The exhibition David Hammons: Five Decades at the Mnuchin Gallery left me feeling cold and disquieted. Not that this artist’s work, which I’ve long admired, is not brilliant, passionate and deeply moving. It’s that there is a terrible, chilling disconnect between the work and the venue. This disconnect is something sought by Hammons, which he exploits to politically and racially pointed ends. The exhibition critiques the gallery, the art market and the historically, predominantly white art world as a whole, systems that financially support his work and hold it in high esteem.
David Hammons is an African-American artist, now 72-years-old. He emerged on the L.A. art scene in the late sixties in the context of the Watts Riots and the ensuing Black Power and Black Arts Movements, along with Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge and others. The life-scale body prints he produced at that time–three of which are included in the Mnuchin Gallery exhibition–were produced by rubbing his grease-smeared face and body on paper, then covering the imprint with black pigment powder. The iconic Spade (Power for the Spade), 1969, appropriates and incisively inverts a racist epithet, turning it into a badge of honor.
After moving to New York in 1974, Hammons continued to pursue a course much like Purifoy and Outterbridge in creating Assemblages made of the detritus of everyday life. Hammon’s materials were often ephemeral to the extreme (i.e., dirt, snow and hair) and had particular relevance to the black community. In one body of work begun in the early nineties, African-American hair gathered from the floor of barbershops was pasted on the tops of large stones. The resulting sculptures offered at once witty and noble portraits, the blank “faces” of the stones evoking the abstract simplicity and grave power of Cycladic sculpture. In a series of works begun in the mid-1980s, Hammons addressed himself to the importance of basketball as a primary form of recreation and interaction in African American neighborhoods and as a way out–a ticket to a better life for those who rise to stardom. He created basketball “altars” in which hoops, often raised to great heights, were glamorized, adorned with crystals, glass candelabra and filigree of varying sort. An extended series of related work on paper, as represented by the almost ten-foot-tall Traveling (2002) in the Mnuchin exhibition, were made by bouncing a basketball in dirt (in this case, specified as “Harlem earth”) and then onto the paper in an ironic deskilling of the art of drawing. This work’s title suggests traveling both in the sense of the basketball term (moving without dribbling the ball) and in being transported into other realms, the image produced on the paper evoking a cloudy, but boundless sky.
Each of these works embraces poetry and whimsy and operates on multiple levels of meaning and interpretation. At the same time, each offers a powerful statement about blackness, racial stereotypes and societal mores. Much of Hammons’ more recent artistic production, as seen in works included in the Mnuchin exhibition, is blunt–even hostile–in expression, the aggression being directed at the visitor and the host gallery. It may be noted that Hammons is a famously reclusive artist who has refused retrospective exhibitions at museums. Yet this is his third solo show since 2007 at the Mnuchin Gallery, a quintessentially tony, elegant establishment that cultivates the preciousness of art (it is quasi-vaulted, being entered only after the visitor is buzzed through not just one, but two locked, guarded doors). The title of one of Hammons’ basketball altars of 1990 in MoMA’s collection–High Falutin’–is called to mind, as is a quote from Hammons that MoMA often uses in its catalogue entry on this piece: “Art is a way to keep from getting damaged by the outside world, to keep the negative energy away. Otherwise you absorb it.”
Negative energy radiates from the fur coat splattered with paint (a rather dated reference, no?), as well as from paintings obscured by ripped plastic netting and from ornate mirrors covered with an elaborate swath of tattered fabric or scrap metal plates. These pieces offer commentaries on the supposed vanity, wastefulness and misplaced values of gallery goers, who are denied access to seeing the paintings and their own reflections. The occluded paintings Hammons has been producing for the past several years–Assemblages in the tradition of Rauschenberg and others–speak for the evocative reuse of found materials, but this artist’s concern is not with aesthetics, but ethics.
Among the most potent and poetically evocative of Hammons’ early works is Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), a street performance in which standing in the midst of other street vendors in Cooper Square in New York, he sold snowballs whose prices depended on their size, a conceptual gesture that offered a commentary on commodity culture. At Mnuchin, a cast glass snowball mounted on a shelf was accompanied by a framed printed email (the name redacted) from a collector saying that he wanted to buy a snowball, but was unable to get it insured. The piece is funny, but also nasty and mean-spirited. It is too blatantly obvious in its derision–and is that the very point?
Isolated high on the back wall on the gallery’s first floor is Hammons’ In the Hood (1993), the hood of an athletic sweatshirt. Severed from the garment, the empty hood suggests a specter as well as a decapitation or lynching. Long serving as an iconographically-charged symbol of blackness and of the racial profiling practiced by law enforcement, the hoodie looms above the exhibition as an accusation. Disquieting, indeed.