When the new David Hammons show opens at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles on May 18 it will be, we are told, the largest solo gallery presentation of the artist's career — and saliently, the first solo presentation in Los Angeles in 45 years. This is not that strange, perhaps, given that he hasn’t lived or worked here in about that long — yet somehow it feels remarkable considering that despite this long physical absence, the power of Hammons’ legacy dating back to his work in L.A. during the late 1960s and early 1970s is everywhere with us to this day.
Hammons remains ensconced in our contemporary art history, a luminary whose presence has never faded, across decades, who L.A. artists routinely claim among forebears and local institutions see as de rigueur in serious historical surveys. An A-list contrarian and a vocal skeptic of the patriarchal for-profit gallery system, it is also intriguing that the Hauser & Wirth show includes new works and a site-specific installation alongside certain salient historical selections, such that the artist’s involvement in the exhibition is direct and presumably commercial. But that’s only a mild distraction; the point is L.A. finally gets a massive, new show from one of its favorite hometown heroes, and we are all blessed to be here for it.
The exhibition will encompass two of the gallery’s main exhibition spaces and its central courtyard. There will be individual works along the lines of his more recent sculptures, the head and mask totems, which reference and subvert conventions of commemorative and anthropological portraiture and ritual. There will be works that refer to his epic tarp paintings; though the unconventional mediums may well transfer into dimensionally evolved structural formats, the visual and material idiom of using repurposed industrial and construction materials to reference abstract expressionism and create the elusive promise of the veiled masterpiece still hold his, and our, interest.
And finally, most especially, there will be a new, site-specific installation — aka the big reveal.
While the opening date is less than a fortnight away, details on this element of the exhibition remain, so to speak, under wraps. But again, this is not all that strange, at least not for Hammons. Over the years he has remained robustly resistant to the art world game, eschewing almost all media contact and most commercial representation. Though an engaged and accessible member of the artist community, a frequent subject of institutional display, and a dedicated civic activist, his art work and independent career path have been assertively self-determined and anti-commodity, achieving stratospheric critical and financial success on his own terms.
Even the press release for the L.A. show is really just a drawing, a schematic nesting tempest of lines that reads only “The exhibition is dedicated to Ornette Coleman, Harmolodic Thinker” below a vividly gestural mothership of a doodle which screams improvisation. And indeed, improvisation grounded in historical knowledge and material mastery is not only the basis of the kind of free jazz pioneered by Coleman, but of Hammons' own aesthetic and processes as well. Hammons is renowned for his gift of expressing art historical tropes in a fresh and subversive language of found objects and overlooked materials, infused with personal and cultural artifacts that speak to a specific perspective on society — that is, being black in America. In some cases it's as fundamental as walking around the block and making art out of whatever he finds along the way. In others it's a complex meditation on the literal embodiment of social empowerment. Always, it engages with the forefront of formal discourse in modern art.
In 1963 Hammons moved from Illinois to Los Angeles, where he would study at Otis Art Institute under the great artist Charles White — himself currently the subject of a trio of exhibitions across Los Angeles, and whose son Chris has been working with Hammons. He also attended Chouinard Art Institute, now called CalArts, meeting a cadre of some who would become their generation’s most important artists. By the time Hammons was out of school in 1968, he was working on what would be seen as one of his most revered and influential series, the “body prints.” Hammons used his own body as an element of printmaking, an allegorical and metaphysical literalism achieved by a process in which he covered himself, both naked and clothed, in greasy adhesive, pressed himself to paper, and flocked the residue with graphite and powdered pigments to create the image. Both constrained and sensual, compressed and cradled, the images would often then be used as the foundations for narrative compositions about topics like identity, patriotism, social injustice and cultural violence. Several examples are currently on view at the Broad in “Soul of a Nation” along with other key works from Hammons, who appears in more than one gallery in the show, including one room entirely dedicated to his work from this period.
In fact, one such early body-print appeared as the invitation piece for a show in 1969 — a two-person exhibition with Noah Purifoy at the Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park. Brockman Gallery was opened by brothers Dale Brockman Davis and Alonzo Davis in 1967 with the goal of supporting artists of color. Many acclaimed and important artists exhibited there, including Hammons as well as Romare Bearden, Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, Elizabeth Catlett and Noah Purifoy. All were fundamental in the fertile Leimert Park art scene that the gallery anchored — and not coincidentally, anchors again, as the building enjoys its new life as Art + Practice, the nonprofit exhibition space co-founded by Mark Bradford, Allan DiCastro and Eileen Harris Norton.
Hammons had his first solo exhibition in 1971 at the Brockman Gallery, quickly followed by his inclusion in “Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington” at LACMA in 1971, a show also heavily referenced in “Soul of a Nation.” Also at LACMA in 1972, he was part of “Los Angeles, 1972: A Panorama of Black Artists.” He had a big solo show (his last in Los Angeles until now) at Cal State L.A. Fine Arts Gallery in 1974, and then promptly moved to New York. It was at that point that Hammons earnestly developed his lifelong practice of making sculptures from the incidental byproducts of African American city life, including hair from barber shops, bottles and caps, chicken bones, used food wrappers, and vinyl records. One such work, the paper, grease stain, and hair-embellished “Bag Lady In Flight” is a highlight of the current Broad show. It was first iteration exhibited in 1975 at Just Above Midtown in New York, but this one is the version that was remade in 1990.
The script-flipping materiality and walkabout materials-gathering sessions are as archeological and site-responsive to the town he peruses as they are to the spaces in which they are then constructed. These are the artist’s most archetypal practices, and those which promise to inform whatever he’s up to over in the Arts District this week. But equally, his earlier experiences back at the Brockman Gallery left their mark on Hammons in other more esoteric ways that are still manifesting themselves to this day. Yes, the assemblage movement was born there during those years, and Hammons was steeped in those influences. But just as key is that, for example, in its adjacent buildings, Brockman Gallery offered artists both housing and studio space, and hosted free concerts and community events as well.
This deep, granular engagement in building an arts community was no doubt an inspiration for Hammons’ own recent real estate venture. He bought a building in South Yonkers, to open a gallery and residency setup in a one-story brick building with high ceilings, sitting on about 30,000 square feet. He bought it under the name Duchamp Realty LLC in 2014 for about $2 million. It seems that not only the studio camaraderie and intellectual exchange in the Brockman Gallery ethos never left him, as his work has gone on to honor and encompass not only the stuff of existing places, but the energy of place-making itself. It’s in the spirit and context of all of this, the past and the present and everything that’s happened in between, that the new on-site work at Hauser & Wirth is unfolding in real time, behind the tarp, in the process of becoming his latest unconventional masterpiece, created in and for a place that Hammons once called home.
The exhibition is on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, May 18 – August 11.
Soul of a Nation is on view at the Broad through September 1.