David Hammons’s Close Your Eyes and See Black (1969) is a beautiful and haunting example of the artist’s seminal “body print” series. To create these works Hammons would coat his body, hair and clothing with a fine layer of grease before pressing himself to the paper; he then dusted the resulting imprint with black pigment powder. The result is a shadowy yet sharply detailed record of his presence. In the present work, the artist’s torso, armless, fades to nothingness toward the head. Instead, the impression of Hammons’s face—eyes hidden by his hands—is superimposed upon his chest, creating a surreal bodily juxtaposition. As is foregrounded by the title, this apparition questions the power of racial signifiers. By quite literally making a print of himself, Hammons collapses any easy distinction between artist and message, presenting his own physical being for the viewer’s assessment: he is both the object of meaning and the creator of the object. Unlike Yves Klein’s body prints, which tended toward abstraction and used the anonymous female body as a performative instrument, the exacting image of Hammons’s broad nose and lips—like his emphasis upon his hair in other works of the series—insists on an almost forensic specificity, underscored by the hints of measurement in the work’s ruled horizontal lines. Created at the height of the 1960s Black Power movement, Hammons’s potent broadcast of his body was to place black identity boldly at the center of the picture.
For an artist who made such an icon of his own figure, Hammons himself is an elusive presence. He maintains a notoriously tricky relationship with the mainstream art world, shunning gallery representation and avoiding interviews; in 1986 he claimed “I can’t stand art, actually. I’ve never ever liked art, ever” (D. Hammons, quoted in K. Jones, “The Structure of Myth and the Potency of Magic,” 1991, in EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, 2011, p. 145). Nonetheless, his delicate and powerful alchemy of objects has made him one of America’s most prominent and sought-after artists. While his almost shamanistic use of the ephemeral relics of black existence—chicken bones, basketball hoops, afro hair—links him to Duchamp, Surrealism and the Arte Povera movement, his is a life lived on the margins, and his objects are born of liminal experience. As Gylbert Coker has noted, even the body prints have an understated layer of societal meaning. “Much more subtle in their identifiable element, the prints nonetheless grew from a black object—grease. How many times has your Momma told you to get yourself some grease ’cause your legs are ashy?” (G. Coker, “Human Pegs/Pole Dreams,” Village Voice, 28 September 1982, p. 79).
The serious political drive of Hammons’s work is offset by a fondness for puns, both visual and verbal. In the present work, the transposing of the face to the chest makes Hammons’s nipples look like the eyes of a curious alien creature or statuary idol. The title Close Your Eyes and See Black evokes a number of meanings: it gestures ironically towards Hammons’s own see-no-evil action in making the print, our mental images of Blackness, and also to the “Third Eye” which we see through when our eyes are closed. In Afrocentric philosophy a higher concentration of melanin opens up this channel, through which intuition, creativity and spirituality flow uninhibited. As Greg Pitts, an artist who worked in 1970s Los Angeles alongside Hammons, explains: “These ‘in-form-ations’ in the imagine-nation can only be seen through light in the 3rd eye, which again is the gland of ‘Blacknuss’ or ‘Black-in-us.’ Close your (human) eyes and see Black. Open your Sphere-ritual-Black-3rd eye, and see The Light. …Light shows up best in the dark!’ (G. Pitts, “Het-Heru,” in C. R. Tilton and L. Charlwood (eds.), L. A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints, exh. cat. Tilton Gallery, New York, 2007, p. 72). Hammons’s own stance on this front remains playfully quiet. While signs of racial “otherness” have long been used to subjugate Black people, they can also stand as an index of collective identity and strength. In closing his eyes to the rest of the world, does Hammons find an autonomous zone of expression? Or does he draw attention to the inescapable racial gaze, the trapped flatness of his printed pose acting as a metaphor for the price paid upon reducing oneself to an image? Elegant in concept and profound in impact, Close Your Eyes and See Black brilliantly captures the spirit of Hammons’s work: enigmatic as the Turin Shroud, this is a phantom of entrancing power, an ethereal trace that invites projection as much as reflection.