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By Fisun Güner

Not playing by art-world rules, not to mention declaring "the worst audience in the world", appears only to have increased David Hammons’s mystique and appeal. Fisun Güner appraises the long career of a master nonconformist ahead of a new show at Mnuchin Gallery.

"I decided a long time ago that the less I do the more of an artist I am."

If you’ve come across the work of David Hammons, it probably won’t be the first time you’ve come across this quote. It comes from a rare interview he gave to the New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl in 2002. Since then he’s remained tight-lipped. He no longer talks to journalists and indeed remains a shadowy figure in the art world he appears so reluctant to inhabit: the artist who’s now 72, has so far resisted museum directors eager to give him a retrospective. This, of course, only adds to the intrigue.

It also means that the few quotes that have been gleaned over a career spanning five decades—first as a young artist making his way in LA, where he was influenced by West Coast conceptualists Bruce Nauman and Chris Burden, then in New York, where he became involved in the avant-garde black art scene centered around the pioneering gallery Just Above Midtown—tend to get quite a bit of recycling.

But it’s a telling quote all the same, and not only because it shows affinity with the modernist creed Less Is More, but because, like the Adolf Loos mantra Hammons is riffling on, his work has frequently re-enacted seminal works by other artists. Bag Lady in Flight (1982) is a concertinaed paper wall relief that alludes to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2; an untitled 1990 installation of urinals on trees in a forest in Ghent is a more obvious Duchampian reference; his body imprints, which have featured throughout his career—one of the earliest is The Door (Admissions Office)(1969), with the artist’s ink-blackened splayed hands and body pressing up against the frosted glass of one of those old-fashioned, dark wood office doors (a symbol of bureaucratic officialdom which might as well have the words "no entry for the likes of you" written across it)—more than hint at Jasper John’s intimate body casts and canvas imprints; and his 2002 Concerto in Black and Blue, consisting of gallery rooms in pitch darkness where visitors light their way with tiny blue flashlights, is a work that brings to mind Yves Klein’s 1958 The Void. One might think of the French artist’s trademarked International Klein Blue in those luminous flashes of blue.

But the work for which he is perhaps best known, probably because it draws together and perfectly encapsulates the multifarious themes and allusions that have occupied him for decades, is Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983). Here the artist turns street vendor, hawking snowballs during a frosty New York winter. And if the artwork looks deceptively slight, that’s part of its enduring appeal. It is, after all, a work about ephemera, ephemera naturally being what the conceptual art scene of the time largely traded in. It’s also work about being had—art, and particularly the art world, as a scam, for what kind of trickster-conman could sell you snowballs?

Most pressingly, it’s a work about social exclusion, through with a poetically lighter touch than The Door (No Admission); and finally, connected to that, it’s a work about colour—the black street hustler in his shabby coat, porkpie hat and improvised stall-blanket on which he’s presented his pure white wares—neatly arranged, delicate, untouchable, innocent and ultimately uncommodifiable wares. This all chimes neatly with another one of Hammons’s oft-repeated quotes, the one where he declared his hatred of art. "I can’t stand art actually. I’ve never ever liked art."

Hammons, then is, or at least sees himself as, an outsider-street hustler of sorts, albeit one with a blue-chip profile and whose international status just keeps growing. Most recently he exhibited at London’s White Cube Hoxton, and this coming spring an exhibition will open at New York’s Mnuchin Gallery (formerly, the L&M Gallery), his third solo show to date at that plush East Side venue. However, he doesn’t have a dealer as such—his work has largely sold on the secondary market—and he prefers to put together his own shows without curatorial intervention. And he always likes to surprise.

This is just what he managed to do for his first, 2007 show at Mnuchin, a gallery he approached himself with the idea of using it as a stage to present new work and which he also financed himself—that is, he paid out of his own pocket to hire the gallery space.

When it came to the exhibits, he surprised everyone with a pantings show—though the joke was that the paint was splattered on five expensive full-length fur coats draped on mannequins, the kind of coats you’d see floating into a chic gallery on the backs of Upper East Side ladies. The furs—mink, sable, chinchilla—all looked shop-new, until you examined the backs and found that they’d been scorced as if with a blowtorch, then aggressively swiped with strokes of thick paint and thickly varnished. You had to hand it to him for sheer chutzpah, though he had no trouble attracting exactly the sort of crowd he was sticking it to. The show was, predictably, a sell-out.

"I think the fact that the fur coats directly addressed what I would call our typical clientele, in a tongue-in-cheek way, that’s what I think really appealed to him much more than a downtown space," says Sukanya Rajaratnam, curator and now senior partner at Mnuchin. Rajaratnam wasn’t working at the gallery at the time of that show, but that changed once she saw it.

"It was such a brilliant show," she says. "Having the sort of trust in the artist to make such an institutional critique was so brave of the gallery, and that’s what made me want to join the gallery, which I did in 2008." That gave Rajaratnam plenty of time to work on Hammons’s second show in 2011. And she freely admits to being taken aback as he unveiled his proposal for it back at his studio.

"Robert (Mnuchin, the gallery founder) and I looked at each other and we didn’t know what to say to David," she explains. "So we took the car home in complete silence. And at the end of the ride Robert said, 'So, what should we do? Is the world going to appreciate this from David?' And I said, 'I don’t know. But if we don’t do the show we’ll be the biggest idiots in the world. We have to do it.' But we had no idea what the reception would be for the works because they were so unexpected and it was a huge leap of trust for us."

For an artist known for hawking snowballs, and who’d previously turned lumps of elephant dung into sculpture, years before Chris Ofili caused controversy by using them to prop up his paintings, you might wonder what could possibly have so shocked a high-end gallery. They were just paintings—huge canvases covered in bright abstract expressionist swirls but which were then raggedly covered in tarp, so that some of the painting still peeped through round the peeling edges of the plastic sheets.

Like the furs, they were definitely paintings, but they were also a negation of painting—canvases that looked set for the rubbish dump. To a gallery used to dealing in paintings from the era of high modernism—the de Koonings and the Klines, the transcendent Rothkos and even the abject Gustons, this may have looked like another attempt to piddle on the art-world establishment (there’s a photograph from 1981 of Hammons urinating on a Richard Serra public sculpture.) Anyway, shock turned into thrills, "We walked in on Monday," Rajaratnam says, "and the whole show was installed. And it took our breath away. Seeing them in context and as a group, made them coalesce as a message." What’s more, the show had 500 visitors a day, "which had never happened before." After almost 50 years of steady work and maverick manoeuvres, Hammons was quickly turning into a cult figure. And, as Rajaratnam says, context is, of course, everything. Hammons has shown that he’s brilliant at using it to make his message "coalesce".

In 2004, in an audacious coup de théâtre, the artist staged what you might call his most "context and culturally appropriate" work, at the Dak’Art Biennial in Dakar. Away from the main art spaces, Hammons organized a sheep raffle. Ordinary citizens gathered each day around makeshift stages in the hope of winning an animal. Over the course of the week a dozen sheep were given away. This was "institutional critique" turned on its head. It was also "relational aesthetics" put to properly useful ends, but it was hardly a gesture of earnestness. This was "giving something back to the community" delivered as a deadpan, defiant joke, and it must certainly have raised a few eyebrows. Perfect.

Five Decades runs at Mnuchin Gallery, New York, from 15 March to 27 May.

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