David Hammons: Five Decades Retrospective at Mnunchin – Reviews

Seeing David Hammons

Given that the artist is such a spectral presence, how can his multifarious oeuvre be summed up in a single retrospective survey?

The most passionately discussed New York City gallery exhibition of last season might have been Philip Guston at Hauser & Wirth, but the most talked-about one by a living artist was undoubtedly “David Hammons: Five Decades” at Mnuchin Gallery. Each of the two shows cast its own spell, one very different from the other, but both seemed to offer one emphatic if understated lesson to young artists: Keep your distance from the art world. Guston sought solitude by “painting a lot of other people out of the canvas,” as Harold Rosenberg put it in a conversation with him. Guston concurred: “People represent ideas…. But you have to paint them out. You know, ‘Get out.’” He told Morton Feldman that “by art I don’t mean the art world, I don’t mean lovers of art.” Lovers of art—people like me—might love it to death; what we love in art may not be what the artist needs from it. Guston once compared the art world to a country occupied by a foreign power.

Hammons is even more vehement. For him, not just the art world but art itself is suspect. “I can’t stand art actually. I’ve never, ever liked art,” he told the art historian and curator Kellie Jones in a 1986 interview that remains the most complete exposition we have of this notoriously unforthcoming artist’s philosophy. Claiming to have finally become “too old to run away from this gift,” and fascinated by the “outrageously magical things” that sometimes come of it, Hammons gave in, but without surrendering his reservations. Art should catch you unawares, he told Jones, preferably anywhere but in a gallery: “I like doing stuff better on the street, because the art becomes just one of the objects that’s in the path of your everyday existence. It’s what you move through, and it doesn’t have any seniority over anything else.” In a legendary 1983 performance, Hammons set up a sidewalk vendor’s space on Cooper Square, peddling snowballs that he arranged by size and priced accordingly.

The distance the artist has put between himself and the institutions dedicated to cultivating the appreciative penumbra around art has been not only intellectual but also, so to speak, tactical. He’s famous for making himself scarce. In her contribution to the “Five Decades” catalog, Alanna Heiss—the former director of PS1, where, in 1990–91, the largest exhibition of Hammons’s work appeared, curated by Tom Finkelpearl—­recalls that because the artist “refused to be available by telephone” while the show was being planned, “intricate systems were set up to contact him. The most familiar one I remember was that to meet him, you had to go to the corner of 125th Street by the Orange Julius stand and call a number. He would call you back, and come down and get you. Sometimes it would take a long time. Tom and I had long conversations about the show waiting for David to emerge from the protective cover of the Orange Julius sign.”

Guston and Hammons are hardly the only important artists whose legends are woven around their ambivalence or antagonism to the institutions of art, or rather to art as an institution. An important precursor for Hammons’s brand of found-object assemblage is the great Bruce Conner, whose retrospective, “It’s All True,” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through October 2. Conner once threatened to “quit the art business entirely,” and while he never quite succeeded, he made it as hard as he could for the art business to deal with his orneriness, which could also take the paradoxical form of pretending not to care. In 1963, he printed a card stating: “The bearer of this card is authorized to alter any collage or assemblage made by Bruce Conner which is displayed for public consumption.”

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Such haughtiness might seem risky to artists coming of age in the social-media era, where accommodation and availability are the minimal conditions for success. Or possibly not, since it’s Guston’s and Hammons’s refusal to assimilate—­and, of course, the eye-opening art that it made possible—that continues to inspire. But who gets to be inspired? Hammons has complained that “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?” The paradox is that, at least for Hammons, dissing the art world turned out to be the best way of winning it over, and his art is no longer a denizen of the street but of the toniest galleries. When Hammons bites the hand that feeds him—and it feeds him very well; he’s one of the top 10 living American artists by auction price, and the piece that scored this record was auctioned not by a collector, but by the artist himself—the response is usually a swoon of pleasure. His first show with L&M Arts, Mnuchin Gallery’s predecessor, in 2007 featured fur coats despoiled with swaths of paint; it didn’t look like much to me, but lots of people waxed lyrical over the sublime nerve of scandalizing the posh uptown crowd by trashing their most precious apparel. No matter that there are always more minks to ranch and foxes to hunt, or that these coats had become even pricier with the swipe of a brush. That’s what counts uptown (and in most other places), isn’t it? So the joke was on whom exactly?

If that 2007 show was a one-liner, Hammons’s second show at what was still L&M, in 2011, was anything but. The artist had never been known as a painter—though I suppose his treatment of the fur coats could be seen, in retrospect, as an unorthodox example of that genre—but this was a painting show unlike any other. The works were big, bold, and brushy in a manner reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism—­or, I should say, so they seemed from what little one could glimpse of them, because they were mostly covered by torn black tarpaulins, plastic garbage bags, and the like. Was this a cruel joke on the market’s preference for painting? Some observers thought so, though given Hammons’s long-standing association with outstanding painters like Ed Clark and Stanley Whitney, that hardly seems likely. In fact, the hybrid three-dimensional constructions that he’d eked out of the dubious amalgamation of relatively traditional artistic means and grubby everyday stuff were nothing short of magnificent. Significantly, Hammons insisted that L&M break with convention by issuing no press release, but the works themselves spoke eloquently enough about how an artist need neither to renounce nor adhere to any aspect of his tradition (including the by-now-traditional rejection of tradition) in order for “outrageously magical things” to happen. With Hammons, they do, more often than not.

Delving even further back into Hammons’s exhibition history gives an even stronger sense of his unpredictability. At a 2002 show at the Ace Gallery in New York, “Concerto in Black and Blue,” the rooms were unlit, shrouded in darkness; visitors were given small blue flashlights so they could make their way through galleries empty of everything but whoever else was passing through. Roberta Smith elo­quently described the experience as “like being surrounded by Arctic fireflies or walking among faintly visible ghosts.” Given that Hammons is such a spectral presence himself, how can his multifarious oeuvre be summed up in a single retrospective survey? What could it mean to look back on five decades of work by someone convinced that being an artist means (as Hammons told Jones) “never liking anything he finds, in a total rage with everything, never settling or sacrificing for anything”?

At Mnuchin last spring, it meant, for one thing, last-minute changes to “Five Decades”—­and more changes made during the course of the show—that were much talked about in the art world. Apparently, Hammons decided as he was hanging the show to exclude some of the works that had already been loaned by important collectors—­an affront in itself—and substitute some small, cheaply framed photographic pieces, many of them documenting some of the more ephemeral works he’s done over the years.

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Is Hammons contrary for the hell of it? It would certainly jibe with his proclaimed admiration, as a younger man, for artists who “were like poets, you know, hated everything walking, mad, evil; wouldn’t talk to people because they didn’t like the way they looked. Outrageously rude to anybody, they didn’t care how much money that person had.” It’s a lot easier to talk that talk when, despite all expectation, you’ve ended up with more money yourself than you probably ever imagined. But still, that attitude is justified only by the art it makes possible and, so to speak, defends. Making bad art to spite an art world primed to accept your every whim as a sign of genius would be the ultimate self-defeating gesture. It’s strange that some of Hammons’s admirers think this is his modus operandi.

There’s no doubt that the great impression left by “Five Decades” came from some of the show-stopping, indelibly strange, sometimes haunting sculptures Hammons has made over the years. I’m thinking of pieces like the 13-and-a-half-foot-high Basketball Chandelier (1997), a pole leaning against a wall and topped with a hollowed-out backboard and rim, the basket itself made of crystal prisms; or the eerily simple In the Hood (1993), a hoodie’s excised hood mounted on the wall and held open by a wire rim, emptily gaping from on high. There are also the recent untitled works—taking off from the paintings of a few years back, a couple of which were also on view—made of big old mirrors draped with torn fabric or blocked with sheets of galvanized steel. These are strangely figurative works: The mirrors become bodies clothed in outlandish, maybe mournful garb, at once scavenged and ceremonial.

But what made the show more than a collection of captured trophies was the selection of small photographic pieces scattered among the larger works. My favorite is from 1989: Untitled (Three Leg Chair), which shows the artist himself (still as elusive as ever in sunglasses) leaning back in an elegant old chair that only has its two back legs. The third leg promised by the piece’s subtitle is Hammons’s own, firmly planted: It’s all about balance, and self-reliance, even when you think there’s an independent support system sustaining you. Other pieces were more mysterious: for instance, a found photo of an all-white basketball team, the ball inscribed with the year “1936.”

That the young athletes’ whiteness seemed so striking in this context probably means I have to use a word I’ve been consciously trying to avoid using. But while Georges Perec managed to write hundreds of pages without using the letter “e”—he failed if you consider his name on the title page of La disparition (in English, A Void) as part of the novel—I’m not virtuoso enough to write a couple of thousand words on Hammons without talking about blackness. That’s unsurprising, considering how deeply race informs his approach, his subject matter, and even his materials (an untitled sculpture from 2004 is a gray stone turned into a kind of portrait head by being topped with hair gathered from a Harlem barbershop). But my reticence, I hope, is just as understandable, because one thing Hammons makes me feel is how much of an outsider I am to his world. That’s not accidental: “White viewers have to look at someone else’s culture in those pieces and see very little of themselves in it,” he told Jones. “And that’s the beauty of looking at art from other cultures, that they’re not mirror reflections.” Is that why he later decided to work with shrouded mirrors?

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If I’m honest with myself, maybe part of the reason I didn’t write about “Five Decades” back when it was on view was that it made me self-conscious about how race and culture condition interpretation. I didn’t feel ready to think through my reactions to the work. And the last thing I wanted was to let myself off the hook by just joining the chorus of praise for Hammons, as if that might make me right with the Lord. What’s more demeaning than joining the laughter at a joke that might be on you?

Luckily, I’ve had another, unexpected chance to delve into Hammons’s art. In Greece this summer, there was a scarcely publicized show of his work on view (through September 30) at the George Economou Collection, a private museum in Marousi, a northern suburb of Athens. (Its owner is a Greek shipping magnate, not the American poet who happens to have the same name.) “David Hammons: Give Me a Moment” is billed as the artist’s first European survey, although it’s a smaller show than “Five Decades”; it even includes a couple of the same or very similar pieces. Ably overseen by Mark Godfrey, a senior curator at the Tate Modern in London, the show’s tighter focus makes it stronger than the one in New York. But whether it’s because of Godfrey’s selection or simply because I was looking at the work in a different context—one in which the specifically American history of racial oppression slips from foreground to background—I saw Hammons’s work differently.

Not that race disappears as a subject. Recalling the 2002 show at Ace Gallery, which was his first encounter with the artist’s work, Godfrey observes: “Readings that try to force Concerto to be a symbol of African American experience are reductive, but to ignore the metaphorical or cultural resonances of darkness, black, and blue would be equally wrong.” In Athens, though, Hammons’s work seemed blessedly indifferent to such dichotomies. Although as sly as ever, it made the artist appear less of a trickster; the characteristic anger of his work was still discernible, but it suddenly seemed less important than the love embodied in it. The overwhelming tenderness in his handling of material corresponds to his feeling about the people whom his art is finally about: black people, in the main, but not only. One of the most touching pieces, inspired by his stay at the American Academy in Rome, is called Roman Homeless (1990). Nothing more than a piece of worn-out, nearly colorless embroidered fabric draped around a cylinder of metal mesh that might or might not be a trash basket, and with some discolored old tennis balls and bits of crystal from a chandelier hanging from one side, the piece is an unforgettable portrait of someone to whom you might give a coin in passing without really noticing—but who, on second thought, could just as well be the soothsayer in Julius Caesar foretelling your Ides of March. There’s something minatory about this eerily faceless head decked out in poverty but also in great ceremony—and yet there’s also the implication that if you had the heart to break the boundary of difference and at last simply see this person face-to-face, the threatening spell might dissipate.

Hammons keeps reminding us that seeing each other is not so easy. At the Economou Collection, there was an untitled work from 1996 consisting of a sequence of African masks—cheap knockoffs, not museum pieces—placed atop one another, bound together with wire and cord: masks masking masks masking other masks, and behind them a blank wall. And just in case you think you can see through them to the underlying reality, at the front of the pile, there’s a little mirror.

Who or what is reflected in the mirror that Hammons holds up to our culture? Keeping in mind what he told Jones about the beauty of an art that can be experienced as not just “mirror reflections,” it might be that the best mirror is an empty one. The mirror that fronts the untitled African-mask sculpture was too high on the wall for me to catch my reflection in. Is that really what the work is offering: an escape from the self, from identity? It wouldn’t be surprising. As abstract as Hammons’s art can be, it is often implicitly figurative, still very much about things—and about how things become magical when you can lose yourself in them. When you work on things, you transform them—the way the rusty, bent bottle caps in Air Jordan (1988) metamorphose into cowrie shells—but they just might transform you at the same time. A change can always come, if you manage to wait long enough.

David Hammons: The Private Public Artist

The staging of Hammons’s work at Mnuchin Gallery amounts to the punch line of a joke that has extended throughout his half-century career.

Flying high outside the galleries of the Studio Museum in Harlem and overlooking 125th Street is artist and perennial prankster David Hammons’s most famous work, Untitled (African American Flag), which reimages America’s flag in the Pan-African tricolor of red, green, and black. Whenever Hammons art is included in an exhibition, as the flag recently was at MoMA P.S. 1 during “Greater New York,” viewers are offered an opportunity to renegotiate what can be art. This is the case again in the recently opened solo exhibition, “David Hammons: Five Decades,” at the Mnuchin Gallery through May 27.

“Five Decades” is Hammons’s first survey in about 25 years. In 1990, he presented the solo exhibition “Rousing the Rubble” at MoMA PS1, and since then he has used Mnuchin’s space twice to show “Fur Coats,” in 2007, and “Tarp,” in 2011, with just a handful of authorized offerings in between. The idea for this year’s show started as a museum-worthy retrospective that Hammons whittled down to 33 works, which include a series of never-before-seen photographs. Hammons cut, for example, his clever 1988 portrait (How Ya Like Me Now?) of Jesse Jackson, depicted with white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, from the show. The exhibition’s earliest work is the 1969 black-and-white body print Spade (Power for the Spade); it concludes with a vibrant and earthy abstract-expressionist painting wrapped in a tattered red tarp made in 2015.

During a time when museums are dramatically expanding their holdings beyond Eurocentric art, the Hammons exhibition is a tour de force of the art of black life. For the notoriously private artist, this exhibit seems to have presented another opportunity for subversion: Is there a better way to address the hard realities of racism and wag a finger at the institutionalized art world than to present his work in a genteel mansion converted into a gallery between Madison and Park avenues?

The staging of Hammons’s work at Mnuchin amounts to the punch line of the joke that has extended throughout his half-century career. Hammons, who is 72 years old, was born in Springfield, Illinois, to a poor family in 1943. During the early 1960s, in Los Angeles, he studied art and joined an informal group of avant-gardists including Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, and John Outterbridge, of California’s Funk Art Movement. Hammons later became involved in the Black Arts Movement typified by groups like the Chicago-based art collective AfriCOBRA. In 1974, the artist moved to New York City and a Hammons-ian rule emerged: You never know what you are going to get from him, or where you’ll see it. He took over an electronic billboard in Times Square in 1982 to present cryptic messages to the public (harlem can you stand such beauty? one read); in 1983, he sold snowballs alongside street vendors in Cooper Square; in 1986, he covered five 20- to 30-foot-high basketball hoops with bottle caps, an installation, called Higher Goals, that aimed to challenge the imaginations of opportunity-strapped black youth. In 1990, Hammons was awarded the Prix de Rome prize, and in 1991 he won a McArthur “genius” grant. Still, Hammons keeps his distance from the art world as such: He rarely shows, barely grants interviews, and doesn’t have a dealer.

* * *

The conceptual artist challenges the notion of a monolithic blackness in the sculpture that opens “Five Decades,” Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like… ? (2001), which is comprised of three microphones set to different heights. Hammons evokes the physicality and cultural positioning of Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, and Michael Jordan with humor and word play: three black men who represent dramatically different illustrations of blackness. It also serves as one example, among many in the show, of the ways that Hammons is able to examine the human condition and uncover both trauma and transcendence.

For example, a wooden Bakongo sculpture uses satire to reveal a pause-for-thought truth about modern American society: Hammons painted the double-headed, nail-punctured dog orange and titled it Orange Is The New Black (2014). The Congolese sculpture, traditionally used to ward off evil spirits, makes you wonder who needs to be protected from the haunts—those swept up in mass incarceration or those who make and consume its watered down, pop-culture version.

In the corner of the gallery that Hammons personally arranged sits an untitled 2004 sculpture of a rock with a fantastically fresh fade fashioned from coiled hair swept up off a barbershop floor. The work evokes the ways in which the barbershop—where black boys and men often gather to form community—is, for some, as revered as any American institution. The process by which Hammons, like a barber, finely fixed nappy hair into a celebrated style also serves to question traditional politics of beauty.

Two mirrors, one shrouded in worn fabric (2013) and the other boarded up with galvanized steel (2014), purposely obstruct reflection. It seems that Hammons wants us to look harder at the conditions that shape black life because the truth is not always easily rendered. And, as with most of Hammons’s art, another message is just under the surface: The joke may be on us.

* * *

On the opening night of “Five Decades” a line of viewers hoping to glimpse Hammons’s art stretched down the north side of East 78th Street. Inside, an assemblage of stars in the contemporary black art world—Thelma Golden, Glenn Ligon, Theaster Gates, Kimberly Drew—gathered to pay homage to Hammons and his work. Hammons was nowhere to be found, as is typical. By now, his absence from the social and commercial spheres of the art world has turned into a kind of performance art itself.

In a 1986 interview, Hammons said, “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?” Thirty years later, the audience continues to show up, but Hammons might be having all the fun.

Laughter and Anger

A David Hammons retrospective.

A concise retrospective—a sampler, really—of important works by David Hammons, at the Mnuchin Gallery, on East Seventy-eighth Street, is a big deal, as Hammons shows generally are. Now seventy-two, the African-American artist has, by choice, exhibited rarely during the five decades of his now-you-see-him, mostly-you-don’t career. When glimpsed in person, he’s a watchful dandy sporting a colorful knit cap, but sightings are few and far between. Hammons so successfully shuns and fascinates the art world that he is almost an art world unto himself. The qualifier “elusive” clings to him. “Unique” applies, too. He is both a satirical oracle of racial fissures in society and a subtle aesthete, in forms of post-minimalist sculpture and installation.

Comedy and spleen seesaw in Hammons’s art. “In the Hood” (1993) is in fact the hood of a black hoodie, hanging agape, high up on a white wall of the gallery. It’s rivetingly clever, but may strike some, at least, as menacing. “Traveling” (2002), a beautifully atmospheric grisaille, nearly ten feet tall, was made by repeatedly bouncing a basketball soiled with “Harlem earth” onto paper. The themes of other works stray from race to class. Purple paint is slathered across the back of a gorgeous fox-fur coat, while two apparently lovely abstractions painted by Hammons are largely concealed by tattered plastic fabrics, reminiscent of homeless encampments. Like earlier Hammons shows, this one feels like a combined diplomatic mission from an ominous polity and a guerrilla raid by a force that departs as swiftly as it pounces.

The artist spoke with me, bracingly and delightfully, for a column in this magazine, in 2002. He wouldn’t do so again. “We hear that he’s in Morocco,” Sukanya Rajaratnam, a partner at Mnuchin, told me. She shrugged: maybe, maybe not. This is Hammons’s third show at the gallery since 2007. The owner, Robert Mnuchin, a collector who was a partner at Goldman Sachs, cheerfully acknowledges that his relations with Hammons are conducted, often by proxy, at the artist’s unpredictable initiative and always under his conditions. It is a tangy arrangement, strictly ad hoc. The works in the show differ from those in the catalogue, because Hammons dropped by the gallery at the last minute and dictated some changes. (“Difficult” is another epithet that trails him, voiced with rueful smiles by dealers and curators.)

Hammons has never had a regular dealer, but he plainly favors the Mnuchin Gallery because it’s at so far a remove from the rough streets that provide most of his material. (It’s in an Upper East Side town house, to which you are admitted by a buzzer through one locked door and by a guard through another.) His first two shows there, of ruined fur coats and shrouded paintings, coolly affronted the wealthy neighborhood, which could roll with it by regarding him as a sort of court jester, licensed by the lofty market value of his work. (Museums and collectors, especially in Europe, crave his sparse output.) He would reject that belittlement, of course, while leaving himself open to it. Paradox becomes him. Andrew Russeth, of artnews, has reported that two years ago Hammons bought a one-story brick building in Yonkers, which the city’s mayor, Mike Spano, announced would be renovated to house an art gallery. The thought of Hammons as a curator excites. Already, he sometimes incorporates other artists’ works into his own shows; for instance, a delicate abstraction by Agnes Martin recently appeared in an otherwise rugged installation in London to enigmatic effect.

Hammons grew up in Springfield, Illinois, the tenth and youngest child of a single mother. He did poorly at school, except in vocational courses. He considered becoming a commercial artist, and, with that goal in mind, in the early sixties he moved to Los Angeles, where he attended, among other schools, the Chouinard Art Institute (later CalArts), a hotbed of avant-gardism. In L.A., he befriended jazz musicians and was caught up in the ripples of the Black Power movement. His first mature works, four of which are in the show, are body prints that he made by greasing and pressing himself and others against paper, applying black pigment, and adding such symbols as American flags and spades from a deck of cards. The best-known of his works include versions of the flag in Africanist red, black, and green and “How Ya Like Me Now?” (1988), a large painting of Jesse Jackson with white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. (None of them appear in this show.)

In 1974, Hammons settled in New York and slowly gained notice for startlingly beautiful sculptures made of empty bottles that had contained cheap fortified wine. For the “Times Square Show,” a well-remembered populist event put on by the artist-activist group Colab, in 1980, he covered the floor of a space with glittering shards of smashed bottles. In the winter of 1983, outside Cooper Union, in the East Village, he staged a legendary performance in which he solemnly peddled snowballs, priced according to size. That jape is memorialized in this show by a glass sculpture of a snowball on a wall-mounted bric-a-brac shelf, and by the printout of an e-mail from a collector couple (their names redacted) who had it in their heads to shop for one of the original snowballs but reported that “not a single insurance company would cover it for us, and we called half a dozen.” For a similar burlesque on the market, “Concerto in Black and Blue,” in 2002, Hammons turned off the lights in the immense windowless Ace Gallery, on Hudson Street, and provided tiny blue key-chain flashlights for visitors. Reinstallations of the work were offered to collectors at prices scaled to the spaces that they wanted darkened.

A recurring theme in Hammons’s work is the seductive and sometimes tragic allure of stardom for impoverished black youth. It is addressed with painful directness in the outdoor sculpture “Higher Goals” (1986), in Brooklyn, which raises basketball hoops twenty or thirty feet in the air. In the Mnuchin show, “Basketball Chandelier” (1997)—a full-sized mockup of a hoop and backboard festooned with dangling crystals—evokes the glamour of the game. “Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like . . . ?” (2001) consists of three standing microphones of different types and vintages. The Mikes alluded to are Jackson, Jordan, and Tyson. On more assertive notes, two sculptures incorporate human hair that Hammons gathered at black barbershops. In a magnificent untitled piece from 1992, borrowed from the Whitney Museum, a vast, stilled explosion of projecting wires is covered with hair. (The piece molts when it is at all disturbed; Hammons maintains a supply of hair to repair it.) In “One Stone Head” (1997), a stone has been given a raffish haircut, suggesting a self-portrait.

More recent pieces in the show include amateur copies or pastiches of African masks and fetish sculptures, which Hammons found or bought and then smeared with orange paint. They are collectively titled “Orange Is the New Black.” Also lately he has extended the motif of his occluded paintings, but without paint, to decoratively framed secondhand mirrors. He fronted one, standing ten and a half feet high, with two sheets of battered galvanized steel. The sheets are angled relative to each other in a way that uncannily recalls classic Cubist or Constructivist composition.

The show has an exquisite soundtrack of traditional Japanese court music, played on koto and bamboo flute. Hammons is enamored of Japan and travels there often. In 2002, he fashioned a faux Zen garden on a flatbed truck and drove it around Yamaguchi. “A Movable Object / A Japanese Garden” (2012) rings a change on that idea with ragged chunks of asphalt heaped on a swatch of lovely blue fabric, by Issey Miyake, and mounted on a wheeled platform. Beautifying asphalt would seem to be no cinch, but the naked quiddity of the stuff, after a third or fourth look, turns cherishable. It’s typical of works by Hammons to repel at first glance and weave a spell on successive viewings.

Hammons’s strategic independence is inescapably self-conscious. It’s a quality he accepts for keeping his several identities—artist, cosmopolitan, American, African-American—in continual play. Infrequently, some of what he does is throwaway slight or arch—take, please, “Standing Room Only” (1996), a taxidermied cat curled up on a West African-style drum—but he is always original and never wanting in point or in purpose. Each piece intervenes in the normal course of art and society, creating a turbulence. He makes people nervous. Some white critics—such as me, when I first encountered his work—have reacted defensively, purporting to roll their eyes at the obviousness of the references and provocations.

But even if you understand a joke it can still be on you. The test is authenticity. The proof of Hammons’s art is his life, and vice-versa. His double-rootedness in demotic culture and in patrician sophistication brackets a social zone that he leaves void, anticipating polarized responses. Whatever you are, at this biting and elegant show, you become the ground zero of the lack and the possibility. 

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