Last fall, in my role of visiting art critic at a northeast college, I had so many conversations about the intricacies of process with student artists that I realized that I’m actually vested in regarding art as a form of communication and a vehicle for making meaning. The student artists demonstrated that they are well versed in the language of motivation, method, and ambition, and in using these elements of their process to both justify and explain their work. In the contemporary art scene, this feels very much like the air we breathe. Then I see an exhibition at the Drawing Center of David Hammons’s body prints made between 1968 and 1979 where method, intention, and significance are all in accord with each other. I was intrigued to see Hammons, a Black artist now in his late 70s, after learning about his magpie practice across a range of mediums, including a performance where he sold snowballs on a New York City street in 1983. He has a reputation as a self-fashioned, resolutely outsider artist who garners immense respect while never having settled on a signature style — thus clearly invested in process.
To make the prints, Hammons used margarine or baby oil, liberally applying it to his own body or someone else’s, then rolled or pressed the body against paper, thereafter applying charcoal or powdered pigment to the surface to create phantasms of presence. The resulting collages and prints look like photograms, or x-rays and he does a lot with this technique. Some, like “The Wine Leading the Wine” and ‘Shine” (both 1969) look like documentary photography. Others, such as “Close Your Eyes and See Black,” (1969) seem like surreal reconfigurations of the human form: A belly contains a face with hands over the eyes, and above the torso two slender appendages form a triangular apex above. “Sexy Sue” (1970) and “Untitled (Woman with Mop Hair and Lace Shawl)” (1975) are deeply meditative and intimate portraits that feel like the sitter forgot she was being documented.
But it’s the import of the prints that makes them unforgettable. “Black Boy’s Window” (1968) a silhouetted image of hands, face and torso pressed to a window with bars, illustrates that for Black folks the desire to be let in shows up in our stories as much the desire to be let out. Both are equally poignant. Thus “Astonishing Grace” (1975), where Hammons has wrapped his Black body in the United States flag, looks like a deliberately hopeful gesture. Then in “Untitled (Double Body Print Collage)” he confides in his audience a moment when two naked lovers have carved out a space for themselves for a deep and urgent intimacy they are partly lost in. I think this is what people mean when they talk about “Black love.” This image should be its emblem.
In the art scene we fetishize formal innovation and valorize unique facture, perhaps because we think of these elements of art making as heroic, or we thirst for visual adventure, or we imagine that the artist’s intuition is paramount. And then we see in Hammons’s prints that method and meaning can mutually enable each other.