“David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979” began with the artist at work. The entrance to the exhibition at the Drawing Center was lined with photographs of Hammons, taken by Bruce W. Talamon in 1974 and 1977, at the studios in South Los Angeles where Hammons started his career. In the photographs that document his singular printmaking process, Hammons is shirtless and slicked with margarine, crouching to consider white sheets of paper before pressing one part of his body down on the paper at a precise angle, his other limbs flung wide. Once christened with a sprinkle of powdered pigment, these grease marks would reveal shockingly intricate figurative impressions, which Hammons then arranged into scenes of play, prayer, and, often, political reflection. These works, thirty-two of which were presented at the Drawing Center, are expansive and abstracted riffs on Black living that revel in their emotional ambiguity.
“By using the body, I’m going to have the truth whether I want it or not,” Hammons said to his friend and fellow artist Ulysses Jenkins, in the latter’s 1978 documentary King David. In some places in his portraits, the details of the body—either his own or someone else’s—are transcribed to a hyperrealistic degree, as in Untitled (Woman with Mop Hair and Lace Shawl), ca. 1975, in which the subject’s fingers and knuckles are a ghastly white that verges on skeletal. In the same image, the titular “mop hair” emerges as a fine-twigged nest. Elsewhere in the exhibition, shoulders and hips curved or narrowed unnaturally. Just when Hammons’s portraits start to rhyme—his own bearded profile, in particular, reappears in many works—bits of their bodies slip back into abstraction, a face is reshaped as an octagonal totem, a torso smudges out into shadow. Preserved in butter, oil, charcoal, and powder, these silhouettes appear to be more conjured than recorded, despite their origins as physical impressions.
All but two of the works shown at the Drawing Center were on paper. The exception was a pair of sculptural objects that happened to feature the most viscerally affecting silhouette in the exhibition. Black Boy’s Window (1968) and The Door (Admissions Office), 1969, are both made of glass and weathered wood, the first being a found window with a decorative wooden grille and a shade, and the latter a freestanding door bearing the hand-painted words admissions office. The inset glass on both objects bears the same impression of a child-size figure with hands raised above head, no arms, a highly pigmented face, no neck, and a dense, smeared block for a body.
Both works request a closeness, for the viewer to trace the details of the chipped acrylic paint and the slightly imperfect slant of the word “office,” to peer through the window, to linger on the small palms. And yet, something in the exhibition space is askew and distancing. In a uniquely extensive interview with Kellie Jones in 1986 for Real Life magazine, the reclusive Hammons said that most exhibition rooms are “too shiny and too neat.” The wall text for The Door (Admissions Office) emphasizes that the work’s freestanding installation allows viewers to peer in from “both sides, both literally and figuratively,” with one side signifying the point of view of the admissions group barring the Black boy’s entry, while “from the reverse side . . . the viewer joins the boy, excluded from the institution, and from educational opportunity.” I question the confidence of the phrase “the viewer joins the boy.” When I circled the door, the platform on which the door stood kept me at the same distance from every angle. When I peered through the glass, every wall of the institution was pristine.