BY Steven Stern in Features | 12 MAR 09
Featured in
Issue 121

A Fraction of the Whole

For the past 40 years, the elusive artist David Hammons has explored race, creativity and politics – without gallery representation

BY Steven Stern in Features | 12 MAR 09

David Hammons began his career by putting himself in the picture. In the late 1960s, while living in Los Angeles, the artist began a series of ‘body prints’, which he created by pressing his own margarine-coated form onto sheets of paper and dusting the impression with powdered pigment. Produced during the heyday of Black Power and the Black Arts Movement, these politically volatile self-portraits broadcast the inescapable presence of their creator, the black artist at the centre of the image. In many ways they anticipated the work that in later decades would win Hammons greater recognition – the sly assemblages constructed from greasy bags and chicken wings, stones covered with hair collected from black barbershops, abstractions created with basketballs and ‘Harlem earth’. Whether they are read as magic charms or as an ironic commentary on the stereotypes of African-American life, messy reality has always pressed itself into Hammons’ art work.

In recent years Hammons’ art has evolved into increasingly incorporeal undertakings, but in many ways the artist himself has continued to figure – to be a figure – in his work. As his fame has grown, he has earned a reputation for his evasive manoeuvres, for defying art world protocols. Yet the more Hammons side-steps the public sphere, the more present he seems, the more his own identity comes to be at issue. When a New York Times reviewer makes a point of referring to ‘the artist himself, whom I’ve never met, and chances are, never will’, it’s clear we are in the realm of something like personal mystique. But for Hammons persona is more than epiphenomenal: his work seems to a large extent to be about how he functions in the world. And it includes the conversation around it, the dialogue – public and private – that surrounds the artist’s activities.

Elephant Chair, from the series 'Six Sites in Alexandria', 2008, Photographic documentation. Courtesy: ACAF, Alexandria and the artist. Photo: Salah M. Hassan.

Often this comes down to something as evanescent as tone of voice. Or so it’s seemed to me. A very particular thing happens when you tell people – art world people – that you’re writing about David Hammons. There’s a confidential, raised-eyebrow reaction, some kind of sly I-know-you-know riposte. Almost everyone to whom I announced my project responded with some variation on a sardonic ‘Good luck with that!’ I got this even from – especially from – people who were personally acquainted with the artist, who had worked with him, or had tried to. Everyone has a David Hammons story it seems, and off-the-record anecdotes about his eccentricities circulate as a form of art world currency.

The usual journalistic shorthand for all this nudge-nudge wink-wink is to say that Hammons is ‘elusive’, the word that somehow makes its way into almost every piece of prose written about the artist. Like other frequently used terms – trickster, shaman – it attributes a sort of magical otherness to Hammons’ strategies, nods at something mythic and cult-like in his practice. But on a baser level ‘elusive’ might well be a euphemism for ‘difficult’. (Some helpful etymology: the word is from the Latin eludere, ‘to escape from’, which is itself from ludus, ‘play’. In this situation, it seems, someone is playing, and someone is being played.)

On the simplest level ‘elusive’ is an attempt to describe the series of decisions that Hammons has made about how to run his career – decisions that make ‘career’ seem absolutely the wrong word to use. He turns down offers of high-profile shows, only to appear unannounced in the unlikeliest of venues. While his work circulates lucratively through the secondary market, he doesn’t in any standard sense have a dealer. He speaks to the press rarely – which means, among other things, that his few public utterances participate in an economy of scarcity, recycled in article after article. And in those much-repeated statements he often professes disdain for art, for the art world, for art audiences. Yet what is most remarkable about all this bad behaviour – all these end-runs around the standard gallery-museum-biennial system – is how successful it is. After achieving renown as a poet of refuse, Hammons has become equally celebrated as a poet of refusal.

More and more, Hammons’ works themselves have seemed to theatricalize the artist’s public reticence, to enact their own refusals. Although the spare, Arte Povera-inspired constructions of the 1980s and ’90s already seemed on the verge of escaping materiality, Hammons has lately been moving towards a more radical embrace of absence. His much-discussed Concerto in Black and Blue (2002) presented emptiness as sculpture: 20,000 square feet of New York’s Ace Gallery, unlit and unoccupied: a game of hide-and-seek in which nothing was hidden. Navigating the bare space, armed only with tiny blue flashlights, visitors to the show were literally left stumbling around in the dark. And Concerto ..., it’s worth noting, wasn’t just a room full of nothing – it was a big room full of nothing – staged in the city’s most spacious gallery at a moment when grand installation works were all the rage.

For David Hammons, the artist is an exemplary figure, one who demonstrates a way of being in this world.

Able to choose how and where he engages with a world in which his presence is a valuable commodity, Hammons makes his participation bear as much critical weight as his refusals. He is, as the expression goes, ‘sensitive to context’ – often with barbed and pointed results. In 2007 the artist organized an exhibition (co-credited to his wife, Chie) at L & M Arts in New York – an Upper East Side townhouse gallery that deals mostly in secondary-market Modernists. It was stipulated that the gallery’s owners could know nothing about the show before it was installed; nothing was for sale, there was no press release or title. What visitors discovered when the doors finally opened were six full-length fur coats, displayed on dressmakers’ dummies – their backs splattered with paint or charred to a crisp. Critical reaction, of course, celebrated the apparent hostility of the gesture, the direct slap in the face to the art-as-luxury market and the stereotypically fur-clad dowagers who presumably support it. What most missed, though, was that Hammons, in another turn of the screw, had produced something utterly conventional: a show of abstract paintings. After a century of art history in which just about every sort of mark has been made on every sort of support, Hammons found the most recalcitrant surface imaginable. He called the bluff of those who could only see in his treatment of the fur a debasement, an act of violence – and succeeded even in eluding the category of ‘protest art’.

Recently, working on the international festival circuit, Hammons has created pieces that similarly take playing by the rules to ironic extremes. Asked to participate in the 2004 Dak’Art Biennial in Dakar, Hammons staged a sheep raffle: on makeshift stages far from the main art spaces residents gathered every day in the hope of winning an animal. Over the course of the week a dozen sheep were given away and led off by their lucky new owners. It was in many ways a devastatingly perfect example of contextually sensitive art, meeting the expectations of such Third World aesthetic interventions in an exaggeratedly literal deadpan: it was ‘culturally appropriate’ and ‘gave something back to the community’. Last November, invited by the Egyptian independent non-commercial Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum to create a piece, Hammons ended up making a work that was nothing but context. For ‘Six Sites in Alexandria’ the artist’s urban wanderings became the piece itself; the ‘sites’ were sights – odd things noticed and titled by Hammons: a chair chained to a post, a loud machine shop. Site-specific to the point of absurdity, the piece eliminated everything but the artist’s eye.

Describing the Alexandria project on, Hammons spoke of even more immaterial work – his piece for Sculpture Projects Muenster 2007, which involved predicting rain for 18 August (it was sunny that day), and a proposed work for the Nuit Blanche celebrations in Paris: ‘For my piece, I predicted that a double rainbow would appear over the city at night on 4 October. Actually, I saw a double rainbow about just two days before I met with representatives from the Fondation Cartier and the City of Paris about the project. Both agreed, but then approximately three days beforehand, the City of Paris removed my name from the exhibition. I think they cancelled it because they couldn’t explain it to anyone. But how do you stop or remove a rainbow from happening?’ Or not happening, as the case may be. With these works Hammons makes bets he can’t lose: either he reveals himself as a force of nature or he stages a canny Conceptual joke on his own ‘shamanistic’ reputation. Not just dematerialized but positively unearthly, such predictive pieces strip everything – even the present tense – away.

David and Chie Hammons, Untitled, 2007, Mixed media, Installation view. Courtesy: L & M Arts, New York. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Inc.

‘The less I do, the more of an artist I am’, Hammons has said. And both the poetry and the critical force of his work often seem to flow from an extreme economy of means. Yet this statement is notable not just as a claim of allegiance to a minimal or Conceptual practice. Hammons is also proclaiming that ‘being an artist’ is something quantifiable – one can be more or less of one. And the goal, clearly, is to be as much of an artist as possible. The artist is an exemplary figure, a figure who demonstrates a way of being in the world. And so part of the work of being an artist involves modelling what, exactly, an artist is.

This seems to be what’s going on in the famous street piece Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983). The photos portraying Hammons with his neatly arranged rows of snowballs for sale are probably the most frequently reproduced images in the artist’s oeuvre. The piece has become iconic, the single ephemeral work – a work that is essentially about ephemerality – that has come to stand for his entire practice. As it comes down to us in documentation, it is a portrait of the artist as an anonymous and disreputable pedlar, an absurdist street hustler. Hammons’ notion of an artist includes a constant flirtation with notions of the illicit and the fraudulent – the ever-present suggestion that the whole business might be a scam. What, after all, could be more of a scam than selling snowballs in winter? Andy Warhol too, in his professed love of inaction, often seemed delighted to suggest that the artist might be nothing more than a rip-off artist; but where he conceived himself as heading a Factory, Hammons is an itinerant salesman, a one-man operation ready to roll up and disappear the moment the cops walk by.

Warhol, of course, was the master at putting his own public persona at issue, and it has become standard for any such manipulation to be branded as Warholian. Hammons has certainly learnt from Andy’s example, but his own negative relationship to the public seems more inspired by the hermetic actions of Marcel Duchamp, who staged the most visible disappearing act in art history. Duchamp’s renunciation of art, his ‘retirement’ in 1923, was, as everyone knows now, no such thing. He worked in secret all his life and, even in his silence, always managed to keep his hand in. Yet his apparent disengagement resonated to the extent that Joseph Beuys felt compelled to declare ‘The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated’ in a televised action in 1964. Yet silence cannot be argued with so easily. Beuys’ protest against Duchamp’s aristocratic stance merely underlined that fact that this renunciation rated – that it functioned as a significant and signifying gesture.

‘I’m the CEO of the DOC – the Duchamp Outpatient Clinic’, Hammons has joked. ‘We have a vaccine for that smartness virus that’s been in the art world for the last 50 years.’ This ‘vaccine’, appropriately enough, has often taken the form of small, protective doses of the virus: Hammons has nodded to Duchamp repeatedly throughout his career, alluding to the Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912) in his Bag Lady in Flight (1990) and installing superfluous urinals on trees in a forest in Ghent. His most direct homage is also, in its own way, a kind of protest. A limited-edition multiple produced with Hand/Eye Projects in 2002, Holy Bible: Old Testament is a black leather-bound, gilt-edged volume which appropriates Arturo Schwartz’ Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (1969) as its text. Although it seems initially like a simple one-liner, the trajectory of the critique here is actually rather ambiguous. Does this piece merely mark that Duchamp is ‘overrated’, his work taken all too often as holy writ? Or is the object of parody the reifying form of the catalogue raisonné – a complex and multivalent history of public and private art-making reduced to an inventory. (The Old Testament, after all, is itself a kind of catalogue raisonné, an attempt to turn a messy collection of anecdotes into a coherent narrative: the Complete Works of God.) Or perhaps the point here is the most bald-faced joke of all: the object Hammons created is, quite literally, a black-skinned Duchamp.

David Hammons, Bliz-aard and Ball Sale, 1983, Performance documentation. Courtesy: Tilton Gallery, New York.

Such a reading is in keeping with the way race is often activated in Hammons’ works – through the over-literal reference, through self-consciously ‘dumb’ puns that, in their sore-thumb blatancy, explode the whole idea of coded language. Race is always over-determined, its connotations multiplied to absurdity. Hammons constantly wrestles with the inescapable redundancy of a black artist expressing ‘blackness’. Lorraine O’Grady once claimed that ‘Hammons tries to make art in which white people can’t see themselves’, but it might be more apt to say that he tries to make art in which what can be seen – and what can’t – is always at issue. Often this involves a process of anticipating and pre-empting responses, a particularly fine-tuned reading of audience expectations. ‘How Ya Like Me Now?’ read the text on Hammons’ most controversial work, a billboard from 1988 of a blond-haired, white Jesse Jackson. In a perfect response the work was vandalized, attacked by a group of young black men with sledgehammers – proving that the question it asked was anything but rhetorical.

In an interview in 1991 Hammons claimed: ‘Everyone knows that I am black, so my work doesn’t have to shout it out any more – I am black. The work will automatically be thought of as a part of my African-American culture.’ Even while ostensibly claiming to move in a direction that might be called ‘post-racial’– that freighted, impossible term – Hammons discusses his work in terms of the assumptions being brought to it: what ‘everyone knows’ about the artist, how it is ‘thought of’. Such a perspective seems particularly relevant when seen in the context of his career and its particular chronology. At the time he made this statement Hammons had been working for over two decades, but he had also just recently and dramatically been ‘discovered’. The first half of his career was centred in a largely African-American artistic world, contiguous with, but somehow apart from, the mainstream. For much of the 1970s and ’80s he was at the centre of a group of black artists revolving around the pioneering gallery Just Above Midtown; he was well known from his street pieces in Harlem; he had (and continues to maintain) deep roots in a black New York avant-garde scene. And yet it wasn’t until a series of high-profile shows – most notably at Exit Art and P.S.1 – between 1989 and 1991 that he ‘broke onto the scene’. Awarded a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, and buoyed by a faddish and often clumsy institutional embrace of multiculturalism, Hammons was suddenly one of a ‘New Set of Art Stars’, as a New York Times headline put it in 1991.

It’s not hard to image Hammons’ ambivalence about this newfound stardom – while it earned him an increased freedom of movement, it also meant he and his work were abruptly claimed by institutional machinery. Shortly after the ‘Art Stars’ article appeared, Jeannette Ingberman, director and co-founder of Exit Art, wrote to the Times, to set the record straight about one of her stars. Although Hammons was known to ‘a small, dedicated group of curators, critics and artists’, she wrote, ‘it wasn’t until his exhibition at Exit Art, which created a context for his work, that Mr Hammons was catapulted into the New York and international art world and became part of the contemporary dialogue on art.’ Having become a projectile in the medieval armoury of the art world, he set about finding ways to sabotage the works, to undermine this notion of a singular context and a singular dialogue.

Hammons’ P.S.1 show of 1991 – simultaneously début and mid-career retrospective – would be the last such survey he willingly participated in. By refusing the standard institutional hagiographies, he has left his work to exist in a sort of shadow economy, a borderland between art history and rumour. It’s therefore perversely fitting that in 2007 the Harlem gallery Triple Candie attempted to remedy this by organizing an ironically ‘unofficial’ career retrospective. Made up of blurry photocopies taken from the Internet and out-of-print catalogues, it was an ad hoc, forensic survey, as thorough as limited resources could allow. While functioning as an impressive work of guerrilla scholarship, the show simultaneously celebrated Hammons’ refusal to be catalogued and contained. Rumours circulated, of course, that the artist himself was secretly responsible for the show. He, of course, refused to comment; Triple Candie’s owners denied Hammons’ participation. They have noted, though, that on the day of opening they found a wooden clown figure, salvaged from a carnival, outside the gallery door. It’s not hard to believe that this was a salute, a tribute to a shared spirit of gamesmanship, a willingness to play along. Staging an unauthorized retrospective may have countermanded the artist’s wishes, but it demonstrated a consummate understanding of his strategies of dissent and refusal. Hammons’ gambits are the demands of a trickster: he pleads not to be thrown into the briar patch of art history – the place, of course, where he was born and bred.

Steven Stern is a writer living in New York.