John Outterbridge (1933–2020)

December 23, 2020

John Outterbridge—the pioneering California assemblagist who quarried scrapyards to fashion metaphors for the new forms needed to reshape American social consciousness as well as for the complexities of Black life—has died at age eighty-eight. As a key figure of the California Assemblage movement in the 1960s and the director of the Watts Towers Art Center from 1975 to 1992, Outterbridge became central to a Los Angeles community of African American artists who included David Hammons, Noah Purifoy, John T. Riddle Jr., and Betye Saar.

Born in segregated North Carolina in 1933, Outterbridge’s interest in scavenged materials began with his father, a “rag man” who made a living by recycling metal and machine parts. “I had a mother and a father who had a lot of faith in cast-offs, the beauty and the aesthetics of what is not of use anymore,” he told Artforum in 2011. “That has always excited me because I saw old fences, degraded buildings, and scrub rags not as foreign objects but as being of a piece in the language of life, each with a lot of kinship between them.”

After attending the Academy of American Art in Chicago and joining the military, in 1963 he married and moved to Los Angeles, where he found his muse in the city’s flourishing junkyards. In the mid-’60s, a visit to Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers brought him into contact with Purifoy and Judson Powell, who had recently gained national renown for organizing “66 Signs of Neon,” a group exhibition featuring assemblages made from the debris of the 1965 Watts Rebellion. Alongside a wave of other Black artists who were transforming California’s Assemblage Movement, which started with white beatniks, the six-day uprising would leave a decades-long impact on Outterbridge’s work, which he likened to history itself: an accrual of details beholden to no single interpretation. For his “Containment Series,” c. 1968—the artist destroyed canvases, then affixed them with objects such as rusted nails, leather belts, and tin cans. His “Captive Doll (Ethnic Heritage Group)” series, begun in 1970, grew out of attempts to teach his daughter about slavery.

From 1969 to 1972, Outterbridge was artistic director of the Communicative Arts Academy, which he cofounded, and in 1975 became director of the Watts Towers Art Center, which shared its roots with other Black Southern California collectives in the 1960s and ’70s, among them the Watts Writers Workshop, the Inner City Cultural Center, and the New Art Jazz Ensemble. Even after his departure from the Watts Towers in 1992 to focus on his artistic career, his studio practice, which he continued up until the mid-2010s, remained inseparable from his role as an activist and educator.

Outterbridge had his first solo exhibition in 1966 at Brockman Gallery—then one of the only LA venues showing artists of color in the city’s segregated art world—and has only somewhat recently began to receive institutional recognition, despite his prodigious influence as an artist, teacher, and community activist. In 1994, he represented the US at the São Paulo Biennial alongside Saar.“The Rag Factory,” held at LAXART in 2011, was his first solo show in forty-five years. His work now belongs to museum collections worldwide, included in blockbuster exhibitions such as the Pompidou’s “Los Angeles, 1955-1985: The Birth of an Artistic Capital” (2006); the Lynne Cooke–curated “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” (2018–19) at the National Gallery; and “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” (2017–20), organized by Mark Godfrey for Tate Modern. 

“With me, art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at a given time. Anything,” he said in the 2011 interview. “We think that everything has been done before—even though nothing has been done before.”