Critics’ Picks

Barbara Hammer, Double Strength, 1978, 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound, 14 minutes 38 seconds.

Barbara Hammer, Double Strength, 1978, 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound, 14 minutes 38 seconds.

New York

Barbara Hammer

145 Elizabeth Street
October 2–November 6, 2021

This presentation of Barbara Hammer’s work and archive, “Tell me there is a lesbian forever…,” begins in 1968, when the experimental cineast discovered 8-mm film. A few years later, she discovered women: A handwritten note on display here reads “COMING OUT”. Lovemaking was intertwined with artmaking, and Hammer’s partners appear in many of her photographs and films from the 1970s. Combining still and moving images, the film Double Strength, 1978, charts the arc of Hammer’s romance with aerialist Terry Sendgraff. At its exuberant heights, the two naked women soar on trapezes while the pair, in voice-over, process their relationship. Hammer used an optical printer to play with mirroring, a metaphor for same-sex attraction that she utilized to powerful effect.

Even though feminist critics called Hammer’s 1970s films “essentialist,” the artist continued making work about lesbians but shifted her focus from rendering gay women visible to queering visibility itself. A treatise on haptic eroticism, Sync Touch, 1981, intersperses hand-painted frames, depictions of hands, finger painting, sensual touching, and footage of Hammer’s French tutor intoning theoretical language, which the artist parrots back. Pools, 1981, another tactile film with painted-on color, dives deep into Hearst Castle’s swimming pools. This grand edifice in San Simeon, California, was designed by early-twentieth-century architect and reputed lesbian Julia Morgan. Pools anticipated Hammer’s documentaries from the 1990s, which mined the myriad archives of queer history (none of those works, however, are featured here).

There’s a motorcycle—the model that Hammer rode—on a plinth in the gallery. Refinished in specular chrome and ritually cleansed by artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden, the show’s curator, it functions as potent symbol of Hammer’s legacy, which has indelibly impacted queer filmmakers working today, and the maverick histories of lesbianism, which she devoted herself to depicting, preserving, and endlessly renegotiating through a lifetime of art.