Artists Features

Looking at Seeing: David Hammons and the Politics of Visibility

David Hammons photographed on September 2, 1980, in New York City. ©TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/PORTRAIT COURTESY THE PHOTOGRAPHER

David Hammons photographed on September 2, 1980, in New York City.

©TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/PORTRAIT COURTESY THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Last spring, Mike Spano, the mayor of Yonkers, New York, a city of about 200,000 that shares a border with the Bronx, delivered his State of the City Address at City Hall. After describing Yonkers as a destination for “new-economy” companies—a developer of shared workspaces, a brewery, and a wine-storage business—he announced that the artist David Hammons would be opening an art gallery in South Yonkers. Hammons, who lives in Brooklyn, was in the audience.

To most eyes, this must have seemed like a fairly ordinary moment, a fine bit of municipal pageantry. However, for anyone who knows Hammons’s reputation in the art world, it would have been an astounding sight.

The African American artist, now 71, has, for the past few decades, been famously, willfully, inaccessible. He is one of the most influential and in-demand artists of the past half century, but he has not had gallery representation, often sells work straight from his studio, rarely agrees to shows, and has given very, very few interviews in the past two decades. The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl was one of the chosen journalists, but even Schjeldahl admitted that, when a misunderstanding about where he was supposed to meet the artist scuttled their first planned talk, “I weighed the odds that I was being treated to a custom-designed artwork.” The appearance of a new Hammons work, in a group show or benefit, has the feeling of an event. The news spreads quickly.

Turning up at Yonkers City Hall seemed like a distinctly uncharacteristic thing for Hammons to do. Perhaps, I thought, he was having a change of heart. And so I tried to get in touch with him. I called the collector Lois Plehn, who I was told serves as Hammons’s gatekeeper. “David is not going to do any interviews about the project,” she told me kindly but firmly, when I finally reached her.

Higher Goals, 1986, mixed media, 5 units, heights 20'–35'. PINKNEY HERBERT/JENNIFER SECOR, COURTESY PUBLIC ART FUND, NY

Higher Goals, 1986, mixed media, 5 units, heights 20’–35′.

PINKNEY HERBERT/JENNIFER SECOR, COURTESY PUBLIC ART FUND, NY

Though Hammons guards his privacy, much of his best-known art has been, in its way, resolutely public, albeit ephemeral. As a young artist in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he gained attention for his one-off body prints—made by pressing a grease-covered body (usually the artist’s own) to paper, then sprinkling the paper with powdered pigment—that anticipate performative works to come.

Hammons moved to New York in 1974 and in 1981, in two separate actions, he threw tennis shoes over and urinated on a hulking new Richard Serra sculpture that had been installed in fast-gentrifying Tribeca. In the winter of 1983, he staged his Bliz-aard Ball Sale, hawking snowballs at Cooper Union, New York’s then-free art school. In 1985, as part of Creative Time’s last “Art on the Beach” outdoor sculpture show before the site was swallowed up by Battery Park City, he built Delta Spirit, a wooden shanty house decorated with bottle caps set in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers. And in 1986, he installed a number of his Higher Goals pieces—basketball hoops soaring 20 to 30 feet off the ground—in Cadman Plaza Park in as-yet-ungentrified Brooklyn.

These public pieces offered up a succinct map of societal systems in flux that now seems shockingly prescient. Last year, Cooper Union, whose founder, Peter Cooper, once declared that education there be as “free as air and water,” began charging tuition, having saddled itself with huge debts from an overambitious building project. Brooklyn, where Hammons once asked people to dream bigger, now has the least affordable housing stock in the country. (Harlem, where he first created those hoops, has been hit with its own condo boom. “Harlem is under attack,” he told Deborah Solomon in the New York Times in 2001. “White folks want it back.”)

Untitled, 2014, mixed media on canvas and blue tarpaulin, 137" x 123".  ©DAVID HAMMONDS/COURTESY WHITE CUBE

Untitled, 2014, mixed media on canvas and blue tarpaulin, 137" x 123".

©DAVID HAMMONDS/COURTESY WHITE CUBE

Hammons’s actions and temporary structures are preserved as photographs and films, but also as stories, which may be filled with apocrypha. He made $20 selling snowballs, or sold out, depending on what you read. As the writer Greg Allen has pointed out, various accounts of Hammons peeing on the Serra (the work is called Pissed Off), say he either got arrested or was threatened with arrest, or was issued a citation. Hammons has made an art of rumor.

Ambiguity has entered Hammons’s art in an even more purposive, physical way of late, as in his much-discussed 2011 show at L&M Arts in New York. The exhibition consisted of a number of punchy, swirling abstract paintings partially obscured by found tarpaulins or plastic sheets—the stuff of makeshift shelters, and the street—or, in one case, a hulking wooden armoire.

Hammons has also covered luscious drawings made with Kool-Aid powder with curtains that can be lifted only under certain conditions. When one was shown at MoMA in 2012, visitors had to make appointments to view the work with a museum staffer and enter through a different entrance.

“[T]he efficiency, quantity and immediacy of information and information-systems has placed art and the artistic gesture at risk of being identified, categorized, digested, cannibalized and made into information before it has a chance to begin being art,” the curator Anthony Huberman has written. “Curiosity is being castrated by information.” Hammons’s paintings exemplify a considered response to that condition. They confront you with a sustained refusal, cloaked in beauty.

I have heard the criticism from some that Hammons’s recent works, particularly these half-hidden paintings, are too directed at the art world—that they lack the incisive political bite, not to mention the gutsy aesthetic panache, of his “Spade” sculptures of the 1970s, his assemblages made with materials like hair and chicken bones and wine bottles, and his black, red, and green African-American Flag (1990).

To be sure, Hammons’s output of the last two decades has not been as overtly engagé, but it is no less directed toward specific ethical ends. As information overflows and as surveillance networks expand, his works increasingly block, or withhold, information, addressing the politics of visibility, of who and what can be seen and explained. This preoccupation with seeing was enacted most literally in his Concerto in Black and Blue (2002), for which he left the Ace Gallery in New York in pitch darkness, giving visitors little blue flashlights to navigate the space.

Hammons’s most recent exhibition was a 2014 survey of work from the past ten years, at London’s White Cube gallery, which had him manipulating the conditions of display, of being seen, in new ways. One had the feeling of walking through an exhibition mid-installation, or even while it was being torn down. A security gate was partially lowered, and the lights were dim on the top floor, where a few of Hammons’s basketball drawings—sheets of paper on which he has forcefully bounced dirt-covered balls—were on view. On an otherwise blank wall was a rectangular void in the dust and dirt, as if a painting had been removed. Ceiling light covers were missing. Four recent paintings, hung with tattered rags and plastic sheeting, were on view. One was placed across a concealed door to the gallery’s loading dock. The door’s drywall skin had been partially stripped away, exposing the opening to the public. It felt inappropriate to be there.

There was also a surprise inclusion—a humble little Agnes Martin painting, with repeating stripes of white and pale red, blue, and yellow, hanging on its own wall. Such inclusions have become a hallmark of Hammons projects. There was the Miles Davis painting that he offered to the 2006 Whitney Biennial in lieu of contributing his own work, which effectively undermined the curators’ authority. Then there were the works by Donald Judd, Joan Mitchell, and Yayoi Kusama, which were included in an Ed Clark show that Hammons curated at New York’s Tilton Gallery last year (all three were friends with Clark). He enters the institution on his own terms, taking authority as he pleases.

David Hammons, America the Beautiful, 1968, lithograph and body print, 39" x 29½". COURTESY MOMA PS1/OAKLAND MUSEUM, THE OAKLAND MUSEUM FOUNDERS FUND

David Hammons, America the Beautiful, 1968, lithograph and body print, 39" x 29½".

COURTESY MOMA PS1/OAKLAND MUSEUM, THE OAKLAND MUSEUM FOUNDERS FUND

In an essay, Philippe Vergne, one of the organizers of that 2006 Whitney Biennial, termed the Davis painting a “premeditated enigma,” and added, “This event—not to be understood or understandable, not to be seen, but to be conceived as a verbal enigma—possibly insinuates that we are culturally, aesthetically, miles away from assuming the full consequences of its occurrence.”

“Hammons tries to make art in which white people can’t see themselves,” artist Lorraine O’Grady has said, and while that’s clearest when he’s using hair from black barbershops and items from African American culture, there is a similar negation in these new works. In them, he informs you that there are things that you cannot see, and that you cannot know.

It’s anyone’s guess what Hammons has planned for Yonkers. Perhaps there is a clue in the catalogue for his 1993 show at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Illinois, his hometown, in which he talks about having a private museum there, a place to show his work. It might also be a place to show other artists’ work—either a fully functioning commercial gallery or a nonprofit alternative space.

The week before Christmas, I made the trip to the gallery’s future site. The BxM3 bus dropped me off at Radford Street on South Broadway, the town’s main commercial strip. There’s a McDonald’s, a smattering of pizza places, a non-chain pharmacy, a few vacant storefronts.

The building that Hammons bought is a 5-minute walk away, past a few modest suburban homes and a block of public housing. It’s next door to the community affairs office of the Yonkers Police Department. There’s a storefront church and soup kitchen nearby, but otherwise it’s a sleepy section of town.

Hammons’s space, at 39 Lawrence Street, is a one-story brick building with tall ceilings, filling a lot that measures two-thirds of an acre, about 29,200 square feet. According to property records, an entity called Duchamp Realty LLC, which is registered to the artist’s home address in Brooklyn, bought it for $2.05 million in January 2014. Construction permits for roof repair, issued a few months before I visited and valid well into 2015, were plastered over a door.

Whatever the Yonkers gallery becomes, it will join many of Hammons’s works as a marking, and reconfiguration, of public space. Slipping just beyond city limits, it denotes a hallmark of our time: artists’ flight from the moneyed playground that New York has become. “I’ve always thought artists should concentrate on going against any kind of order…but here in New York, more than anywhere else, I don’t see any of that gut,” Hammons told the art historian and curator Kellie Jones in 1986, anticipating this moment. “Because it’s so hard to live in this city. The rent is so high, your shelter and eating, those necessities are so difficult, that’s what keeps the artists from being that maverick.” Perhaps “Duchamp Realty LLC” is another clue: one might see the gallery as an assisted readymade, a former industrial space redirected toward a new purpose.

On the day I visited the site, the sound of a jackhammer was ringing through the neighborhood. It seemed to be emanating from within the building, but there was no obvious way in. The gates were down and locked, and looking through the high windows, I could see the sky peeking through sections of the roof that were missing. I bought a slice of pizza and headed back to Manhattan.

Andrew Russeth is co-executive editor at ARTnews.

Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.


  • Issues