"David Hammons: Concerto in Black and Blue"
Ace Gallery New York
275 Hudson Street
New York, N.Y. 10013
Nov. 14, 2002-Feb. 1, 2003
Hours: Tuesday - Saturday, 10am - 6pm
This problem was solved for me on my second visit by a pair of children, two boys, who came right up to me and offered to show me how to keep the light from cutting off. It seems, however, that to keep the flashlight permanently illuminated requires a child's agility.
The basic content of this exhibition is by now widely known. Concerto consists of a darkened gallery space without objects, which the viewer enters through a pair of doors, blue flashlight in hand. The exhibition's name appears to refer, at least in part, to the interaction between the tiny blue flashlight and the almost completely black space. What could be simpler? An empty space. Besides, as Peter Schjeldahl, in a profile of Hammons in the December 23 & 30 issue of The New Yorker reminds us, it's been done before.
But has it? Charlie Parker used to call his variations of Tin Pan Alley melodies "satires." And one way of looking at this exhibition is to consider its satirical aspects. One could think of it as a send-up on the notion of art as commodity, on the artist as peddler of goods. In this conception, what Hammons is doing in Concerto is calling into question - placing under erasure, as it were - the whole subjugation of ideas, and aesthetic ideas in particular, to the art world's need for art as thing-to-sell.
However, such thinking about this exhibition, as productive as it might be, tends to limit our understanding of - yes, I'll dare to use this word here - the grandeur of what this artist has given us. Hammons offers us here an opportunity to participate in a practice which the best art affords, a practice which is given here in a form whose metaphors are worn lightly and can be treated with whatever gravity the viewer desires. It is a practice, which, by eschewing art as commodity, reminds us that art, at its best, is about beauty, and contemplation, which often means that it is about nothing at all. Here the artist allows us to consider beauty and contemplation through the use of the most basic elements: light and color. Concerto in Black and Blue gives us these basic elements through the use of the simplest tools (the flashlight, the unlit space devoid of objects), while at the same time allowing us to engage in an ancient ritual. One prompt for this line of thinking is the timing of this show, coming, as it does, during the time of year when many people think about ancient rituals associated with religious practices.
Hammons seems to allude to this, by placing the flashlights in a well at the entrance to the gallery, forcing the viewer to dip his or her hand into the well for the light. The flashlight is rough to the touch, and the association with sacrificial pain is, perhaps, hard to avoid. The gallery without objects is reminiscent of a temple, something on the order of a grand cathedral or other space meant for contemplation. One could make too much of the religious allusions suggested by this work; after all, this is an art exhibition, and no deity, not even that of art, is the object of the viewer's engagement with this show. Nevertheless, if you walk through each and every room of this exhibition, as I did, you might allow yourself to surrender to an experience where time and space are suspended. If you are in the gallery alone, your engagement can be with contours of light, shadow, and surface. As you wander through each room, exploring the corners, the ceilings, the darkened skylight, the concrete floors, you might find yourself in a state of what the Zen practitioners call mindfulness. If you are not alone in the gallery, then the effect is multiplied. Each flashlight held by each visitor becomes a pinpoint in the darkness, suggesting the contradiction arising from the fact that even within community we each are fundamentally alone; that, as W.H. Auden puts it, each heart "Craves what it cannot have, /Not universal love/But to be loved alone." But however you engage this show, there is, in essence, nothing to think about while you're inside the gallery. Whatever thoughts one has about the "meaning" of this exhibition are those we bring to it ourselves. They are thoughts we have as we remember the experience. Much like this review, these thoughts may be suggested by the experience of the exhibition, but they are in no way determined by that experience. While we are inside the gallery space, there is "nothing." There are no objects, at any rate, to "see."
So when you walk into the gallery, flashlight in hand, what do you see? It would be unfair to say that you see nothing. There is, first of all, the blue light on the (presumably) white walls. But even this is a cause of some doubt. The light, of course, is blue. But it doesn't reveal a white wall. The light, on the wall, is a bluish white. It is, in a phrase, kind of blue.
I've chosen this phrase deliberately, fully aware that some might find its allusion obvious and corny. But bear with me. It seems that the artist himself is suggesting two nearly mythic icons of African American culture here, the music recalled by the exhibition's title, and the music suggested by the light and color Hammons helps us bring to the gallery space. However, there's more at stake here than a simplistic reference to "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue," the 1929 song by Andy Razaf, and to Kind of Blue (1959), the most famous work recorded by Miles Davis. Black and blue are highly charged colors in the cosmology of African American culture and historical experience. Night's blackness holds a unique suggestion of terror in black American history. One is also reminded that the ancestors of many families escaped slavery under the cover of darkness, in the blue-black night. There is a sense, then, in which the entire history of Africans in North America can be told through reference to these two colors. In addition, there is the sense in which these two colors can be seen as metaphors for the impact the peoples of African ancestry who reside in North America have had on the world at large. The blues is, after all, the twentieth century's paradigmatic art form. It is the first universal art form in world history. Everyone in the world sings the blues, and every culture incorporates elements of African American blues music into its own music when it wants to remake its songs into a recognizably contemporary musical expression. Concerto in Black and Blue reminds us of these facts, by its suggestion of the universality of African American cultural expression, especially as that expression is bound up with the contemplation of the colors black and blue.