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A City’s Trash, an Artist’s Treasure

Front cover of exhibition catalog

As a cataloger, I get a glimpse of every title that enters our library collection. This includes books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, and even some obscure one-off publications not found in any other institution. One particular item that grabbed my attention was an exhibition catalog as old at the Amistad Research Center itself. It’s called “Junk Art: 66 Signs of Neon,” a catalog accompanying an art display at the Firsts Annual Watts Art Festival in 1966. It’s short, only 12 pages, but oversized in print. The front cover shows a curved piece of metal attached to a straight pipe with another hunk of metal affixed to the top; the statue is superimposed over a backdrop of a landfill and a single word sits on top of it all – “junk.” Each page is filled with different monstrosity, pieces of metalwork fused together to create new sculptures or fixtures.

The idea was conceived during the infamous Watts riots in August 1965. Los Angeles was no stranger to racial tension – as African Americans moved to the city, housing covenants prevented them from living in most areas of the city. The California Fair Housing Act of 1963 aimed to end race-based housing discrimination in the state, but a referendum a year later (Prop 14) nullified the law. By 1966, racial tensions and police-community interactions grew into strong antipathies toward the city’s police department. An argument between police officers and a driver suspected of being intoxicated escalated into a fight. News spread throughout the neighborhood of police brutality and allegations were made that an officer had kicked a pregnant woman. Outraged residents gathered into a crowd, the police responded by calling in the National Guard, the powder keg was lit.

“Sun Flowers” by Debby Brewer

Noah Purifoy, one of the main artists behind the exhibition, said of the riots, “Judson [Powell] and I, while teaching at the Watts Tower Art Center, watched aghast the rioting, looting and burning during the August happening. And 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.” In the month following, the artists had a collection of three tons of “junk” left over from the Watts riots. The collected materials included metal fragments, charred wood, and fire-molded debris. Purifoy and Powell began using the collected pieces to create a sculpture garden around the art center where they worked. Unfortunately, the Watts Tower Art Center closed in March 1967, but an arts festival scheduled for Easter weekend became a venue in which they could display their works. Several artists – Noah Purifoy, Judson Powell, Debby Brewer, Max Neufeldt, Ruth Saturensky, and Arthur Secunda – came together to create assemblages using the wreckage. They set out to create 66 works of art in the 30 days between the closing the of the Art center and the Watts Arts Festival. The team worked nonstop, taking the twisted, grotesque materials and creating their own interpretation of what they called the “August Happening.

“The City” by Arthur Secunda

With the closing of the art center, the team wanted to use their art display as an addendum to the McCone Report, the official government report on the underlying causes of the riots. They demanded that art education, in addition to general education, be included as a necessity to the betterment of the community. “Junk” seemed an excellent medium to convey the importance of self-expression for a variety of reasons. For one, Watts was filled with it. The ultimate goal, as Purifoy elaborates, “was to demonstrate… that education through creativity is the only way left for a person to find himself in this materialistic world.” The Watts Arts Festival was meant to be the first and last exhibition of the works, but its popularity caused it to become a traveling exhibit. It would tour through nine universities and the Washington Gallery of Modern Art before coming to an end.

The exhibition catalog for “Junk Art: 66 Signs of Neon” came with the donation of the papers of artist Ruth Waddy and is a part of the Amistad Research Center’s library holdings.

Images from Junk Art: 66 Signs of Neon. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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