By Peter Schjeldahl
A concise retrospective—a sampler, really—of important works by David Hammons, at the Mnuchin Gallery, on East Seventy-eighth Street, is a big deal, as Hammons shows generally are. Now seventy-two, the African-American artist has, by choice, exhibited rarely during the five decades of his now-you-see-him, mostly-you-don’t career. When glimpsed in person, he’s a watchful dandy sporting a colorful knit cap, but sightings are few and far between. Hammons so successfully shuns and fascinates the art world that he is almost an art world unto himself. The qualifier “elusive” clings to him. “Unique” applies, too. He is both a satirical oracle of racial fissures in society and a subtle aesthete, in forms of post-minimalist sculpture and installation.
Comedy and spleen seesaw in Hammons’s art. “In the Hood” (1993) is in fact the hood of a black hoodie, hanging agape, high up on a white wall of the gallery. It’s rivetingly clever, but may strike some, at least, as menacing. “Traveling” (2002), a beautifully atmospheric grisaille, nearly ten feet tall, was made by repeatedly bouncing a basketball soiled with “Harlem earth” onto paper. The themes of other works stray from race to class. Purple paint is slathered across the back of a gorgeous fox-fur coat, while two apparently lovely abstractions painted by Hammons are largely concealed by tattered plastic fabrics, reminiscent of homeless encampments. Like earlier Hammons shows, this one feels like a combined diplomatic mission from an ominous polity and a guerrilla raid by a force that departs as swiftly as it pounces.
The artist spoke with me, bracingly and delightfully, for a column in this magazine, in 2002. He wouldn’t do so again. “We hear that he’s in Morocco,” Sukanya Rajaratnam, a partner at Mnuchin, told me. She shrugged: maybe, maybe not. This is Hammons’s third show at the gallery since 2007. The owner, Robert Mnuchin, a collector who was a partner at Goldman Sachs, cheerfully acknowledges that his relations with Hammons are conducted, often by proxy, at the artist’s unpredictable initiative and always under his conditions. It is a tangy arrangement, strictly ad hoc. The works in the show differ from those in the catalogue, because Hammons dropped by the gallery at the last minute and dictated some changes. (“Difficult” is another epithet that trails him, voiced with rueful smiles by dealers and curators.)
Hammons has never had a regular dealer, but he plainly favors the Mnuchin Gallery because it’s at so far a remove from the rough streets that provide most of his material. (It’s in an Upper East Side town house, to which you are admitted by a buzzer through one locked door and by a guard through another.) His first two shows there, of ruined fur coats and shrouded paintings, coolly affronted the wealthy neighborhood, which could roll with it by regarding him as a sort of court jester, licensed by the lofty market value of his work. (Museums and collectors, especially in Europe, crave his sparse output.) He would reject that belittlement, of course, while leaving himself open to it. Paradox becomes him. Andrew Russeth, of ARTnews, has reported that two years ago Hammons bought a one-story brick building in Yonkers, which the city’s mayor, Mike Spano, announced would be renovated to house an art gallery. The thought of Hammons as a curator excites. Already, he sometimes incorporates other artists’ works into his own shows; for instance, a delicate abstraction by Agnes Martin recently appeared in an otherwise rugged installation in London to enigmatic effect.
Hammons grew up in Springfield, Illinois, the tenth and youngest child of a single mother. He did poorly at school, except in vocational courses. He considered becoming a commercial artist, and, with that goal in mind, in the early sixties he moved to Los Angeles, where he attended, among other schools, the Chouinard Art Institute (later CalArts), a hotbed of avant-gardism. In L.A., he befriended jazz musicians and was caught up in the ripples of the Black Power movement. His first mature works, four of which are in the show, are body prints that he made by greasing and pressing himself and others against paper, applying black pigment, and adding such symbols as American flags and spades from a deck of cards. The best-known of his works include versions of the flag in Africanist red, black, and green and “How Ya Like Me Now?” (1988), a large painting of Jesse Jackson with white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. (None of them appear in this show.)
In 1974, Hammons settled in New York and slowly gained notice for startlingly beautiful sculptures made of empty bottles that had contained cheap fortified wine. For the “Times Square Show,” a well-remembered populist event put on by the artist-activist group Colab, in 1980, he covered the floor of a space with glittering shards of smashed bottles. In the winter of 1983, outside Cooper Union, in the East Village, he staged a legendary performance in which he solemnly peddled snowballs, priced according to size. That jape is memorialized in this show by a glass sculpture of a snowball on a wall-mounted bric-a-brac shelf, and by the printout of an e-mail from a collector couple (their names redacted) who had it in their heads to shop for one of the original snowballs but reported that “not a single insurance company would cover it for us, and we called half a dozen.” For a similar burlesque on the market, “Concerto in Black and Blue,” in 2002, Hammons turned off the lights in the immense windowless Ace Gallery, on Hudson Street, and provided tiny blue key-chain flashlights for visitors. Reinstallations of the work were offered to collectors at prices scaled to the spaces that they wanted darkened.
A recurring theme in Hammons’s work is the seductive and sometimes tragic allure of stardom for impoverished black youth. It is addressed with painful directness in the outdoor sculpture “Higher Goals” (1986), in Brooklyn, which raises basketball hoops twenty or thirty feet in the air. In the Mnuchin show, “Basketball Chandelier” (1997)—a full-sized mockup of a hoop and backboard festooned with dangling crystals—evokes the glamour of the game. “Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like . . . ?” (2001) consists of three standing microphones of different types and vintages. The Mikes alluded to are Jackson, Jordan, and Tyson. On more assertive notes, two sculptures incorporate human hair that Hammons gathered at black barbershops. In a magnificent untitled piece from 1992, borrowed from the Whitney Museum, a vast, stilled explosion of projecting wires is covered with hair. (The piece molts when it is at all disturbed; Hammons maintains a supply of hair to repair it.) In “One Stone Head” (1997), a stone has been given a raffish haircut, suggesting a self-portrait.
More recent pieces in the show include amateur copies or pastiches of African masks and fetish sculptures, which Hammons found or bought and then smeared with orange paint. They are collectively titled “Orange Is the New Black.” Also lately he has extended the motif of his occluded paintings, but without paint, to decoratively framed secondhand mirrors. He fronted one, standing ten and a half feet high, with two sheets of battered galvanized steel. The sheets are angled relative to each other in a way that uncannily recalls classic Cubist or Constructivist composition.
The show has an exquisite soundtrack of traditional Japanese court music, played on koto and bamboo flute. Hammons is enamored of Japan and travels there often. In 2002, he fashioned a faux Zen garden on a flatbed truck and drove it around Yamaguchi. “A Movable Object / A Japanese Garden” (2012) rings a change on that idea with ragged chunks of asphalt heaped on a swatch of lovely blue fabric, by Issey Miyake, and mounted on a wheeled platform. Beautifying asphalt would seem to be no cinch, but the naked quiddity of the stuff, after a third or fourth look, turns cherishable. It’s typical of works by Hammons to repel at first glance and weave a spell on successive viewings.
Hammons’s strategic independence is inescapably self-conscious. It’s a quality he accepts for keeping his several identities—artist, cosmopolitan, American, African-American—in continual play. Infrequently, some of what he does is throwaway slight or arch—take, please, “Standing Room Only” (1996), a taxidermied cat curled up on a West African-style drum—but he is always original and never wanting in point or in purpose. Each piece intervenes in the normal course of art and society, creating a turbulence. He makes people nervous. Some white critics—such as me, when I first encountered his work—have reacted defensively, purporting to roll their eyes at the obviousness of the references and provocations.
But even if you understand a joke it can still be on you. The test is authenticity. The proof of Hammons’s art is his life, and vice-versa. His double-rootedness in demotic culture and in patrician sophistication brackets a social zone that he leaves void, anticipating polarized responses. Whatever you are, at this biting and elegant show, you become the ground zero of the lack and the possibility.