Jul 1, 2016

David Hammons

While some of the best known works by artist David Hammons are ephemeral performances (like Pissed Off 1981 or his Body Prints made by rolling his greased body on paper), Hammons spent a great deal of his career making art from found materials, including hair.

Hammons was one of a number of African-American artists creating assemblages in Los Angeles in the 1960s and '70s. (Others of note included Betye Saar and John Outterbridge.) Primarily using found materials, such as discarded chicken bones or barber shop hair clippings, Hammons's work rejected the 'clean' aesthetic of American Minimalism and embraced an aesthetics of refuse.

Untitled - 1992 - human hair, wire, metallic mylar, sledge hammer,
plastic beads, string, metal food tin, panty hose, leather, tea bags, and feathers
- Whitney Museum of Art, 92.128a-u
"The artist has often been characterised as a sophisticated junk dealer who breathes new life into paper bags, bottle caps, frizzy hair, snowballs, rocks, broken appliances, old clothes, rugs, grease and half-eaten ribs." 1.
The detritus Hammons collects is specifically selected "to evoke aspects, attitudes and sensibilities of black American culture.” 2.  His spider-like sculpture, Untitled 1992, consists of African-American hair wrapped around wires, that emulate the look of dreadlocks. There is no actual body represented, only a reference to the body, created by amassing discarded, kinky hairs. Artists that utilize human hair in their work evoke, consciously or unconsciously, the uncanny by re-contextualizing something with which we are so intimately familiar.
Pieces of hair inevitably fall beneath and around the work, evoking natural processes of change and decay. Like much of Hammons’s art, Untitled summons an uncanny sensation of the strangeness that often lies just below the surface of the familiar. 3.
Hammons frequently uses the visual trope of hair as a marker of African American racial identity. This is evident in his rock heads, works that combine a head-sized stone with hair collected from the floors of black barbershops and affixed to the stone in a manner resembling a head of hair. Art historian Blake Gopnik notes that "in its obvious echoes of Brancusi’s smooth forms, it takes modernism’s Africa fetish and reclaims it for black America." 4.

 Untitled (Rock Head) - 1998 - stone, hair, and shoe polish container
- from the collection of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris

Much of Hammons's work circles around representation, addressing a "politics of visibility, of who and what can be seen and explained." According to artist Lorraine O’Grady, “Hammons tries to make art in which white people can’t see themselves.” 5.  
Old dirty bags, grease, bones, hair … it’s about us, it’s about me. It isn’t negative. We should look at these images and see how positive they are, how strong, how powerful. Our hair is positive, it’s powerful, look what it can do. There’s nothing negative about our images, it all depends on who is seeing it and we’ve been depending on someone else’s sight … We need to look again and decide. ~ David Hammons, 1977 6.
 Rock Head - 2000 - stone, hair, metal stand - RISD Museum, 2001.31.1

If the hair on his rock heads clearly addresses racial identity, using hair on these balanced monoliths also nods to something more universal the delicate dance of that which decays (the ephemeral) with that which appears to live on forever (the eternal).

While Hammons predominately employs hair for its symbolic, rather than personal, value using African American hair from anonymous sources in one of his earlier artworks, Flight Fantasy 1978, he used his own hair to offer a "critique of the dislocation of the black body in American society." 7. 

Flight Fantasy - 1978 - phonograph record fragments, hair, clay, plaster, feathers, bamboo, colored string.  Walker Art Center, 1995.24


Hammons's work often offers sight-gags visual one-liners that riff off dominant cultural signifiers. "He's distorting all of these stereotypes to produce something which is a critique of the way this community has been seen." 8.  One of his most powerful works in this vein is Hair Relaxer, a visual pun that plays with ideas of power, privilege, art history, sex, and ideals of beauty. 

In Hair Relaxer, African American hair rests-reclines-relaxes on a recamier an item of furniture associated with western European luxury, and by extension privilege and power. 9.  It's an ironic statement since the black struggle against oppression and injustice can never rest. Hair Relaxer addresses many contested positions for African Americans in art history, culture, and society.

 Hair Relaxer, 1998 - chaise-longue and human hair.

This item of furniture also recalls a specific painting by Jacques-Louis Davida painting of Juliette Récamier who was considered one of the great beauties of her day. The painting, from 1800 depicts Juliette reclining on a divan and epitomized an ideal of feminine elegance. It inspired painters and poets, and came to be riffed-on by artists, such as Magritte and Manet, in particular. 10.  In ironic homage, Manet's Olympia 1863 was famously provocative for the sexually aggressive gaze of its reclining odalisque, despite how she hid her public hair with her hands (addressed in an earlier blog post). Hammons joins the art-historical-parody party, arranging curly hairs in the seam of the recamier down its crack, so-to-speak—playing with the cultural inappropriateness of publicly visible pubic hair.

But Hair Relaxer is far more than part part of an art-historical running joke about beauty ideals. African Americans have long endured exorbitant pain trying to accommodate Caucasian standards of beauty. Hair straightening treatments (relaxers) use toxic lye and cause great pain and suffering.
I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined the multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior” — and white people “superior” — that they will violate and mutilate their God-given bodies to try and look “pretty” by white standards. ~ Malcolm X 11.
Like most of David Hammons's artworks, Hair Relaxer works on many parallel tracks to address a shared black experience and situate it against and within both black and white cultures. Hammons "works off familiar, highly charged iconography ... and his puns conjure up some of the more contradictory and even painful aspects of contemporary black life." 12.

In a 1986 interview, the art historian Kellie Jones asked David Hammons why he makes art. Because, Mr. Hammons offered, art is about symbols and “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.” 13.  Hair, which is imbued with magical properties from cultures throughout time and place, is a significant medium for Hammons and serves as a versatile fiber for art-making.

For further reading about David Hammons, I invite you to explore the Mnuchin Gallery website, where the recent exhibition, Five Decades (March 15 - May 27, 2016) generated many articles about the artist and his body of work.




1. Coco Fusco, “Wreaking Havoc on the Signified”, Frieze online, May 7, 1995.
2. ibid.

3. Collections record from the Whitney Museum of Art.
4. Blake Gopnik on Art, Tumbr, Jun 5, 2014.
5. From Andrew Russeth, “Looking at Seeing: David Hammons and the Politics of Visibility”, ARTnews, February 17, 2015.
6. From the label text from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, September 5, 1999 to September 2, 2001.
7. From the label text for David Hammons, Flight Fantasy (1978), from the exhibition Black History Month, Walker Art Center, February 1999.
8. Philippe Vergne, curatorial comment, Walker Art Center, September 1999. 
9. Other names for this item of furniture are a divan or a chaise lounge. 
10. Philippe Segalot, Carte Blanche, Phillips auction house, November 8, 2010. 
11.
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, New York 1965, p. 64.
12. Coco Fusco, “Wreaking Havoc on the Signified”, Frieze online, May 7, 1995.
13. Holland Cotter, "David Hammons Is Still Messing With What Art Means", New York Times, March 24, 2016

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello,

Your blog article came in my feed today — I think because my name is mentioned in your article on David Hammons. It's a fine piece — and the first time I've seen all those images from different periods of his work in one place. Thank you!

I'm writing to share that I have a video in the "Blackness in Abstraction" show now at the Pace Gallery which you might enjoy. The video is of, what else, my hair! It's 18 minutes long, plays on a loop — the end is when a light comes on. Ideal would be to see it complete and, if possible, more than once.

Best,
Lorraine

Tamsen Ellen said...

Hi Lorraine,

Thank you so much for your comment! And for pointing out your work referencing hair. I'll definitely get over there to see the show before it closes August 19th!

With anticipation,

Tamsen