the strength of her pioneering work over 20 years ago.


Poet Michael S. Harper served as the poet laureate of Rhode Island from 1988 to 1993, but he earned both his undergraduate and Masters' Degree at Cal State L.A. in the early 1960s. Harper even briefly studied with Christopher Isherwood when Isherwood taught at Cal State L.A. Harper's first book, "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," was published in 1970, and nominated for the National Book Award. Harper has produced numerous books since. Riffing on jazz and politics, Harper's poetics utilize minimalism while still being highly meaningful, as seen in his famous works like "History Is Your Own Heartbeat." Harper was hired as a professor at Brown University in 1970 and has been there ever since. Though he has not lived in Southern California for over 40 years, his early days of studying in Los Angeles qualify him as another great writer to have spent time here under the sun.

K. Curtis Lyle was one of the original members of the Watts Writers Workshop. As much as Lyle has contributed to this movement, he is also known for his association with poets from St. Louis. In 1976, one of Lyle's first poetic manuscripts won a contest at Beyond Baroque. Titled "15 Predestination Weather Reports," Lyle's Afro-Surrealist style set him apart from other writers. In Lyle's 2003 book, "Electric Church," award-winning Los Angeles poet Will Alexander not only describes Lyle but he discusses their close to 40-year friendship. First Alexander describes Lyle's poetics: "images erupt in the form of interior code, rhythms are aboriginal, powers partake of ferocious lingual audacity. A philosophical threading blended with subversive humor."

Alexander also discusses the community they came up in. Aside from Watts and Leimert Park, there were a few other sites in South Los Angeles where poets gathered. Alexander writes, "One of our central hubs was the Broadway and Manchester local where the Los Angeles musicians Ray and Ernest Slaughter operated a collective incense business. In essence it was an Afro-Surrealist hive frequented by poets, musicians, and fellow travelers. Rasul Sidik, Azar Lawrence, Kamau Daaood were spontaneous participants. There were others too numerous to mention." This same scene is also celebrated in Steve Isoardi's book, "The Dark Tree." Lyle has spent numerous years teaching, mostly at universities around St. Louis, but he also taught for a time in New York City during the early 1980s. Though Lyle has mostly been out of L.A. the last few decades, he remains close to colleagues like Will Alexander and Kamau Daaood. His status as one of the founding members of the Watts Writers Workshop already makes him Angeleno literary royalty on that alone.

Entering February and African-American History Month, there's a vibrant community of venues to see and hear the Black Art and literary scene. As Timothy Washington's opening showed last week, the spirit inaugurated by the 2011 Hammer exhibit is alive and well. What's more is the forthcoming 2015 Venice Biennale and the international debut of these artists; this celebration of 35 Los Angeles African-American artists in Italy will further cement the importance of their work.

Sarah Schrank's "Art and the City" provides a great window into the many diverse art scenes around Southern California. And as stated earlier, other than famous neighborhoods like Leimert Park and Boyle Heights, there are also other artistic enclaves that have emerged, in sites like Broadway and Manchester, or other unlikely areas. Salute also to the four poets mentioned in this essay. Though they are not completely affiliated with the official verse culture in town, their pioneering early work qualifies them as important writers that have contributed to the city's literary legacy. Respect is in order for these distinguished luminaries of L.A. Letters.

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