David Hammons began his career inserting himself in the picture. In the late 1960s, while living in Los Angeles, the artist began a series of "body prints," which he created by pressing his own margarine-coated figure onto paper and dusting the impression with powdered pigment. Produced during the heyday of Black Power and the Black Arts Movement, these politically explosive self-portraits broadcast the inescapable existence of the black artist at the center of the image. This essential practice of mark-marking, so critical to every artistic expression throughout art history was further defined in the twentieth century by artists like Yves Klein, and Yayoi Kusama, who notoriously indexed the corporeal with skin-to-surface confrontations.
The present Body Print executed in 1991 comes from the collection of Exit Art co-founders Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo who curated a seminal exhibition of David Hammons' work at Exit Art in May-June, 1989. The exhibition featured a multi-media sculpture and sound installation using, among other things, one half ton of stove coal, a "blues" toy train and real railroad track, discarded Thunderbird wine bottles, and four music soundtracks, played simultaneously, which featured music by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.
In keeping with Exit Art's mission to create "a hybrid interdisciplinary arts organization dedicated to transcultural, multi-media explorations of contemporary art," an event was organized in conjunction with the exhibition titled 'Incubation'--An Evening of Poetry and Fiction with four contemporary African American literary figures. Each writer (Amira Baraka, Amina Baraka, Darius James, and John Farris) presented some of their current work in context with the Hammons installation, which played homage to the physical and symbolic presence of the train in American black culture. Michael Kimmelman in his review of the Hammons Exit Art exhibit in the New York Times captured the underpinnings of sly wordplay and racial commentary that informs much of Hammons' work, stating:
[David Hammons] sculptures seem to be conceived not frivolously but with a good deal of spontaneity, humor and absolutely no pretension. Conceptual artist, environmental sculptor and social commentator, Mr. Hammons fashions from the artifacts of his urban surroundings a strange and rather wonderful kind of poetry.
The Exit Art exhibition was essential in introducing David Hammons to the broader New York Art scene. While there had been a small, dedicated group of curators, critics and artists who had followed Hammons' work since the 1960s, it wasn't until his exhibition at Exit Art that he was catapulted into the New York and international art world and became part of the contemporary dialogue on art. Jan Hoet, who curated Documenta IX in 1992, discovered Mr. Hammons work at Exit Art on the opening of the installation.
In 1991 Harvey Lichtenstein, President and Executive Director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and the director of BAM's New Wave Festival Elizabeth Thompson approached David Hammons to create a poster and cover art for the catalogue to advertise the Festival (previous participating artists included Keith Haring, Willem de Kooning and Robert Mapplethorpe). Hammons was given complete freedom to do whatever he wanted and he collaborated with the multi-media artist Papo Colo. The present Body Print is the artwork Hammons created for this co-commission.
Exit Art, co-founded in 1982 by Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman, continues to showcase the work of minority artists often marginalized in the mainstream art world. Exit Art has been tireless in their support of unknown artists who deal with difficult ideas, and through this non-profit cultural center's 30 year-history of championing socially and politically conscious art, Exit Art has compelled audiences and other cultural institutions around New York City and around the world to take notice.
Papo Colo, reminiscing on their history with Exit Art, wrote in honor of his wife and life-partner, Jeanette who died last year:
"LOVE, the most powerful creative force, moved us to be Exit Art. The many ways that we applied this emotion made us interpret our AMERICAN CULTURE into a LEXICON of exhibitions and events concerning GLOBAL CULTURES. Our life was our love, our work."