William de Kooning

David Hammons at Hauser & Wirth

It’s been done before
This could be u

By Sola Saar

What is your authentic reaction to an art piece? What is your first impression, before reading what others have told you the work is about? The press release for David Hammons’ “Harmolodic Thinker,” a squiggly line drawing evocative of a composer’s hand motions, equally places the casual viewer, the art critic, and the student on the same plane to draw their own conclusions. It forgoes the theoretical context, the gallery’s interpretations, the artist’s educational background, the list of museums that have shown the artist’s work to lend credibility and give the art critic words to regurgitate, markers into which David Hammons, one of the nation’s top 10 selling artists, could easily play. At a certain point, don’t all press releases proffer the same format, check the same boxes of art world success? If stripped down to their main function, they feed the art market, not the artist.

David Hammons has not had a solo show in Los Angeles for 45 years, has eschewed large commercial galleries and who has long criticized the white, profit-driven art world, dedicated “Harmolodic Thinker” to the late Ornette Coleman, a jazz musician known for his spontaneity. Hauser and Wirth, a gallery with locations all over the world, would seem a surprising place for Hammons to make these kinds of statements, however the gallery’s location in the downtown arts district lends context. Hammons created a site-specific work: an encampment of tents with stenciled messages such as “this could be u” directly addressing the LA homeless crisis most visible near the rapidly gentrifying downtown arts district. Like his previous site-specific work, “Six Sites in Alexandria” in Egypt, Hammons continues to invites the viewer to deconstruct the boundaries between designated art spaces and the real world. Noticeably absent from the two gallery spaces were traditional artwork labels. Categories such as the year the piece was created, artistic medium, or a short blurb about the work, are forgone, forcing the viewer to more directly and viscerally form their own response to the work sans context.

HAMMO94651
David Hammons
Untitled
2018
Mixed media
Dimensions variable
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Instead open-ended phrases were handwritten on the wall in the place of titles such as “It’s been done before,” “this reminds me of…” parodying trite phrases people throw out when evaluating art and also giving new meaning to them when placed next to David Hammons’ work.

Hammons’ tarp series dominated the bulk of the two gallery spaces and underscored the exhibition’s theme of art world criticism. Initially he painted abstract expression paintings in the likes of William de Kooning, whose work is of high value in the art market, and cloaked tarpaulin, brown paper, patchwork fabrics, and clear plastic wrap over the paintings. The covering materials are reminiscent of freight shipping materials, yet draped over the paintings like Grecian robes, allowing only slips of the paintings to show through. Often placed on the floor, they are intentionally presented as though the exhibition hanging is in process, questioning the authority of curation and “finished” presentation in these spaces.

By including artworks by artists as versatile as Miles Davis, William de Kooning, and Agnes Martin, the exhibition challenges notions of authorship and authority in art. An expansive exquisite corpse created in collaboration with poet Ted Joans, includes contributions from artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals from around the world, including William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Bowles. The exquisite corpse, a game invented by the surrealists in which each person adds to a drawing to create a collaborative work, underlies a desire for communal rather than ego-driven art.

HAMMO96197
David Hammons
Untitled
2017
Mixed media
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

“Harmolodic Thinker” is also a dialogue with Ornette Coleman, the free jazz musician and composer who passed away in 2015. Coleman’s jazz philosophies were somewhat unorthodox but influential, especially to David Hammons. The essay on Ornette Coleman from Hauser and Wirth states:

“‘Follow the idea, not the sound.’ This statement by Ornette Coleman is an inspiration for David Hammons who reflects, ‘I was impressed with that. Follow how my ideas are put together, as opposed to whether the rainbow appears or the rain comes. I use this logic a lot. It moves in the realm of poetry as opposed to the actuality that people are used to or expect.’”[1]

With this sentiment, Hammons’ work is best taken in without the expectation of a finite conclusion of what the work is meant to convey, as with jazz or poetry, his is an art form intended to open up new modes of thinking rather than express an ideology. Throughout his decades-long career, Hammons has made art out of the ephemeral— selling snowballs on the street, or urinating on Richard Serra’s work. While neither of these concepts could be replicated at Hauser and Wirth, a single bowl of water in the place of a melted snowball with a note from an art collector who declined purchasing one of Hammons’ snowballs on the basis of it being too expensive to maintain, implies a larger problem in the art world— that it is preoccupied with the idea that art is ultimately a commodifiable object.

HAMMO91584
David Hammons
Orange is the new black
2017
Mixed media
139.7 x 40.6 x 30.5 cm / 55 x 16 x 12 in
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Speaking about his installation in Alexandria, Egypt, Hammons wrote in Artforum, “I was more interested in shifting the idea of how artists think about producing art. Artists are often more interested in the act itself. I choose artworks that are ephemeral because, well, life is that. It’s such a temporary journey.”[1]

With this idea I wonder why with visual art and prose, the intent is always a finished unchanging product, whereas with poetry or music, the creation process is inherently ephemeral, open to change, and performative. As opposed to performance, a gallery space has historically been a one-way interaction between a viewer and object, but “Harmolodic Thinker” encourages the visitor to transcend beyond these distinctions by doing the work for themselves, forming a meaning not based on what art experts would want you to think, but by inciting a response you might not know existed and giving you permission to access those feelings as you would in daily experience.