Claiming Power With Art

Seymour Rosen, Asco's Stations of the Cross, 1971.
Seymour Rosen, Asco's Stations of the Cross, 1971, gelatin silver print. © SPACES-Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments

“Chicanos make graffiti, not art.”

That’s essentially the answer a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) gave Harry Gamboa Jr. in 1972, when Gamboa asked why there wasn’t a single example of Chicano art on the walls. Gamboa returned to the museum that same night with fellow artists Gronk and Willie F. Herrón III to sign their names outside the entrance. They photographed Patssi Valdez, another artist, at the site the next morning.

It was “a response that was collaborative and aesthetic and ‘agitational,'” says Williams art and Latina/o studies professor C. Ondine Chavoya. Chavoya has spent two decades studying Asco, the performance and conceptual art group started by the four artists, who met in and around Garfield High School in East L.A. in the late ’60s. “They responded by signing the museum as their own work of art and in the process made it the largest work of Chicano art ever exhibited anywhere.”

Forty years later, the photograph Spray Paint LACMA is part of the Williams College Museum of Art’s “Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987.” The show, which opened in February after three months at LACMA, is co-curated by Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez, LACMA’s associate curator of contemporary art.

Asco, Spray Paint LACMA (East Bridge)
Asco, Spray Paint LACMA (East Bridge), 1972, color photograph by Harry Gamboa Jr. Courtesy of the artist. © Asco; photograph © 1972 Harry Gamboa Jr.

The exhibition has attracted a flurry of attention from Williams professors looking to use the artworks to explore with their classes the aesthetic, social, cultural, historical, and political contexts of Asco’s work–as well as the group’s experimental and collaborative processes. It’s also struck a chord with students, who are around the same age as Asco’s members when they formed the group. As Record executive editor Megan Bantle ’14 wrote in a review of the show: “Asco saw a gap in its society and claimed responsibility for filling it. … [They] introduced an entirely new mode of expression to comprehend and change the problems in the world around them.”

Featuring nearly 150 works and an award-winning catalog, the exhibition runs through July 29. Learn more here.

You can read more about Asco in the March 2012 Williams Alumni Review. (Or click here for the text-only version.)