Art in America, April 2006


By Nancy Princenthal

Surely one of the canniest artists alive, David Hammons was well served by an "Unauthorized Retrospective" organized by the Harlem-based non-profit Tripel Candie. Rather than actual artwork (which Hammons declined to make available), the show included nearly 100 unprepossessing photocopies, attached with rough squares of black cloth tape to lengths of plywood. Just when you thought that nothing further could be said about the relationship of original to copy, artist's presence to artwork's authenticity, here was abundant food for thought.

And it was plenty tasty. To see this particular career laid out so unceremoniously is to be fairly overwhelmed by its strength. Over the past four decades, Hammons has explored, with equal elegance and nonchalance, a universe of neglected visual poetry. Paradoxically seeming the more iconic when rendered so insubstantially, his best-known assemblages employ empty bottles, chicken feet, greasy paper, hair. An inveterate punster, he has made a Freudian Slip (1995) from filmy lingerie draped over an African mask; a decidedly bregnant figure results. In Four Beats to the Bar (1990), he slipped condoms over the ends of some of the horizontal bars in a NYC subway turnstile, creating a visual effect of alternating black and white keys that was a decidedly underground riff on tickling the ivories.

Long before Paul Pfeiffer's magic video of a basketball mid-air, there were Hammons' sad and majestic hoops; before Chris Ofili was making elephant dung into headlines, Hammons was making it into sculpture. But it is precisely this kind of one-upman-ship that Hammons' work is meant to undermine. Again paradoxically, he is renowned for spontaneous events that few have seen -- selling snowballs, parading the basketball hoops. In arguably his most high-profile exhibition opportunity, Hammons chose to disappear altogether, turning off all the lights in the vacant, cavernous spaces of Ace Gallery for a 2000 installation, and giving visitors tiny blue flashlights by which to navigate, with improbably gorgeous results. In Hammons' world, everyone can be a player, and you don't need any special pieces to be in the game.

Ancilliary material at the gallery circled that idea. A catalogue consisting of the contents of the show (that is 95 Xeroxes, plus a press release as introduction) would seem to challenge any claim to its integrity as a freestanding event. But the publication exists in only five copies, which desined to become the very collectors' items excluded by the show (indeed three have already gone to museums). In a side room were small cardboard maquettes for two of Richard Serra'sTorqued Ellipses, made by an unamed exhibition designer; spotlit in a vitrine, they looked unnervingly like cuff bracelets that could have been made by one of the African craftsmen who work appears in Hammons' assemblages.

Most provocative of all was a congregation of odd lengths of milled lumber and metal wall studs, puzzled together into a tidy rectangle on the floor in a roped-off section of the main gallery space. Two indifferent little paintings, one a blotchy study in orange and pink, the other a wistful, slightly beat-up landscape, were placed on the lumber. Signs proclaimed "This is not an artwork by David Hammons," a story gallery staff stuck to, attributing it to an unidentified artist. It appeared nowhere in press material. What to make of this unclaimed work? To feel Hamms hovering over your shoulder as you ponder that question is a vigorious exercise in visual judgment that is also a healthy workout for political thinking. Amazing that he can put you through those paces without himself -- perhaps -- doing anything at all.


On View