In a small photograph included in “David Hammons: Five Decades,” the first authorized David Hammons retrospective in twenty-five years, the artist can be seen seated, chin in hand, exhibiting a composure that might lead one to overlook the fact that the elegant chair beneath him is missing its front legs. With his dark shades, crossed legs, and nonchalance toward his apparent balancing act, Hammons is the embodiment of cool contemplation. It was with the same poise that the rest of the work in this long-awaited, artist-conceived exhibition inhabited Mnuchin Gallery, filling two stories of the Upper East Side town house with a subtle menace and a set of social concerns that the neighborhood’s brass-handled doors and iron gates seem designed to keep out.
Hammons’s works often defy thematic generalizations; however, one of their prevailing concerns is the black experience in America and its intersection with—and exploitation by—the country’s obsessively aspirational culture. After being greeted at the entrance to Mnuchin by one of several guards on duty for the exhibition, viewers were met with Which Mike do you want to be like . . . ? (2001), a work comprising three microphones on stands of varying heights. The title riffs on the jingle from a Gatorade commercial that was ubiquitous in the early ’90s, a period during which Michael Jordan pioneered the phenomenon of black athletes securing astronomical commercial endorsements, which helped affirm the myth that the best way out of the inner city was through one’s athletic prowess. With its simultaneous invocations of Mike Tyson and Michael Jackson, the more infamous Mikes of the period, the work reflects on the narrow sphere of mass-media representation afforded to African-American men.
This theme was continued in the adjoining gallery with Champ (1989). Comprising two boxing gloves attached to a flaccid section of inner tube hanging from a nail and suggestive of flayed skin, the work is a sorrowful homage to the black athlete-martyr. Untitled (Man with Flag), part of a celebrated series of “body-prints” from the late 1960s and 1970s, is another unsettling meditation on what the American Dream has meant to the racially marginalized. Hammons created this series by pressing his margarine-coated body against sheets of paper, which he then dusted with pigment and embellished with various images. In the work in question a man solemnly displays an American flag that appears to be twisted around his neck in a subtle allusion to a noose. A 1993 work titled In the Hood likewise conjures the specter of lynching. It features the severed hood of a sweatshirt held open by a wire frame and hung high on the wall. A devastating prescience has come to be associated with this work following Trayvon Martin’s murder and the ensuing transformation of the hoodie into a widely recognizable symbol of the perils faced by young black men.
Exhibited on the second floor, Fur Coat (2007) evokes the more benign violence occasionally visited upon those flaunting a very different sartorial symbol: displayed on a dressmaker’s dummy is a full-length fur splashed with paint from a seeming run-in with an animal rights activist. At the center of the same room a massive, ornately framed mirror was hung, its glass covered over with two rough-hewn sheets of galvanized steel. Within the context of the show, the gallery, and the zip code, this untitled 2014 work seemed a blunt reminder of the upper class’s inability to recognize its privilege or account for the broken bodies that have sustained it for centuries.
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.