Los Angeles

View of “David Hammons,” 2019. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.

View of “David Hammons,” 2019. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.

David Hammons

In a 1998 profile of David Hammons in these pages, Manthia Diawara observed, “The use of art against art is, of course, a familiar strategy by now, but what remains interesting is what becomes of the artist in his rebellion against convention. . . . In one sense, aura is everything in Hammons’s art.” For an artist known for refusal, Hammons projected a surprisingly strong aura in this loose retrospective, his first exhibition in Los Angeles in forty-five years. New and older sculptures, paintings, installations, found objects, archival ephemera, and works and films by other artists sprawled over more than a dozen subdivisions of the gallery, as well as Hauser & Wirth’s exterior courtyard, breezeway, and garden. Many well-known works were on view—including one of the untitled rock head sculptures that the artist was making in the 1990s and early 2000s—and others were invoked. Hammons’s 1983 Bliz-aard Ball Sale, for example, was referenced in two installations: a bowl of water (a melted bliz-aard ball?) next to a framed email from a collector declining to purchase the work, and a freezer filled with shrink-wrapped copies of the Afterall publication on the piece (frigid scholarship?). Other works in this sweeping and generous presentation conjured cross-cultural, montage-like connections among the artists Dan Concholar, Willem de Kooning, Agnes Martin, Timothy Washington, and Jack Whitten; Black Lives Matter; Duchamp’s monograph as the Holy Bible; Christo and Tupac; African statuary; Baroque furniture; Kool-Aid; terry cloth; a Navajo rug; the town of Obama in Fukui Prefecture, Japan; and, importantly, “Ornette Coleman, harmolodic thinker.”

That Hammons dedicated his show to Coleman, a jazz legend, was a cue (for those who needed one) to read his aesthetic moves as open, free-form, and improvisatory. Coleman appeared over and over again: Included were Shirley Clarke’s 1985 documentary Ornette: Made in America, two of Coleman’s bespoke suits, a recording of his double quartet resounding throughout one wing of galleries, and takeaway copies of the program from his memorial service. Indeed, Coleman’s concept of harmolodics—which favors musical expressions in which “harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time, and phrases all have equal position,” creating a “sensation of unison”—offered a formal armature for Hammons’s ideas. In this show, even the smallest gestures packed punches equal to those of larger, more traditional objects. For example, several towering abstractions on canvas, most of them covered and obscured with torn brown paper, sheets of plastic, translucent fabric, or tarps, retained the cast-off casualness of, say, the wadded-up dollar bills seemingly dropped on the gallery floor here and there. Likewise, an unassuming wall-based work—a cracked pane of glass holding a dirty, rag-like scrap in its crevice—had a strangely deafening impact (and a historical thrust not unrelated to Duchamp’s The Large Glass, 1915–23).

More than mere readymades, Hammons’s objects elevate the ordinary and the discarded, creating prisms of reality that whisper or shout at the viewer. Perhaps the loudest shout in this show came from an installation of tents assembled in the gallery courtyard and occupying the length of an outdoor corridor. Stenciled in paint on some of the shelters were the phrases this could be u and this could be u and u. Cautionary or circumstantial, the double address seemed directed at the citizens of Los Angeles, where some thirty-six thousand homeless residents live in tent encampments on sidewalks, under overpasses, and along freeways extending far beyond Skid Row. More specifically, and unlike so much of Hammons’s work about and for the streets and its people, this incisive installation spoke directly to Hauser & Wirth’s art-viewing and art-buying audiences. It was tough medicine.