By Gabriel Coxhead
David Hammons declined to be interviewed for this article. Which, for anyone familiar with his career, isn't remotely surprising. Over the past five decades, during which his explorations of race and urban experience have made him one of the most consistently provocative and influential of American artists, he's conducted only a handful of press interviews-- this reticence of being merely one facet of a famed elusiveness that has reached almost mythic proportions. He rarely makes public appearances, refuses to communicate by telephone, doesn’t turn up to his own openings—doesn’t, for that matter, even have permanent commercial gallery representation. Together, this avoidance of the limelight and determinedly independent stance towards the art market have turned him into something of a cult figure— particularly for those of us dismayed by contemporary culture’s ceaseless, vapid manufacturing of celebrity. It’s hard to think of another artist, for instance, who could have garnered so much attention for an unofficial retrospective—mounted by Harlem gallery Triple Candie in 2006 after Hammons himself refused to participate—that consisted of nothing but downloaded pictures and grainy catalogue photocopies; or who commentators would have suspected of somehow secretly being behind the entire affair.
Hammons’s own, paradoxical celebrity, then, is less about deliberately cultivating a persona or mystique, but seemingly stems from a genuine distates for the mainstream artworld: ‘The art audience is the worst audience in the world,’ he told Real Life Magazine, in one of the few interviews he has given (quotes from that 1986 feature, written by art historian Kellie Jones, tend therefore to be frequently recycled). ‘It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize not understand. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?’ The irony of course, is that refusing to play by the rules of the game becomes, at a certain point, a kind of game in itself. And, for Hammons at least, an extremely effective one. In 2013, he became the first African American to enter the ranks of the ten most expensive living artists, with the $8 million auction sale of an untitled work from 2000, a crystal chandelier-cum-basketball hoop. And in 2014 it was announced that he’d bought a vast industrial space in Yonkers, on the outskirts of New York, with the intention of opening his own gallery.
More intriguing than these outward markers of success, however, are those works and exhibitions where Hammons reflects upon his own teasing, antagonistic relationship towards art institutions. Two recent projects, in particular, dramatise ideas to do, explicitly, with visibility and access. Firstly, for a group show at MoMA in 2012, Printin’, he contributed one of his ‘Kool-Aid drawings’—an ongoing abstract series made using the popular brand of American soft drink—but hid the work behind a veil, requiring visitors to book a special appointment and enter the museum via a side entrance in order to view the work uncovered. His 2014 show at White Cube, London, meanwhile, pushed such theatrics even further. Not only did it feature several of his similarly obscured ‘tarp paintings’—another ongoing series in which huge, washy, abstract canvases are draped, to oddly beautiful effect, in ragged sheets of tarpaulin—but sections of the venue itself were dismantled or deconstructed, creating the sense of a show left unfinished or being deinstalled. Absent lighting panels in the ceiling revealed bare neon, a vacant patch on the wall implied a missing work, plasterboard walls were hacked away to give glimpses of the normally hidden loading bay and machinery—the whole environment suggesting an ambiguous, concentrated mix of concealment, exposure, disclosure.
These sorts of tricksy interventions seem, at first glance, a far cry from the sort of politically motivated work with which Hammons began his career, however. Born in 1943 in Springfield, Illinois, he moved to Los Angeles as a twenty-year-old; and it was there, during the West Coast heyday of the Black Arts Movement, in the late 1960’s and 70s, that he produced what he called ‘body prints’—pressing his margarine-greased face or body onto paper and dusting the imprints with black powdered pigment, occasionally adding other colours or collage elements. While some of the resulting images took the form of crude, socially satirical role-plays—the squashed and distended features lending themselves to caricatures of rabbi, say, or drunken winos—the broader aim was one of consciousness-raising. His more identifiable self-portraits frequently incorporated the American flag as an ironic statement about political inclusiveness; while his most controversial work, Injustice Case (1970), was an imprint of the artist bound and gagged in reference to the brutal courtroom treatment of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale—with Hammons’s weirdly negativised, contorted form resembling some ghostly X-ray, as if seeing through the nation’s veneer of democracy and equality to the violence at its core. It was also during this period that Hammons began using spades as a motif, riffing on the racist term by including the playing-card symbol in some prints, and making his first assemblage works featuring the metal tools themselves.
Several early works are included in Five Decades, currently showing (with Hammons’s blessing) at Mnuchin Gallery in New York—astonishingly the first survey exhibition of his work for 25 years. As such, it becomes remarkably clear how central themes of visibility and disappearance have been throughout his career—from his obvious recent examples of his tarp paintings or his series of obscured and boarded up mirrors, to In the Hood (1993), a torn-off sweatshirt hood that holds the shape of an invisible wearer, all the way back to the body prints of the 1970s. Indeed, for all that those early prints convey a political message about the representation of black bodies, there’s something about their impressed forms—the aftereffects of physical action—that simultaneously indicates a kind of bodily vacancy: a vanishment. In that sense, the works seem to presage Hammons’s current position within the art world—with audiences looking in vain for the real Hammons, but encountering only echoes, versions, traces of where he had once been, like a lingering rumour or shadow.
A frequent, if somewhat romanticize, description of Hammons, indeed, is as sort of modern-day trickster figure—irreverent, nomadic, always out to deceive, yet with the intention of revealing deep truths. Certainly, there’s a shapeshifting quality about his practice, which never settles into one medium. In the winter of 1983, having moved to New York several years earlier, and pursuing a tactic of showing work in vacant lots and other urban sites, Hammons staged what for some is his most iconic piece, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, in which he set himself up as a street hawker selling snowballs. Laid out on a blanket and priced according to size, the snowballs became a sort of ironic, disposable readymade, while the action as a whole seemed to smake of some kind of hustle or moveable scam, a piss-take at the very least—albeit one where it wasn’t clear who the joke was directed at: the buyers Hammons attracted or the mainstream artworld. And later in his career, too, when Hammons deigned to operate within the professionalized system of commercial galleries, works often retained this atmosphere of unease and uncertainty—the whiff of charlatanism. Concerto in Blue and Black, his notorious installation at Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, in 2002, consisted of leaving the 2,000 sqm venue entirely empty, simply switching off the lights, and giving visitors a tiny blue torch to explore the cavernous pitch-blackness.
In my experience, though, it’s Hammons’s sculptural works—his assemblages and objets trouvés—that offer a more powerfully ephemeral encounter, and that propose a more nuanced take on visibility. Not coincidentally, it’s also these works that turn most explicitly to African American culture and history. In pieces from the 1980’s and 90’s, especially, Hammons repeatedly used the same objects and materials, adopting them as signifiers or metonyms for apparent black identity, potent emblems of impoverishment and street life: hair swept from barbershop floors, broken chunks of tarmac, discarded liquor bottles, brown paper bags, cigarette butts, fried chicken wings. The idea as with his current use of building-site materials for his tarp paintings, was to bring some aspect of urban experience—something that spoke of mess and dirt, something that stood for low, inchoate, vernacular culture—to the pristine sterility of the gallery environment; and, at the same time, to redeem these foreign objects, to point to their cultural worth by transforming them, as if through magic, into art. It was no coincidence that so many works took the form of knowingly kitsch, but nevertheless quite captivating, Africanist or quasi-mystical patterns—from hair shavings woven into tapestries, to bottle caps arrayed into ornate, beadlike designs.
In other pieces, the allusions are to black successes in music, sports, popular entertainment. Not that the mood is necessarily celebratory; increasingly in Hammons’s work, the dominant tone is an acerbic starkness. Which Mike do You Want to Be Like? asks the title of a 2001 piece, the three lonely, battered mike-stands invoking a holy trinity of celebrity Michaels- Jordan, Jackson and Tyson—as a comment on the narrowing aspirations of black youth. A jumbled assemblage of faux African masks and mock statuettes is called Orange is the New Black (2014), after the title of the Netflix prison serial—its spray painting in bright orange a bitter riposte to the fashion for ethnic otherness.
The punning, reference-laden titles are a crucial aspect of such works. Ever since his ‘spade’ homonyms, Hammons has relished a nice play on words—or equally, for that matter, a not-so-nice one. Cold Shoulder (1990) comes to mind as one of his more forced and flippant—the work consisting of pimp-style fur coats, shoulder slung across blocks of ice. Yet the title’s flagrancy, its sheer obviousness, constitutes a large part of the work’s effect, serving as a reminder of how inescapable, how painfully blatant, issues of race and class are in America. So much so, indeed, that the risk is they become almost invisible.
In most works, though, the punning relates to something more sophisticated. Hammons has spoken of his desire to develop a sort of black identity, yet also not limited to it, somehow beyond it. And, indeed, having eschewed the figuration of his 1970’s body prints, it’s notable that in none of his works since then is blackness, black faces, bodies, personalities—ever directly represented. Rather, it’s invoked, or evaded, or altogether erased. In Hammons’s works, blackness is both everywhere and nowhere.
The relentless puns, the multivalent meanings and references—these are, I think, a way of achieving this, a way of harnessing the slipperiness and subterfuge of language, its protean instability. For all that Hammons brings an ideology of mess and matter into the gallery spaces, those works whose meanings turn almost entirely upon their titles manifest what can only be described as a sort of urge towards evanescence—as if they want to escape their materiality and somehow vanish, elevate themselves, into language. The idea comes across powerfully in a work such as Traveling (2002)—the term refers to a rules infraction in basketball—which consists of tall, softly dappled, abstract drawing made by repeatedly bouncing a basketball, behind which rests a battered old suitcase. With its veneration of rule-breaking and constant movement, it’s a work that not only resonates with the ludic, linguistic dexterity of Hammons’s oeuvre as a whole, but is probably also the closest he’s come, within the rubric of abstraction, to a form of self-portrait.