By Courtney Willis Blair
When asked, in a 1975 radio interview produced by the Guggenheim Museum, for his thoughts on dealer representation, exclusivity, and being approached by a blue-chip gallery, David Hammons responded, “I don’t know how I would handle it. I know in music, I’m sure it’s happened a lot of times, where someone’s playing at the Apollo and the white agents come down and see him and sign him onto their record companies. I can see that happening with a black gallery. If white galleries ever find out that they can make a lot of money off of black art, I’m sure they’re going to start looking up black art....I’m basically an artist, and I want all my interest to go into doing the art. All these other things are political. I have to deal with them, but I don’t like to, so I really don’t know how I would react. I might go with the buck.”
Perhaps Hammons did go with the buck:
In 2013, a record price of $8 million for his work, the highest for any living black artist, was set at Phillips New York when he consigned an untitled basketball backboard chandelier to the auction house directly. Or perhaps his decision to flout the traditional art system by engaging in trickster behavior—teaching or healing through misdirection, ritual, and deep intellect—is what he really had in mind.
Joining him in that 1975 interview was Linda Goode Bryant, a documentary filmmaker who had previously worked in the education department of the Studio Museum in Harlem. In the fall of 1974, Bryant opened Just Above Midtown on 57th Street in New York, a commercial, black- owned art gallery that focused on selling work by black artists through rotating exhibitions. It was the first of its kind in the country, and Hammons’s debut solo show in New York was held there in 1975.
In the 40-odd years since then, however, Hammons has shown exclusively at what might be considered blue-chip galleries—among them Jack Tilton, Salon 94, Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, Ace Gallery, and White Cube in London— but has granted none of those dealers the right to represent him exclusively. He also had two exhibitions at the venerable Upper East Side gallery L&M Arts, in the town house that now houses Mnuchin Gallery, where a career survey of Hammons’s work is on view through May 27.
The exhibition, which took five years to realize, is a measure of the artist’s prudence. It spans five decades and includes a new body of work. There are various mixed-media objects, such as a found African sculpture made of wood covered in nails and orange paint; tarp paintings that nod to Abstract Expressionism and Minimalist abstrac- tion; and a Renaissance-style mirror draped in army green cloth. What feels quintessentially Hammons about these pieces is the element of ritual that he employs. The act of covering or masking, particularly of the face, is prominent within rituals and ceremonies, and here, he masks the paintings with timeworn tarps, and the mirrors with drapery.
Hammons considers ritual deeply in his approach to materials and the creation of shamanic objects as well. He looks to manifest a particular energy in his works. In Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes, a 16 mm film from 1979 directed by Barbara McCullough, which considers ritual in the practice of those in the black arts community, a 36-year-old Hammons— sporting a brick-red hat, a colorful shirt, and denim pants—scrapes at a large stone, part of an assemblage sculpture, with a metal tool. “I guess this could be called a spirit catcher or forming matter,” he says.
The film provides a rare glimpse into the celebrated artist’s working methods. Because he usually refuses to give interviews or to speak in public, we are largely denied these unadulterated moments of Hammons alone, speaking candidly about his work. He has been called elusive, difficult, a maverick with his middle finger up, and he’s often thought of as a trickster, the spirit archetype that finds its origins in rituals, and particularly in West African folklore.
For the work, he gathered stones, trash, sticks, concrete slabs, and other objects from nearby, forming them into a shrinelike sculpture. He explains that he’s “trying to keep it as uncontrived as possible but then making it very contrived. It’s very hard to talk about these things. Just moving stones, putting some energy here, doodling. This could be a doodle or earth- work, a sculpture. It could be all of those things. It could be none of them....I’m more concerned with altars right now, which are spirit catchers. But in order to make an altar, you have to perform a ritual. I think a ritual is an act. Any act is a ritual. Eating is a ritual. It’s an action word.”
He picks up an object that looks like broken slabs of concrete laced together with wire, and says: “I think in a ceremony, this could’ve been placed on that rock for energy purposes. You just put things on things and leave them and take them off after the energy has been put in them.”
Ritual has been central to Hammons’s practice for more than 50 years. Born in Springfield, Illinois, in the summer of 1943, Hammons was the youngest of 10 children raised by a single mother. When he was 18, he left for Los Angeles to attend the Chouinard Art Institute, now part of CalArts, before studying under artist Charles White at the Otis Art Institute. While at school, he began greasing himself with oils or butters and then pressing his body onto large sheets of paper. These early body prints were immediately popular. After moving to New York in 1974, he began employing objects and found materials in his work, resulting in such creations as the “Dreadlocks” series of 1976, which used collected barbershop hair, a medium that he believed had spiritual associations in addition to cultural ones. He also turned to action, performance, and public works, resulting in some of his best-known pieces, including Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983, in which he laid out a rug on a sidewalk in Manhattan’s Cooper Square and neatly organized snowballs of varying sizes for sale. Such performances or actions—be it pressing his greasy body against paper, running over a spade (shovel) with a car, or absurdly selling snowballs after a snowstorm—are rituals.
For Hammons, ritual per- vades his role as both artist and producer. It is as much in his ephemeral objects that reject the idea of collectibility as it is in his mocking of the gallery model of exclusivity. Ritual is his means of figuring things out differently, of rejecting conventional rules, of pushing himself to discover new ways of doing and being.
What follows are thoughts and reminiscences by prominent art world figures—some who know the artist, and others who simply have been influenced by his work.
COCO FUSCO, artist and writer
When I returned to New York from a brief stint in grad school in the mid 1980s, Hammons was already an artist that people talked about—not in the main- stream art world but in the eclectic margins that thrived in various corners of Manhattan at the time. He was an enigmatic figure who was rumored to use a public bench on 125th Street as his studio. I remember walking into his opening at Exit Art on Lower Broadway in 1989. I was totally captivated by the sculptural environment he created. His work was cool. His wry sense of humor was out in full force in this homage to John Coltrane, an exquisite installation made with coal and grand-piano tops that featured a minia- ture train running along a circuitous track. Music could be heard above the murmurs of onlookers. The scent of illicit substances wafted in the air.
I can close my eyes and see him lounging on the floor in a corner of the gallery, wrapped in the kind of vintage wool overcoat that filled thrift- shop racks in those days. He was laughing with a couple of friends, utterly oblivious to the throngs that were pouring into the space.
KELLIE JONES, independent curator and associate professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Jones conducted one of the few extant interviews with Hammons, for Real Life magazine, in 1986.
We knew each other for several years before the interview. I was working in New York. The interview just came about over time, over days. It took a long time to do because it’s not anything you can do in an hour. You sit there with him, you talk with him, and then you meet him again. It was more like an oral-history work in that way. I did everything myself. I certainly didn’t have the sense that this would be some kind of monumental thing on David Hammons. It was just something I wanted to do.
He’s a very generous friend. I think of the Los Angeles group, the kind of generosity that he’s shown to those people is legendary and amazing, and continues now with colleagues such as Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, and others. In that way, his spirit has influenced a whole generation of people and a whole generation in California and probably New York, too. With younger artists, there’s nowhere in the world that I go where people don’t mention Hammons. Now, I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve written about him, but I doubt it. He has affected the entire world, not just African-Americans, but Europeans, everybody, with the way he makes things, the materials that he uses and how he uses them. I think the lesson in that is that you don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on canvas, paint, or fabrication. You can make a statement and make something beautiful with what you have at hand. That is a major lesson, certainly for younger people, especially in this hyper- inflated art world in terms of price and market.
SENGA NENGUDI, artist
The thing about David that I find so exciting is that he’s always pushing the envelope. I look at him as the trickster character. There’s a trickster character not just in African culture but in worldwide culture. There’s always got to be that person who doesn’t allow you to be complacent, and doesn’t allow you to keep the status quo going. They have to needle you in a certain way, in ways that catch you off guard, and you have to know how to get back to balance or find a new way of balance. He’s always been that to me. He does it for himself. He constantly pushes himself just to see some- thing different or put himself in positions where he has to let the universe jostle him around and figure out new territory, new land.
Some of the stuff isn’t refined, but it’s always elegant. Everything he does still just knocks me out. It is just so exquisite, and there are so many layers to it. There’s humor. There’s politics. There are spiritual aspects. Sometimes the spiritual aspect is just the elegance of it.
ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS, artist
It was almost 30 years ago that I first learned about him, when my friend Gabriel Kuri brought a catalogue of Hammons’s work to one of our weekly meetings at Gabriel Orozco’s studio in Mexico City. I loved the work he made with snow outside Cooper Union, the sculptures using hair, bottle caps and bottles, shit, chicken bones, but also the beautiful performances desacralizing ritual, standing bravely on his roots.
He deeply influenced my vocabulary. He gave me tools I keep using a lot, formally, conceptually, in an animistic manner—in which everything and everyone deserves dignity and respect—that provides me with many questions on how to make the work that I would love to see when visiting a gallery or museum, but mostly while walking by the street, thinking again and again, Ah! That could be a Hammons, while looking at almost anything around me. Also, he made me listen to the tunes of the infinite Sun Ra. Thank you!
Along with some other artists, like Jimmie Durham or David Medalla, Hammons still makes my perception of the world a beautiful critical collapse: The sound of a metal bucket or a basket- ball hitting a wall, the flavor of fried chicken, the texture of my own hair, the smell of dung, can be something appealing, seductive, but also prime matter for a political statement.
STEVE CANNON, writer and owner of Gathering of the Tribes, New York
His whole philosophical approach to the art world is unconventional. When I met David in 1979, most of the African-American artists I knew down in this neighborhood were following in the footsteps of Abstract Expressionism. David told me—we were sitting in Tompkins Square Park one day—“Man, it costs so much money to make that kind of art. That stuff is expensive. I try to make art on the cheap. I try to work with cheap materials, so it doesn’t cost me a million dollars to do it, and then I get the same results I want.” When he first came on the scene here, the artists doing the abstract work, they resented him. They couldn’t figure out for the life of them how in the hell David Hammons got away with doing what he was doing, when they were trying as best they could to stay in the game by making abstract art. He went in the opposite direction.
He treats the art world with contempt and gets away with it. The more he tells the art world where to go, the more he’s in demand. I think that’s pretty sick on his part. Now, where he learned that is from people like Miles Davis, jazz musicians. The less Miles played in New York, the more money he made. And David’s the same way. The less he shows, the more they want him. He’s the kind of guy who will not show up at his own openings. He likes to create that mystery.
When Chris Ofili went through all that mess with Giuliani years ago—would you believe that I’m sitting at home at two o’clock in the morning, and the doorbell rings? Who’s coming to the house? David Hammons, bringing Ofili to meet me. I’m like, “How do you two know each other?” He said, “Steve, the guy was in trouble. I figured he needed my support.” I said, “Yeah, right.” I asked if David had seen the show and Ofili said, “I don’t know.” I said, “He’s going to show up there in disguise and take a look at it, because he don’t want people to know that he saw it.” The guy is facetious as all hell. He’s always playing some kind of trick and trying to fool people. His art is about the same thing. You got a whole bunch of younger African- American artists trying to imitate what he’s doing. I don’t know if they’re as sick as he is. The only thing you got to remember about Mr. Hammons is, he’s always trying to trick somebody.
LAURA HOPTMAN, curator, the Museum of Modern Art, New York
For the past 45 years, Hammons has created a range of some of the most poetic, profound, and provocative works in postwar American art history. Hammons’s oeuvre is inspired by the lives of African-Americans and African-American culture, but his sometimes humorous, often pointed work speaks truth to power, and to American culture in general. To my mind, he is one of our greatest living American artists.
WANGECHI MUTU, artist
To me, Hammons is one of those people who is simply and actually a Great Artist. He is a beacon of Conceptual art through his remarkable action paintings: where he self-choreographs and literally embodies cultural criticism and mysticism, masterfully composing body prints using his bare skin on paper. Or performing those legendary trickster-style works that rightfully swell and reshape within each witness’s recollection. Then there are those found and rebaptized alchemic object works. An artist is a conduit of and a testament to the vitality and ingenuity of the human mind. Hammons personifies this exact spirit through his creative and personal resilience and that exemplary unbeatable old school Civil Rights instinct that will not cut corners or ignore injustices. He has integrated his prophetic poems and wordplay, his wisdom and experience, and his self-criticality into magnificent collage paintings, sculpture works, and poetic perfor- mances that have us all examining how we choose to reside within art spaces. This master is always outsider and imminent insider, never flaunting, always haunting the mind and chambers of our favorite temples of thought.
ROGER HIORNS, artist
“The less I do, the more an artist I become.” I always liked this state- ment. Does Hammons define himself by ambivalence, by what he has neglected or forgotten, or has refused to make, a positive negative image of an unwanted “career” in the formal sense?
And trying to define Hammons—it’s a trap to talk so openly about this artist. It’s not easy. I’ll fall for it just this once. Usually his intro- duction is of a poet of refusal, his “mystique,” his nonavailability, his scarce words spoken, and most of them imply a criticism of the systems and the people within a closed-off art world.
I can only suggest that an apparent invisibility allows him never to address an audience, a concise control of a succession of simple but crucial messages, and nothing else is necessary. His work is instead exposed to a broad brush of mass viewing, nothing of focus and singularity, and this procedural offers a freedom of some rarity, and it works. It’s pointedly effective. If you don’t like the dealers, if you don’t like the writers, the dull collaboration of some curators, the audiences, why would you meet them, talk to them, “collaborate” with them? He looks to a simple transaction. And why the challenge to the contrary? What dance is expected here?
His work never appears to be trapped in an anguish brought forth by the Medusa head of his critical visibility. For example, Jeff Koons irritates with a needy availability, and it’s plain for all to see; do you see collectors present in his decisions? I think so. Hammons allows the opposite to occur.
My first experience of his work was In the Hood . Its succinct violence, an exhausted hood separated from its sweater, ripped at the neck, and an apparition of an absent face is simply invoked by the insertion of coat-hanger wire in the fold once occupied by the drawstring. Making this simple object must have been quick, perhaps in a loose hour or so, and it’s devastating and depressing. Its importance is far underestimated alongside the negatively positive version of contemporary art currently clogging the veins of the United States.
AMANDA HUNT, assistant curator, the Studio Museum in Harlem
I clearly remember seeing an image of Hammons selling snowballs on a street corner (Bliz-aard Ball Sale) early on in my development as a curator. I was struck by the work’s simultaneous impossibility and humor. It signaled to me that a conceptual practice could be both rigorous and absurd. I know that this moment of dis- covering Hammons was shared by many of the artists of my generation who I am privileged to work with. In our recent group show “A Constellation,” his work was at the core of so many intergenerational conversations.
His most poignant work for me would have to be Untitled (African-American Flag) , which hangs in front of the Studio Museum in Harlem each day. Hammons is part of the fabric of this museum—literally! Looking west down 125th Street from Lenox Avenue is a beautiful sight. You can see the avenue punctuated by Harlem landmarks: the Apollo Theater, the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, corporate and local business logos, and our Hammons flag.
YASHUA KLOS, artist
I wasn’t exposed to much contemporary fine art until I took the dive into grad school. I learned about the snowball piece, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, when I began getting interested in art concerned with institutional critique. Later, I saw images of the painting Jesse Jackson How Ya Like Me Now? , and I saw his wit. The first work of his I saw in person was at a collector’s house. This guy goes way back with Hammons, so he has some really unique works that David installed himself. I eventually met David at a party there, but I didn’t know who he was. He looked really young. This same collector had a piece by Hammons that’s still branded in my memory: a carpet, like a Persian rug, with fried chicken drumsticks framing its four sides. The rug was mounted to the wall like a tapestry, both precious and profane. It was more than a sum of its strange materials, though. It was familiar and unheard-of at the same time. That piece is poignant for me as an artist because it inspires me to be unafraid to push and pull the audience around.
Hammons’s work can employ materials that exist primarily in abject life, and he can make them transcendent. He’s probably the best at that. Transforming the ready-made into something that transcends its original function. I’m thinking about Night Train , where he exposes a ritualistic nature of that bottle. He’s a ghetto shaman! He has allowed me to see that there’s space in the art world for discussions that are specific to colloquial black culture.
THOMAS HIRSCHHORN, artist
The first time I heard of Hammons was through the words of the outstanding Swiss curator Michel Ritter. He exhibited Hammons’s work in 1993 at Fri Art, the space he was running at the time in Fribourg, Switzerland. Michel was in love with the work and person of Hammons, whom he met in the late ’80s during his stay in New York. Michel once told me: “I know I only have a modest ‘off- space’ to offer, but to exhibit David Hammons’s work in Switzerland is a necessity, and I will wait for years if needed to bring his work to Fribourg.” And indeed he did. Thanks to Ritter, I discovered a dense, charged, and powerful work of art, which touched me immediately and implicated me as rarely before through its assertion of an absolute, universal, and incisive form. Hammons does give form! His beautiful work has a potent simplicity, clarity, and humor, and its fine irony allows the spectator to be included. His work creates the condition for a direct contact—from one to one. I remember Cold Shoulder from 1990, and African- American Flag from 1990, which has become, in the very best sense, an icon. The sovereign gesture and offensive affirmation reach beyond particularism. Therefore, African-American Flag is not only an artwork; it is a flag for a new nation, a flag for a new insight. It is a new flag for a new form and a new truth. Hammons creates a new truth. What more can art do? Therefore, I think that his work, but also his radical, outstanding, and solitary position, has an inestimable influence over younger artists. Free, non compromising, resistant, and surely a warrior, Hammons is an example of how to stand up for one’s work.