John Outterbridge

American  •  b. 1933

Biography

A key artist of the Californian assemblage movement, John Outterbridge pursued his path as an artist at a time when very few opportunities were available for African Americans artists in the United States. Born in Depression-era Jim Crow South, Outterbridge felt drawn to art making from an early age. A gifted painter, Outterbridge was able to secure a place at the American Academy of Art in Chicago in 1956 and in 1963 relocated to Los Angeles, which served as the ideal environment for him to develop his assemblage practice.

Outterbridge developed a fascination with the aesthetic of assemblage from early on, his father being a hauler and mover who salvaged junk and used goods in their backyard. Assemblage offered him the visual means to explore heritage and tradition, family and community, as well as the political past and present. Like his friend and fellow artist Noah Purifoy, Outterbridge created some of his earliest sculptures from the detritus of the 1965 Watts uprising, and dedicated his life to education and community activism. From 1975 to 1992, he served as director of the Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles.

As John Yao wrote in The Brooklyn Rail on the occasion of Outterbridge’s first solo show in New York in 2009: “Long before it was fashionable to do so, Outterbridge recognized that identity is a construction, not a given, and certainly not something to be defined by succumbing to external pressures…Formally, Outterbridge’s unearthings echo the subject of his work, which is the excavation of different histories that have been covered over, neglected, and hidden…Outterbridge’s work conjures complex, multilayered narratives that are viscerally and visually enchanting. Having made a real and important place for himself in postwar American art, he continues with unparalleled grace to implicitly challenge many assumptions regarding the proper place and meaning of art in postmodern culture.”

Insights

  • Selected honors: California African American Museum Lifetime Achievement Award (2012); Artists’ Legacy Foundation Award (2010); J. Paul Getty Fellowship for the Visual Arts (1994); National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1994); Fulbright Fellowship (1988)

 “I just had a natural knack for the creative momentum…So many other people did, too, but we didn’t have any opportunity to take it outside of ourselves.”

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