"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
David Hammons began making his indelible mark on the history of post-war American art in late-1960s Los Angeles. At this crucial point in time, the city had become an extremely fertile ground for radical art. Having recently weathered the Watts riots of 1965, it served as a focal point for the West Coast Civil Rights Movement. Los Angeles was also an attractive alternative to the oversaturated art hub of New York City, as heralded by Andy Warhol’s famous 1962 exhibition at the Ferus Gallery and Marcel Duchamp’s major retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum the following year. The intense social upheavals and violence of the 1960s, both at home and abroad in Vietnam, led to some of the most profound and impactful art-making that America had ever produced. Hammons joined a group of black artists working in Los Angeles, such as John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy and Betye Saar, with whom he explored new ways of articulating the marginalized experience of being a minority in America.
The present work, executed circa 1970, belongs to David Hammons’s seminal series of ethereal body prints. To create these works, the artist coats himself with grease, presses his body against the support and dusts the otherwise invisible impression with raw pigment. The resulting image is at once vague and highly detailed, suggesting the unfathomable complexity of identity, especially concerning one’s race. The present work features impressions of the artist’s face and hands, clutching a balled-up American flag. The figure’s hair is rendered with a mop in lieu of the artist’s own so that it yields a more vivid simulacrum of an afro. Eyes shut gently, the figure seems enveloped in serene communion with the crumpled flag, which he cradles under his chin like a celestial child.
Although necessarily a record of the artist’s own body, the present work is much less a self-portrait than a portrait of black identity in the decade following the genesis of the American Civil Rights movement. Considered within the context of the hard-earned progress of the 1960s, Untitled (Body Print) is a remarkably poignant and reflective image. Whereas the artist’s body prints of the 1960s often portray the black body fragmented or obscured, engaged in illegible activity, Untitled (Body Print) presents a more unified vision of a black man’s face, hair and hands clearly embracing an American flag.
Hammons’s legacy is a kaleidoscope of landmark works in sculpture, performance, installation and conceptual art, often incorporating ephemeral materials such as grease, chicken wings, empty moonshine bottles, human hair, broken glass and dirt. Hammons keeps much of his output a secret, exhibits sporadically and rarely discusses the meaning of his work publicly. He has even gone so far as to denigrate his patrons: “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience? That’s like going into a lion’s den. So I refuse to deal with that audience, and I’ll play with the street audience. That audience is much more human, and their opinion is from the heart. They don’t have any reason to play games; there’s nothing gained or lost” (K. Jones, ed., EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, Durham and London, 2011, p. 150). Combining the aesthetics of violence and elegance, the artist conjures mythic, elusive and aggressively confrontational experiences for the viewer, regardless of his or her socioeconomic background or skin color. And yet the objects Hammons makes 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).
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, Untitled (Body Print) 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.