The exhibition ‘David Hammons Yves Klein / Yves Klein David Hammons’ is one of eight shows that this past summer inaugurated the beautiful new Shigeru Ban-designed home of the Aspen Art Museum. Behind Ban’s woven ‘basketwork’ facade – an extraordinary frontage made from treated paper – were solo exhibitions of drawings by Tomma Abts and ceramics by Rosemarie Trockel, alongside an installation by Cai Guo-Chiang (Moving Ghost Town, 2014) that makes controversial use of African Sulcata tortoises with iPads affixed to their backs. (The instrumentalization of another species with consciousness – one that humans have no access to – for the purposes of art always makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, no matter how well it’s claimed they are treated.) The museum also includes a baffling but beguiling display of local Coloradan minerals, an outdoor sculpture project in front of the museum by Jim Hodges (With Liberty and Justice for All [A Work in Progress], 2014) and an informative exhibition about Ban’s work designing architectural structures for humanitarian crises.
The centrepiece exhibition was, arguably, the double-header ‘David Hammons Yves Klein / Yves Klein David Hammons’, its title suggesting some sort of easy interchangeability between the work of the two artists. Curated by Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the exhibition of 49 works features a number of Klein’s famous ‘Anthropometries’ – made using naked women covered in blue paint and pressing their bodies against the canvas – alongside a powerful selection of body prints and ‘basketball’ prints by Hammons, their grey surfaces contrasting with the International Klein Blue monochromes dotted around the exhibition. Zuckerman Jacobson assembled an impressive number of Klein works for the show. Also included were Klein’s ‘fire paintings’, his iconic Le Saut dans le vide (Leap Into the Void, 1960) and the 1962 alchemical transformation piece, the Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility – which involved the sale of empty space to a collector, the transfer of ownership made during a complex ritual involving throwing gold into the Seine in Paris and the collector burning his cheque. This was presented alongside Hammons’s Bliz-aard Ball Sale from 1983, in which the artist sold snowballs on the street, during a snowy New York winter. Transubstantiation of matter, ephemerality and a complex relationship to the body were the threads that connected this exhibition together, underwritten by cults of personality of extremely different stripes; Klein the publicity-seeking showman and Hammons the elusive phantom, refusing to dance with the professionalized white art system.
A criticism that any half-sensitive visitor might level at the show is that of pseudomorphism; just because two art works look similar, it doesn’t follow that they mean the same. It’s almost too obvious to have to state that an African-American man using his own body to produce an image means something very different to a white European man using white European women to create his canvases. Throwing gold into the Seine in glamorous 1960s Paris is scarcely a comparable context to selling snowballs on the street in run-down 1980s Manhattan. Looking around the show, there are a surprising number of mark-making and methodological echoes of Klein found in Hammons’s art – and both share a trickster’s sensibility. It’s easy to see why similarities between these would be attractive territory to explore. But there are many more differences. With allusions including the US flag, the hoodie, basketball and so on, Hammons’s work is far more deeply political and class conscious than Klein’s, which – for all his innovation, spiritual interests, art-historical significance, not to mention up-and-down relationship with the art world – comes off as a little macho and reactionary (making art with flamethrowers, for instance, or wearing a tuxedo and choreographing naked women covered in paint whilst a chamber orchestra plays in the background). But it’s hard not to believe that by giving permission to be paired with Klein, Hammons is asserting a degree of control. An artist of his intellect and acuity must know full well that this pairing would create an exhibition about difference rather than similarity, and if the exhibition had any power, it lay in this uneasy friction. Two cooks given the same set of ingredients aren’t necessarily going to make the same dish.
‘David Hammons Yves Klein / Yves Klein David Hammons’: these names can’t be swapped in and out with each other that easily. However, as the tragic and racially charged events of this past year in the US have proved, conversations about difference – especially in the art world – are the ones that need to be aired right now, not glossed over with assumptions about happy similarities.