- David Hammons
- signed and dated 96 on the reverse
African masks, mirror and wire
- 56 x 9 x 27 1/2 in. 142.2 x 22.9 x 69.9 cm.
Jack Tilton Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1996
Breda, De Beyerd Centrum voor Beeldende Kunst; Antwerp, Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen; Haarlem, The Netherlands, The Frans Hals Museum, Postcards From Black America, 1997- 1998, p. 59, illustrated in color
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David Hammons' genius for investigating the conversation and oppositional forces between black cultural identity and past heritage - and the resulting portrayal of the juxtapositions that evolve - is never more clearly represented than in his arresting wall mounted sculpture Untitled from 1996. Hammons is perhaps best known for his installations and objects that directly reference the black experience, however, his work is deeply routed in the art historical canons of assemblage and the Duchampian 'ready-made'. Born in 1943 in Illinois, and having spent time in Los Angeles before settling in Harlem, Hammons' personal experience with the Civil Rights movement and the political and social energy it created is deeply translated into his work. Questions of identity – the search for it, the power of it and the implications surrounding its discovery – are fundamental to the atmosphere created in the works throughout Hammons' expansive five decade career. With an elegant fluency, the present work is confrontational without being aggressive, and introspective while still establishing connection with the viewer.
Hammons once stated, "When you cross 110th Street you show your visa. The temperature is warmer; you're entering a time-zone, you're following the traces of the legends – Parker, Coltrane, Robeson, Malcolm." (Robert Farris Thompson, "Hammons' Harlem Equation: Four Shots of Memory, Three Shots of Avant-garde" in Parkett No. 32, 1992, p. 20). From its apex in the Harlem Renaissance, this enclave of Manhattan has been a bastion of creative and artistic expression and the work of David Hammons is certainly no exception. Hammons has thoughtfully and carefully interwoven the tenets of the most central pillars of the Harlem Renaissance throughout his oeuvre. His continuous reworking of the association between materials, images and their connotations centers around two themes – the commercialism and divisive nature of high art and the struggles of the black middle class. In the present work, he assembles modern-day replicas of African masks, layering one atop the other, covering up one face and exposing another and ultimately ending with the addition of an outward facing hand mirror. The result is the only face to be seen in full is the one that looks into the mirror – either the artist or the viewer. In essence, the complex history of those who have come before is obfuscated but not erased and is essential to the development of the whole.
The objectification of the human form within Hammons' career began in the 1970s when he first began working with his own body in the execution of his important series of Body Prints. With a nod to Yves Klein, Hammons' Body Prints were the ultimate imprint of the existence of life – the lasting memory that someone had been there, crossed the paper and made an impact. These can be viewed as a form of self-portrait - the artist pushing the boundaries of creation with his individual form. Hammons became mystified with spades, the black form on a playing card that became a derogatory word used to describe African Americans. He incorporated the image of the spade into the body prints, marking the instant when the three-dimensional became more fascinating than the two-dimensional. From this emerged an exploration of wall mounted sculptures incorporating actual spades, a transitional moment for the artist as it would lead to his fascination with the physicality of a symbol and the powerful connotations of its existence in the viewer's space. As the artist notes, "I feel it is my moral obligation to try to graphically convey what I feel socially." (Lynne Cooke, "Yo" in Parkett No. 32, 1992, p. 47). The sculptural realm gave Hammons an additional tool in his arsenal to achieve this aspiration.
The present work recalls the Romanticist of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten, and his important photographs of African-Americans with African artifacts – as seen in Billie Holiday (1915 – 59) from 1949. As art historian and Duke University Art History professor Richard J. Powell opines, "most of the major Harlem Renaissance figures continued to create important work in the 1930s and later; their legacies were handed down to the next generation of artists; and their historical importance increased in the years to follow." (Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery, Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, 1997, p. 17). David Hammons has carried on the narrative of this group of groundbreaking artists – deconstructing stereotypes, re-contextualizing materials and visually stimulating the viewer with his transfiguring aesthetic. The transatlantic connections in Untitled, one of the earliest examples of the artist's mask assemblages and a motif he would continually visit throughout the decade following, are a fascinating and striking window into the consciousness of one of the most important artist's of our time.