David Hammons, Five Decades
Through May 27th
After entering a system as powerful and monied as the higher echelons of the art world, how do we gauge the threshold between subversion and endorsement?
I wondered this as I wandered round the David Hammons show at the bourgeois Upper East Side townhouse occupied by Mnuchin Gallery. The exhibition spans two floors and traces the career of this pivotal black artist from the late 1960’s to 2011 (the gallery has put on two exhibitions of Hammons before this one). An artist whose practice is rightfully applauded for its relation of everyday beauty, black experience, and political-mindedness, his work now sits in a five-story townhouse gallery that is itself a contemporary physical manifestation of colonialist taste: highly private, highly securitized property with red brick and wrought iron gates. Inside, the gallery is stately and white walled with moulding to match.
At an earlier time in his life, David Hammons was practicing a certain breed of street art: donning a dashiki, khakis and pumas, he took a piss on famed mega-artist Richard Serra’s T.W.U sculpture in 1981, a territorializing fuck-you to the gentrifying of Tribeca. But it was also a simple, reflective performance. The sculpture, after all, was graffitied and flyered, surrounded by empties, a sort of inverse image of what post-gentrification looks like today. The maneuver in this context was meant to exist like any of the detritus and bodily excretions gathering and flowing in the streets of New York City, yet it was different because it was art—parodic, dissenting—a cosmological takedown of abstract monoliths.
“The way I see it, the Whitney Biennial and Documenta need me, but I don’t need them.” Hammons told Peter Schjedahl in a 2002 interview. (He was in both.)
Does Hammons not need Mnuchin Gallery either?
The blue chip gallery’s owner, Robert Mnuchin, used to work for Goldman Sachs. His son Steven will be Trump’s chair of finance. This affects the way people see the work. Though much of Hammons’ work deserves respect and the high profile venue it’s been awarded, at times the venue also blunts the impact of the work. However, one can’t help but ponder, did the artist intend this? Is Hammons purposefully chipping away at his own cred in order to critique the beast from within the belly?
“In the Hood”, a 1993 work hung on the first floor, in which Hammons attaches the torn hood of a hoodie to the wall may demonstrate all of this. Though the hoodie itself evokes an immediate visceral effect (now amplified by more mainstream significance it’s taken on since the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin) I initially wondered whether it was diminished by its own reproducibility. As evidence, see the picture of two white women smiling and bechardonnayed, posing below the hood at the opening (courtesy of the Mnuchin website). Not that all art requires reverence, but the image seemed to make visible the chasm between the two worlds of black experience and the affluent art world—as well as the chasm between Hammons’ early and later work.
However, as I looked at the picture of Hammons pissing on the Serra sculpture next to the two women under the hood, I was struck by the thought that maybe Hammons knows full well what he’s doing. Are the two women his unwitting performers? Is the entire art world and white world the butt of his sharply tuned joke?
Rebellious and reclusive, his conceptual clarity has been fueled by one part bold wit and two parts wokeness. A bit of history: Hammons’ formative years were in Los Angeles, during a critical juncture for the black community and art history. There was the Watts riots in 1965, the militant black power and pride movements and the Black Arts Movement that focused on politicized, confrontational art that was made for the community. Besides the Black Arts Movement and musicians such as Sun Ra, Hammons was influenced by the likes of John Baldessari and Chris Burden while studying at the Otis Art Institute.
So, seeing the iconic works in FIVE DECADES is important. However, given that Mnuchin is FIVE stories, you’d think they’d put something on a little more encompassing—how about a decade per floor, instead of two for all the work? The show isn’t organized chronologically and seems to be arranged according to some aesthetic or formal logic that I still cannot decipher, with each floor mixing works from the 70s, 90s, 2010s, etc.
Still, much of the work doesn’t need to be backed by an organizing principle to make an impact. Spade (Power for the Spade) (1969) was made with his own body, smeared in margarine then dusted in pigment, the outline of it like a king of spades playing card. It’s a reference to the fairly bygone epithet, an early work meditating on the vaporized black body. Another well-known work on view is the post-minimalist sculpture Untitled (1992), made of kinky hair gathered from barbershops and affixed to wire, poking out of tea bags, a work lent by the Whitney. Smoke Screen (1990-95), with its cigarettes on the floor of an otherwise pristine gallery, is illustrative of the artist’s history of entering the establishment and snubbing it.
But not all the work has this same power. There’s Basketball Chandelier from 1997, which recalls his earlier series Higher Goals from 1986, wherein Hammons installed several of 20-30-foot tall basketball hoops from his series in Cadman Plaza Park, an attack on the presumed paths toward black success. The chandelier feels like a fancy, not as poetic version of Higher Goals. There’s also A Moveable Object (2012), a cart with broken pieces of asphalt, which doesn’t seem to relate to anything at all except for the idea of juxtaposing trash within an unspoiled gallery. Thinking more about these works in relation to Mnuchin Gallery, and the gallery’s direct associations with finance capitalism and fascist rhetorics, it starts to feel like Hammons is losing control of the ironic subterfuge.
While there is no doubt about Hammons’ importance as a black artist, there is still some doubt as to whether or not this show is subversive or simply upholding of a system that has appropriated both street art (for the purposes of gentrification) and contemporary art (for the privilege of critical, canonical relevance).
On the one hand, the biggest beneficiaries of FIVE DECADES seem to have little relationship to or even awareness of the social justice movements and protests that have defined so many of the racial and class struggles we see today. So the work feels cheapened in a way, even as it grows in value.
On the other hand, he’s spent a lifetime using the streets, institutions, and biennials to present his art—so so what if he’s using a shitty upscale gallery? If you critique him, then the joke’s on you; but if you don’t critique him, then you don’t get it either.