David Hammons solo shows are rare events, occurring only every few years lately, and the last two were in New York, at L&M Arts, in 2011 and 2007. But now he has arrived at London’s White Cube gallery for what it is billing as his first major show in the city. It has just 11 of his works, but they come from a variety of series and date from the past 15 years. It is modestly sized, but it is potent. Given the artist’s infamous resistance to getting involved with museum shows, it actually may be the closest thing to a survey of his recent work that we will get anytime soon.
The ground floor is dimly lit, almost chapel like, and contains, high up on its walls, tall smoky drawings, one 10 feet tall. The checklist lists their materials: “Harlem earth on paper with black cloth suitcase” or “dirt on paper with leather suitcase.” He makes them by bouncing basketballs on sheets of paper, framing them, then propping them off the wall by wedging a suitcase underneath. They are uncanny, beautiful objects—multivalent pictures of traveling that transpose the action of dribbling into a new environment, making it register in a new way.
Downstairs, past a fur coat from the ingenious, frighteningly series of battered coats that he showed at L&M in 2007 (this one is streaked on its back with purple paint), are four new paintings like those that Hammons showed at L&M in 2011, gestural abstractions covered with cut-up, worn, and frayed cloth, tarps, and plastic, like the paintings are being censored or hidden, or as if they’re closed for business. They withhold themselves from you. They’re also disturbingly attractive. You will want to spend some time in the room, trying to catch glimpses of the action underneath those coverings, teasing out their politics. Also here is an extremely subtle, barely-there wall drawing in the shape of a canvas, suggesting that a work has been removed and left a grimy shadow, and a peculiar, violent slice in the actual wall. Strange things are happening.
One more surprise: a small, late Agnes Martin—all whites and pale primary colors—hangs mysteriously in the same galleries as Hammons’ paintings on its own wall, perhaps as a kind of tonic, or a sample of the purity and expression that Hammons knows we are so desperately hunting for beneath his tarps.