David Hammons finds art where it lives and inserts himself as participant and provocateur. In 2007, that happened to be at L&M Arts, a gallery specializing in secondary market sales of 20th-century masters located in an Upper East Side townhouse. This past winter he returned to the elegant space, installing 10 large-scale paintings cloaked in tarpaulins, drop cloths, taffeta and a terrycloth towel, as well as one with an armoire pushed against its surface. One “painting” was in fact just an area of the white wall obscured with tattered and torn clear plastic sheets.

In these new works, the paintings peek out at edges and corners and through holes in the materials covering them, and many appear to be gestural abstractions that borrow the palette of de Kooning or perhaps of Guston. At first impression, they seem to have been randomly and rudely effaced, but it quickly becomes clear that the staged concealment allows for a kind of strategic composition of its own. Despite—and because of—the crudeness of the materials and the assaultive gesture toward the viewer, these are grand, compelling objects that Hammons has created, stately works with the dynamic physical presence to command a room. They evoke Alberto Burri’s distressed, layered surfaces as well as the decrepitude and not-quite-suppressed violence of Arte Povera. One also thinks of Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (1953) and his white paintings, both of which mocked the exclusionary, heteronormative culture of Abstract Expressionism.

Hammons’s oeuvre narrates an implicit race-based exclusion from the various movements that he has witnessed in his long career. Born in 1943, he participated in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism and in Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Conceptual art and appropriation, but all from the outside. This outsiderness has taken the aggressive form of his urinating on a Richard Serra sculpture (Pissed Off, 1981). It has also taken the wittier and yet more subversive form of an untitled abstract sculpture from 1992, in the collection of the Whitney Museum, of wire-and-hair dreadlocks that poke out menacingly at viewers.

More recently, in the 2007 show at L&M, Hammons and his wife, Chie Hammons, draped antique mannequins in expensive fur coats, the backs of which were painted and singed.

The recent show not only alluded to race-based exclusion from the canon of painting—painting “died” in the 1970s without any African-American having been legitimated in its various movements (outside social realism)—but also addressed the social history of the gallery as an institution. The 19th-century townhouse was itself made the subject. Hammons’s signature appeared not on the paintings but directly on the gallery wall, marking the white space and turning it back on itself, conjuring the stable of white male 20th-century masters found there most days.


Photo: David Hammons: Untitled, 2010, mixed mediums, 108 by 84 inches; at L&M Arts.