The Visual and the Invisible

John Haber
in New York City

David Hammons

Does it make sense to call blackness invisible, even if it means the absence of light? Suppose that claim comes from a well-known artist at some of New York's most luxuriant art galleries?

The very claim would seem to exclude blacks from the visual arts. Yet in the hands of an artist, it can reflect on the whole notion of exclusion. It can turn the fiction of art beyond words into a newly meaningful silence. Take the more or less visible exhibitions by David Hammons—dark corridors near Soho, a mansion for women wearing fur, and, as a postscript added four years later, art under wraps. Each time, he goes past the role of black artist without ever letting one forget about blackness. David Hammons's African-American Flag (Museum of Modern Art, 1990)

House of blue lights

While some black artists draw lines, if only in chalk like Gary Simmons or only in black abstraction, David Hammons dares anyone to join the party. Where some play their cards close to the vest, Hammons tosses the deck in the air. Catch what you can, or get out of the way. If they keep one guessing about the artist, he disappears entirely into the work. So does the visitor, but into total darkness.

Only a most unseemly critic would give away the layout of Ace Gallery. Besides, it closed by the time I completed this review with Hammons's more recent shows. Suffice it to say that it covered an entire city block, with enough wall space for Robert Rauschenberg and his The Two-Furlong Piece, and so does Hammons's work. Ace had plenty of doorways, open and locked shut, and plenty of rooms, large and small. Just how large and how small, I had to find out the hard way—till I got to know them as never quite my own. Think of a maze tossed all to the winds in a heavy storm. Think of living in a bare room or out on the street.

I cannot even dignify one's sole aid and companion by calling it a flashlight. Think rather of the dim bulb from a holiday wreath, in flat plastic no larger than a thumbprint. One picked it up at the desk on the way in. One had to learn to direct its blue circle of light to keep from falling. Call those rooms a house of blue light.

One started by shining the light on the nearest bits of floor and walls. If one got lucky, enough distant points of blue light offered safety until one got the lay of the land. One moved instinctively toward those others, as the only sure direction in the dark. Thomas Hobbes once tried to imagine the first human bonds. The English philosopher found merely a harsh struggle, and he used that parable to put people in their places. He should have spent more time in darkness.

One learned to love the dancing blue patterns, like a video without the high-tech pretensions. A family had entered ahead of me. The children ran everywhere and back, and I missed it when they took off to another room. They, too, thrilled to the pleasures of a low-budget installation. Their father promised to bring them back the next day. They would have begged him for snowballs some years back, when Hammons sold them to passersby in Harlem.

In time, I got to know my way into other rooms. I could know that another had entered a small space before me, but not her face, much less her ethnicity. After she left, I sat for a while in a corner all to myself, with the bare light playing on the walls. I had returned despite myself to the opening of Invisible Man, only as street theater.


Clearly no one can accuse David Hammons of business as usual. He has disclaimed making art, like his early, gritty Body Prints, exhibited in 2006 without his permission. He has withheld art, reducing one witty gallery to exhibiting photocopies of his work. When he sold snowballs on the street, he avoided showing art. With his show at Ace he has, in a sense, pretended to exhibit. Who else would fill New York's then largest gallery with nothing but visitors—guided through the darkness by only the blue dots of a pocket flashlight?

Later still, the invisibility act keeps on playing. He may have pretended not to exhibit art, judging by rumors that surround a painting signed "Miles Davis" in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. His second authorized show in four long years therefore comes as a shock, but try not to worry: the first room lies empty, and he might have assembled the rest in minutes. A second room holds five mannequins draped with fur coats, and a patient walk upstairs leads to just one more. Most have their backs to the viewer or to each other.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal Fur Coats will have cause for alarm. Hammons has slit one coat, burned another, and defaced the rest with paint. One fur looks oddly fashionable in its tie-dyed colors, another bloodied. While he has defaced only the backs, from the front the old wood and wire mannequins look grisly enough on their own. One stands off in a corner, whether in shame or a refusal to engage. They rub in objections to wearing fur, but with lingering uncertainty as to which side receives the most mockery. Hammons wants his viewers angry at the system and smiling at it, too, but not too comfortably apart from it.

If the work links cruelty with class, it also locates that combination in the gallery. The spare installation calls attention to the Upper East Side mansion. So does the artist's decision not to sell the work. The fur could belong to someone dropping in from the neighborhood—and not, as in a Lorna Simpson video, by subway. In retrospect, his unlit gallery four years before serves as an advance corrective to Martin Creed's empty museum filled with light. Why make a point of art institutions apart from the dark underside of money?

Have you noticed? Old metaphors have crept back in, and so has race. Whenever an African American deals with class, the body, and exclusions from the gallery, one has to think of race. The fur coats make Hammons's dealings more obvious, if one can use obvious and Hammons in the same sentence. The material and its treatment may extend to stereotypes of black people as unclean, animals, an inferior race in a dark continent, or "the primitive," waiting for Modernism's "Primitivism Revisited." Yet with Hammons's wit and indirection, one hardly knows whether one has only oneself to blame for reading these issues into the work.

In the darkness of Ace, too, one had metaphors—homelessness, a blue movie, the human community, the falseness of race, the barriers to getting fancy exhibitions, and Ralph Ellison. With all these, Hammons lets anyone in on the experience, but one has to learn to appreciate it for oneself. In a work at the Studio Museum, Hammons has cracked open a garish, pink piggy bank to reveal cowries, the shells that in parts of Africa have circulated as money, as decoration, or as ritual. He cracks apart cartoon images of blackness, but he does not do the work of discarding them. It is instead up to others to pick up the pieces, worthless as they seem, and to rejoin the circuit.

Begging for a fight

So can one call blackness invisible—or perhaps, as with Kara Walker, only a silhouette? Of course, any claim about race in America is begging for a fight. And art has a way of fighting back. It reflects larger struggles, brings them freshly to light, and gives them a painful urgency. Perhaps one has to know first where one stands? And suppose that falls in the middle of an installation? That puzzle, too, suggests what art can do when it gets rolling, bringing a precise eye and hand to old definitions.

With art, things are bound to get messy, so consider what may feel wrong about the idea of invisibility. Hardly a decade ago, black artists were supposed to get in your face, much as in "The Black Male" at the Whitney over a decade ago, while now the Studio in Museum in Harlem tries to speak of "post-black art" and of black art "Freestyle." Yet art everywhere still presses for "shock" rather than invisibility. Competition for exhibition space and a visitor's attention calls for brighter lights and louder voices. And then one has the matter of exhibitions in New York's most spacious galleries. This artist has it made.

Besides, visual art sounds visible by definition. Worse, tradition considers the concerns of art universal, not special to anyone or to any group. In any event, when I attribute a claim to artists, even a claim to invisibility, I must refer to essays and interviews, to critical trends, or to my own interpretation—none strictly identical to the work and all as evanescent as an installation.

That settles it, right? Well, they might instead unsettle such familiar ideas as art, identity, blackness and visibility. Consider that all these echo controversy beyond art. Conservatives have attributed gaps in income and education to a black's own attitudes about family and achievement. They fear black males and invisibility enough to call for police profiling. They call discrimination a thing of the past, except when it takes the form of affirmative action.

I find all these conservative claims abhorrent—or at least dangerously incomplete. Here, however, I wish to note simply how they indicate contested ground. They also define how blacks ought to see themselves and how they should appear to others. Hammons puts everything under suspicion, even his dedication to black experience. Yet he makes it impossible ever to cast aside the role of black artist.

Hammons's invisibility and lack of obvious income take on new meaning these days, with artists on the style pages of newspapers and magazines. Even those notable exhibition spaces come with controversy. They act out power structures in and beyond the "art world"—that makes for narrow roles and invisible careers. An artist has a lot to recover.

Blind spots

One attains a definition of oneself through others, but the powerful get to say who counts as the Other. By speaking out for others in this very review, I repeat the appropriation. And yet the definitions that emerge can get still reshuffled. The paradoxes, controversies, and shifting roles that emerge all but cry out for art.

Conversely, Hammons exhibits so infrequently and elusively that he may well have sought out Ace, several long blocks west of Soho's fading scene. I found it eerily quiet the Saturday after a glowing Times review. As one critic put it, Hammons seemed to have arrived in secret. As if to rub it in, he will not so much as allow press images. I have had to illustrate this article with an older work recently on display in "Out of Time," at the Museum of Modern Art.

Philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Arthur Danto have asked artist and viewer to turn aside from the merely seen to seek ideas. They had no idea of the roots of mere ideas in political and physical identity. Hammons finds it in letting one, literally, bang one's head against the wall.

From the New Critics to Postmodernism, from Walter Benjamin to Rosalind Krauss and Roland Barthes, theorists have announced the death of the author or the end of authenticity. They had no idea how hard and how lovingly artists must fight to disengage themselves from blackness and from the work. Hammons lets a viewer of any race share a disturbing fashion parade or a light show of one's own making—but to whom does it really belong?

Hammons has me uneasy praising his shows at all, even when he tries something as halfway respectable as new media. Everything seems so straightforward, despite or because of its remarkable visceral impact. With the fur coats, too, nothing has me quite so surprised and laughing as stumbling in the dark. Hammons's reticence invests the show with hype of its own. However, he obliges one to face more than one "obvious" meaning at once—or, like the mannequin in a corner, to turn away.

Art can assert both visibility and blindness. It can challenge one to define blackness and dare to erase it. In New York once again, Hammons finds a space between the visual and the invisible.

A postscript: under wraps

Four years later, Hammons still keeps his art under wraps. He has blackened it, like his American flag in the colors of the African National Coalition, perhaps not so very far after all from the recovery of a battered flag for Thornton Dial. He has effaced it, like his spray-painted fur or a collage with dung. He has withheld it in favor of photocopies or eliminated it entirely, left the room, and turned out the lights. Now he is painting, of all things—and exhibiting the wraps. Then he rips just enough holes in the wrapping to give his privileged audience a peek.

Hammons again takes two floors of an Upper East Side brownstone, with a grand staircase and abstraction on the walls. He adopts the scale and gestures of a modern master, along with the dark colors and silvery finish of a Lower East Sider. At least I think he does, for he has left the canvases behind tarps or, in one case, a tall dresser. He cannot even be bothered to hang one painting, which leans against the wall. When Hammons made his reputation as a trickster, he may have avoided making art or obliged his buyers to watch it disappear. Now he supplies the trappings of fine art, but as a succession of disappearing acts.

The acts start with the artist, so elusive that a dealer purported to stage a show without him or his work. It can include the gallery, as with the caverns of a Soho space in the dark, or the absence of a press release. It extends even to gallery-goers, who had to navigate that Soho space with thumb-sized flashlights. Here it continues upstairs, where one plastic sheet covers only another, while another covers only the white of the wall. Right around the time I reached it, I realized that I had passed through much the same faded curtain downstairs in moving between rooms.

Hammons has a flair for one-liners, but the jokes can grow devious without one's noticing. They all have a way of confusing conceptual art and experience. Those snowballs might have been art, but his later black sculpted basketball hoops converted an exhibition space into an empty playground, and the flashlights made a gallery a real one. Perhaps the combination of painting and wrap is the painting, in layered colors and textures. Or perhaps the wrapping is left over shipping materials and drop cloths from repainting the gallery between shows. Its tears could stand for covering, revelation, or action painting.

If the latter, it is perfectly acceptable but undistinguished painting—or so I think, based on what I could see. Regardless, the trick is on the viewer, and Hammons is a sly enough trickster to let one in on the joke. One feels slightly embarrassed whether one lingers over the paintings or not. The bureau, too, suggests moving day or the status of painting itself as furniture for the privileged. Those who supply the labor are an unspoken subject of the installation, conspicuous by their absence. Race and class are just part of the game, and the wrapping comes in black and white.

As always, he also makes his very existence hard to pin down. That leaves a critic, not to mention the rest of his potential public, with a problem. One can contribute to a black artist's invisibility or deny it against his own wishes. Either way, one excludes, demeans, and appropriates him. As always with art, however, when faced with a puzzle, why not talk about it? When I spot a paradox, I am backing the artist.

BACK to John's arts home page

David Hammons's "Concerto in Black and Blue" ran at Ace Gallery through February 1, 2003. The fur coats appeared at L&M through March 10, 2007, and the wraps through February 26, 2011. A passionate and informed review by Jerry Saltz states that Hammons collaborates on the fur with his wife, Chie. As usual with the elusive artist, I have no way of verifying this, especially as he apparently ordered the gallery to dispense with a press release. But then Hammons thrives on information withheld.


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