Sprawling over several large galleries and the building’s central courtyard, encompassing both new works and a smattering of greatest hits, Hammons’ new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth is considerably more massive than the delicate installation of hair and wire that he set out, like a row of cattails, along the edge of Venice Beach in 1977. The build-up to the show was at once secretive and highly anticipatory. Even the press release is enticingly evasive, just a one-page flow-chart of scribbled lines, like an abstracted musical score, with the text “This exhibition is dedicated to Ornette Coleman, Harmolodic Thinker,” an allusion to Coleman’s innovative philosophy of free jazz. Although Hammons has long admired (and emulated) the detached attitude and experimental rigor of jazz musicians, his dedication to Coleman is notable, as if to explain that it’s not the notes themselves, it’s the idea behind them. As part of the homage, the show features two outfits worn by Coleman, which stand amid the artworks in clear plastic tubes, exuding the lustrous presence of vintage royal robes. One is gold, the other, a lush teal, black and magenta grid, like a shimmering sartorial riff on Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.
At the press opening for the sprawling exhibition, Hauser & Wirth partner and Vice President Marc Payot explained gleefully: “It’s very much his universe. The show is free-floating between recent pieces and historic. David... worked years to put this together,” he added. “It’s all him.” In an email exchange afterward, Payot described the process of working with the artist on the exhibition. “Hammons really is like a master jazz musician,” he observes. “He makes work that is incredibly precise, but also improvisational and always multi-layered. And that approach extends into how he addresses the space where his work appears. So it made total sense that he would be in command of the work on site, and place it as he saw fit, in real time. For us it was natural to have the artist work on site and determine which things would be presented, and how. Like Ornette Coleman, to whom David has dedicated his show, he’s a ‘harmolodic thinker.’”
So what exactly does the show contain? Quite a lot. Among the classic works are one of his signature stone heads, that is an oblong stone affixed with short black hair, along with photos documenting the African American barber giving it a haircut. There are several African masks, one with its protruding sculpted hair sanded down, displayed with the resulting sawdust (and a comb), another splashed with orange paint and titled, in a typical dark pun, Orange is the New Black. On the subject of puns and hair, there is a plush chaise lounge, bedecked with snippets of black hair, titled Hair Relaxer. One room offers a half dozen of Hammons’ repurposed fur coats, assembled as if in conference; the onetime status symbols (and animal pelts) are smeared with crude expressionist splotches of pink, lavender or yellow paint, or visibly charred; transformed from agents of one type of cultural value system to another. A looming, orange-painted mask hovers behind one of them, like a backpack or a pair of wings, or a menacing shadow.
On one wall is a set of photos documenting various historical works, among them a trio of battered fur coats splayed out on tree branches, a group of “toilet trees” in which he affixed Duchampian urinals to tree trunks, and a New York City subway gate that’s been adorned with condoms (titled, musically, Four Beats to the Bar). In one image, a pile of art books is stacked like a jack beneath a vandalized urban car that is missing its wheel. Just how useful is art history, he seems to ask. A similar concept animates one of the largest current installations in the show, a room of vividly arcane scales each set with a stack of art history books, on figures like Goya, Munch and Serra, as if to quantify the aesthetic knowledge and value contained within.