John Outterbridge

A timely exploration of one of LA’s artistic historians.


As we continue to dissect the immense creative output of our home city, we learn of artists who reveal to us the intricacies of this wild place, the tendrils of 'LA' as seen through their own lived experience in this vast metropolis. One such artist, John Outterbridge, was a community activist throughout his artistic career in LA from the 60s through to his passing at the end of last year. This position as activist first and artist second marked the course of his legacy entirely as he explored his identity through his practice.

Born in Greeneville, North Carolina, Outterbridge was raised by a father who made a living by recycling discarded equipment, machine parts, construction materials and the like. His childhood was one of discovery by way of exposure to the byproducts of our society and what comes of objects after we deem that they are no longer of value. Outterbridge brought with him this familiarity of found objects and the penchant for repurposing materials when he relocated to LA in 1963. It was only fitting that he would eventually go on to assume a role as the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, as the Watts Towers were painstakingly built out of materials found on construction sites — rebar, concrete, wire mesh — and decorated with over three decades of found objects.

From a wide angle, Outterbridge’s personal oeuvre is vast in scope, but his fascination with assemblage underscores it all. His paintings began to be combined with found objects shortly after he moved to LA and had the contents of this city at his disposal. It was a tumultuous time for this city; a period of deep reckoning was underway. While the Watts Riots consumed the streets from 1961 through the better part of the decade, Outterbridge began to collect debris from the riots and incorporate them into his artwork. These found object assemblages were highly charged, they carried with them the pain that generations suffered under racist laws, policies, and societal norms. What resulted was inherently political, steeped in history, and grounded in place. This sort of work became emblematic of Outterbridge’s career. He continued to rely on his art not just to make things to put into museums but to communicate the reality of everyday life for him and his community. It’s critical that we take the time to truly witness these works for the teachers of history that they are.

For more information on his work and his role as director of the Watts Tower Arts Center, we highly recommend watching this episode of the PBS series, ARTBOUND.

Sacred Hymns & Broken Tongues, 1996 via The Tilton Gallery
Urban Man, from the Ethnic Heritage Group , 1981 via The Hammer Museum
Eastside-Westside, from the Containment Series , c. 1970 via The Hammer Museum
Untitled, 2006 via The Tilton Gallery
Rag and Bag Idiom II, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York. Via Art in America.
Asafetida Yoke, 2008 via The Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Captive Image #4, from the Ethnic Heritage Group , c. 1974–76 via The Hammer Museum
Rag-Wrapped Twigs, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York. Via Art in America.
No Time for Jivin', from the Containment Series, 1969, via KCET
Jive Ass Bird, from the Rag Man Series , 1971 via The Hammer Museum
Let Us Tie Down Loose Ends, from the Containment Series , c. 1968 via The Hammer Museum
From Within, from Containment Series, 1969, via The Portland Museum of Art
Rag and Bag Idiom III, 2012
Rag and Bag Idiom I, 2012, The Eileen Harris Norton Collection. Image courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York, via Hammer Museum.
Installation view, Art + Practice, December 12, 2015-February 27, 2016
Captive Image from the Ethnic Heritage Series, 1978-82. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Tilton. via KCET
5 Pieces, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York. Via Art in America.
Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series, c 1978-82
Case in Point, from the Rag Man Series, ca 1970. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
John Outterbridge making a soll in his Fair Oaks studio, Altadena 1972 via International Review of African American Art
John Outterbridge, 1977, via Calisphere
John Outterbridge and the staff of the Watts Towers Arts Center, via Calisphere