New York

David Hammons

Zwirner & Wirth

Everyone I asked about the Miles Davis painting that was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, a lively Basquiatesque oil on canvas from 1991 titled RU Legal, immediately assured me that it was actually “by” or an “intervention of” David Hammons, as if this “solved” how or why this painting came to be displayed. While I have no interest in refuting the contention that the painting appeared at Hammons’s behest, I have a lot of interest in what such an appearance and its attendant obfuscation might mean. Hammons’s name is not listed in any museum materials or in the Biennial catalogue. Described variously as “elusive,” “enigmatic,” and a “trickster,” certainly a scholar of irony’s mise en abyme (call it that old black magic), Hammons moves by feints and dodges. So while his “participation” in the Biennial could be seen as, I guess, a curatorial coup, it could just as easily reveal that the sport is at the organizers’ expense: The purposely recalcitrant and unverifiable gesture leaves them with rumor-mongering and a painting, not by Hammons, which seems to ask anyone looking into it, R U 4 Real?

The eleven works in the recent Hammons show at Zwirner & Wirth ranged from Untitled, 1987, a basketball hoop and backboard mosaicked in bottle caps with bottle-cap and Super Ball extensions to Untitled (Basketball Drawing), 2004, which is played as much as drawn by “dribbling” a basketball on paper to generate a dynamic abstraction. The drawing in its gilded frame slants out from the wall, a found suitcase stashed behind it, complicating both its economy and its stability. Since the exhibition was allegedly put together without him, Hammons’s nonparticipation, while not necessarily confounding everything, becomes an issue when one considers Basketball Installation, 1995, which consists of a tree trunk, partially painted white and supporting a white basketball hoop, an African vessel housing a basketball, and scuff marks radiating across the white wall. Since there are photos in existence of Hammons himself installing similar wall drawings, by repeatedly bouncing the basketball, what does it mean for someone else to have played the game? Hammons aficionados have been reluctant to admit that he might play conceptual tag-team with Sol LeWitt, but, occasioned by forces willing to profit without him, the wall marks put a new spin on “nothing but net.”

When quizzed, a gallery employee said she knew nothing of the Miles Davis painting and hadn’t seen Hammons’s recent “Unauthorized Retrospective,” a sly but significant survey organized by Triple Candie that included none of the artist’s actual work but rather one hundred or so photocopies and computer printouts taken from previously published catalogues, exhibition brochures, and existing websites of his body-prints, sculptures, drawings, performances, and installations. Was it due to absence (of actual work) italicizing unauthorization that the Triple Candie exhibition provided more critical traction than this tonier show?

While the artist himself has positioned his work “somewhere between Marcel Duchamp, outsider art, and arte povera,” it might be time to consider his connections to other contexts: His career begins in Los Angeles, the city of Ed Kienholz and Wallace Berman, themselves no strangers to street finds, in a moment immediately following Marcia Tucker’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures / Materials” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969, as well as the more local “Projections: Anti-Materialism” at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla in 1970, which included Barry Le Va’s infamous Velocity Piece #2 (Impact Run). As much as Hammons can be seen to have occulted such procedures and materials, he has also abstracted them into the realm of the vernacular. Consider his Cigarette Holder, 1990, a wall-based sculpture of cigarette butts “roach-clipped” to twists and curves of wire, as a response to Richard Tuttle’s wire pieces. Le Va left only marks from his shoes on the floor, bits of skin and blood, and the sound of his body running and thudding against the walls he ran between. Is it possible that Hammons saw and heard in this sculpture the athletic poetics of hoops as well as aesthetics on the run; provocation to leave his own bodily traces; and a way of exceeding and/or escaping containment for other reasons and impacts?

Bruce Hainley