September 26, 2023

David Hammons has had an extraordinary career. In 1963, when he was 20 years old, he moved from his home in Illinois to Los Angeles. He studied with the great painter and illustrator Charles White, a social realistic artist, and soon found his way into the midst of the burgeoning Black Arts movement.

Along with a handful of other young artists, he helped define the future art of black Americans. For him it would be conceptual and concise, a decades-long use of symbols – fair or unfair, positive or derogatory, self-applied or externally imposed – of black identity. He has made sculptures out of chicken bones, made a widely reproduced American flag in pan-African colors, and sold snowballs on the street. If there is a boundary between art as activism and art for art’s sake, he’s been walking a tightrope.

Perhaps his most famous series is the body prints he made in the late 1960s, inspired by Yves Klein and other students at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he graduated. But where Klein and the other children used paint, Hammons smeared his body – or, later, someone else’s – and only sprinkled graphite powder on the paper after making an impression. It was an impressive innovation. Instead of the vague, albeit graphic, smudges a painted body would create, these soft-edged, x-ray-like images captured every detail. They look less like ordinary works of art than like the Shroud of Turin.

But while the most iconic of them were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979” at the Drawing Center, which combines MoMA’s icons with a room full of rarely seen pieces from private collections and some wonderful documentary photography from Bruce W. Talamon is the first show to focus solely on body prints. And 50 years later, they couldn’t be more relevant. At a moment of heightened awareness of black culture, with a new generation of black painters at the forefront of American figurative art, it is worth looking back to see how Hammon’s work has retained its power for so long.

Start with “Black Boy’s Window”, one of the earliest pieces on the show from 1968. A real wooden window with ornate grilles and a dirty roller screen. On the back of the glass there is a screen-printed body print of a boy. The overtones are pretty clear: the boy’s hands are raised above his head as if surrendering; The vertical bars are a fence, if not prison bars. There is a distinct hint of violence.

The same print appears on The Door (Admissions Office) of the following year, a freestanding door with a large window. The fact that you can now stand on either side of that picture – the picture of racial exclusion, inside or outside, so to speak – doesn’t change how dull it is. But what keeps both parts from looking didactic are the hands. Full of details that simultaneously evoke fingerprints, they are a kind of abstraction of specificity, a general denial of generalization. They claim that whether you know his name or not, an exact human person has been pressed against this glass.

With that kind of specificity as an anchor, Hammons could dive into the most pregnant ambiguities without ever losing his footing. On the contrary, the more ambiguous the prints, the stronger their impact. An untitled play captures Hammons in a hooded winter coat and palms pressed together as if he were an undercover monk praying. In “Pray for America” ​​he adds the American flag as a hood. It is impossible to analyze – who exactly is he and what is he praying for? – but totally arrested.

In later works, Hammons left more room for sensuality, both in his depictions of the oiled human bodies themselves and in his treatment of art materials. In “Untitled (Double Body Print Collage)” from 1976 a naked man and a naked woman sleep together against a background of wallpaper-like patterns and blocks of red, gold and green. In a sense, this has all of the political and conceptual content of the earlier, more rigorous works. It’s a glowing, intimate representation of two black bodies as they are – but it also shows how distorted on paper with an exaggerated pelvis, side buttocks, and other details. But there’s also a distinct 1970s feel to this and the other lesser-known pieces on the show. They’re no less pleasant to look at, but they don’t seem as shockingly relevant or dizzyingly timeless as Black Boy’s Window. Why this?

Put simply, it’s the difference between conceptual art and normal art. In the 1970s, when more people participated and a wider range of colors and pigments became available, Hammons used body prints as another visual technique. In his earlier plays, however, he presented his idea – essentially that a black body was worth a look – unadorned. It was the body itself that carried the rich cultural and historical context of the work. That made the idea so brilliant.

David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979

Until May 23. The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, Manhattan.