Peter Schjeldahl writes about David Hammons' retrospective at Mnuchin Gallery in the Upper East Side. Though the pairing of Schjeldahl, an older white male art critic; Hammons, an artist whose work primarily focuses on black experience; and Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner turned gallerist; may initially seem strange, Schjeldahl's deference, beautiful prose and sensitivity bridges the gap. "Some white critics—such as me, when I first encountered his work—have reacted defensively, purporting to roll their eyes at the obviousness of the references and provocations." (Why Hammons chooses to show with Mnuchin, though, remains to be seen.)
Read Schjeldahl in partial here, or in full via the New Yorker.
A concise retrospective—a sampler, really—of important works by David Hammons, at the Mnuchin Gallery, on East Seventy-eighth Street, is a big deal, as Hammons shows generally are. Now seventy-two, the African-American artist has, by choice, exhibited rarely during the five decades of his now-you-see-him, mostly-you-don’t career. When glimpsed in person, he’s a watchful dandy sporting a colorful knit cap, but sightings are few and far between. Hammons so successfully shuns and fascinates the art world that he is almost an art world unto himself. The qualifier “elusive” clings to him. “Unique” applies, too. He is both a satirical oracle of racial fissures in society and a subtle aesthete, in forms of post-minimalist sculpture and installation.
Comedy and spleen seesaw in Hammons’s art. “In the Hood” (1993) is in fact the hood of a black hoodie, hanging agape, high up on a white wall of the gallery. It’s rivetingly clever, but may strike some, at least, as menacing. “Traveling” (2002), a beautifully atmospheric grisaille, nearly ten feet tall, was made by repeatedly bouncing a basketball soiled with “Harlem earth” onto paper. The themes of other works stray from race to class. Purple paint is slathered across the back of a gorgeous fox-fur coat, while two apparently lovely abstractions painted by Hammons are largely concealed by tattered plastic fabrics, reminiscent of homeless encampments. Like earlier Hammons shows, this one feels like a combined diplomatic mission from an ominous polity and a guerrilla raid by a force that departs as swiftly as it pounces.
The artist spoke with me, bracingly and delightfully, for a column in this magazine, in 2002. He wouldn’t do so again. “We hear that he’s in Morocco,” Sukanya Rajaratnam, a partner at Mnuchin, told me. She shrugged: maybe, maybe not. This is Hammons’s third show at the gallery since 2007. The owner, Robert Mnuchin, a collector who was a partner at Goldman Sachs, cheerfully acknowledges that his relations with Hammons are conducted, often by proxy, at the artist’s unpredictable initiative and always under his conditions. It is a tangy arrangement, strictly ad hoc. The works in the show differ from those in the catalogue, because Hammons dropped by the gallery at the last minute and dictated some changes. (“Difficult” is another epithet that trails him, voiced with rueful smiles by dealers and curators.)
Hammons has never had a regular dealer, but he plainly favors the Mnuchin Gallery because it’s at so far a remove from the rough streets that provide most of his material. (It’s in an Upper East Side town house, to which you are admitted by a buzzer through one locked door and by a guard through another.) His first two shows there, of ruined fur coats and shrouded paintings, coolly affronted the wealthy neighborhood, which could roll with it by regarding him as a sort of court jester, licensed by the lofty market value of his work. (Museums and collectors, especially in Europe, crave his sparse output.) He would reject that belittlement, of course, while leaving himself open to it. Paradox becomes him. Andrew Russeth, of ARTnews, has reported that two years ago Hammons bought a one-story brick building in Yonkers, which the city’s mayor, Mike Spano, announced would be renovated to house an art gallery. The thought of Hammons as a curator excites. Already, he sometimes incorporates other artists’ works into his own shows; for instance, a delicate abstraction by Agnes Martin recently appeared in an otherwise rugged installation in London to enigmatic effect.
More recent pieces in the show include amateur copies or pastiches of African masks and fetish sculptures, which Hammons found or bought and then smeared with orange paint. They are collectively titled “Orange Is the New Black.” Also lately he has extended the motif of his occluded paintings, but without paint, to decoratively framed secondhand mirrors. He fronted one, standing ten and a half feet high, with two sheets of battered galvanized steel. The sheets are angled relative to each other in a way that uncannily recalls classic Cubist or Constructivist composition.
*Image: Installation view of “David Hammons: Five Decades” at Mnuchin Gallery. From left to right: “Coat” (2007); “Untitled” (2014). COURTESY DAVID HAMMONS AND MNUCHIN GALLERY; PHOTOGRAPH: TOM POWEL IMAGING