On ViewThe Drawing Center
David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979
February 5 – May 23, 2021
New York, NY
David Hammons is pictured in his Slauson Avenue studio in Los Angeles, his back turned from our gaze. He presses his right arm to a sheet of paper, raises his hips in the air, and balances on one denim-clad knee. The photograph, by Bruce W. Talamon, was taken in 1974—just six years after Hammons had graduated from the Chouinard Art Institute and began making his body prints.1 The position that Hammons’s body assumes is patently awkward, but nonetheless, there is something deeply tender about this image and the sense of corporeal care it evokes.
David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979 is the first show to focus exclusively on Hammons’s body prints. Occupying the first floor of the Drawing Center, the exhibition includes 30 of these prints, which range in tone from spiritual to sardonic. Hammons created these x-ray-like contact prints by rubbing his own body—and later those of friends and collaborators—in substances like margarine or baby oil and pressing it to paper in unique configurations. To be sure, Hammons was not the first artist to use the body as a medium: Yves Klein’s blue “Anthropometries” are often cited as a point of comparison.2 But Hammons’s prints were guided by a radically different conceptual impetus. The body prints—evocative archives of Black skin, hair, and sweat—are poetically and politically transgressive interventions into the meaning of embodiment and touch in a racialized world. In Frantz Fanon’s extrapolation, anti-Blackness is an “epidermalized” phenomenon of violence: its presumptive logic hinged on the demarcation of Black skin and flesh as fungible. 3 The body prints perform an errant politics of refusal. Collapsing the distinctions between the visual and the tactile, between print and performance, they re-situate Black bodies as sites of possibility, beauty, and expression.
The exhibition’s opening works, Pray for America (1969) and Feed Folks (1974), promptly announce Hammons’s political cadence. Meshing print and collage, the works pair two pleas to the national consciousness, the former executing its critique of America’s failures through a bitingly ironic call for pity and the latter through a sobering image of hunger set against the backdrop of an American flag. The south wall of the gallery features a series for which Hammons remade himself in the guise of assorted personae, including a man praying in solitude and a pair of men sharing a bottle of wine. Rendered in grease and pigment, works like Shine (1969) and The Wine Leading the Wine (ca. 1969) demonstrate the imaginative power of the body print as theater: not only is the act of printing itself a kind of performance, but the prints also stage a form of playacting in which Hammons is able to embody and perform as a cast of characters.
In a departure from the more figurative prints, a number of works move gradually into the realm of abstraction. In Close Your Eyes and See Black (1969)—which sets black pigment against gold leaf paper—Hammons layers body parts successively on top of one another, suggesting a corporeal echo that cascades from arms to torso to fingers. In spite of these rearrangements, the transfigured body before us maintains an affective vocabulary, as hands cover eyes in a gesture that suggests both terror and meditation. In the absence of the mimetic, the haptic comes into clearer view. The touch of skin against ground appears reanimated in the vacillation between different tones, textures, and shades of pigment—a quiet movement surfaces and suggests the sensuous presence of a body flickering across a surface.
The conceptual rigor of Hammons’s work comes to the fore once again in two Dada-esque assemblages titled Black Boy’s Window (1968) and The Door (Admissions Office) (1969). Momentarily eschewing paper, Hammons shifts the ground for his printing to elements scavenged from housing sites. Handprints are splayed on a glass door and window in gestures of frantic protest and entrapment. The light trace of an ear is heavy with the force of struggling against racialized subjugation. Everyday objects perform the violent work that Hortense Spillers describes in terms of “severing … the captive body from its motive will.”4 In these deft negotiations of the readymade, Hammons makes legible the grammars of the color line, etching its forms of spatialized brutality into the built environment of the gallery.
The exhibition’s second gallery homes in on prints dated after 1974. Bright colors and patterns abound in a marked departure from the earlier works. Equally colorful is the Hammons’s classic style of wit, which undergirds pieces like Itty Bitty Titty Committee (1979) and Bye-Centennial (1976). In the latter Hammons metaphorically bids adieu to the United States, which was celebrating its bicentennial. A silhouette of the United States rendered in the Pan-African colors of red, black, and green hovers over a collection of Black hands and faces whose ghostly countenances suggest both haunting and willful disappearance.
In Hammons’s own words, “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.”5 What does it mean then to mess around with the Black body, of which the white supremacist imaginary cannot conceive beyond the lexicon of the symbol? What is it to let Black bodies play across a page and fashion a new economy of meaning? Hammons’s dazzling archive of bodily play, expression, and emancipation reflects on the outrageous magic of being in one’s body. Though they are more than two decades old, the body prints still seem to dance urgently against regimes of racial terror, indexing an indefatigable rebellious presence.
Zoë Hopkins is a student at Harvard College, where she studies Art History and African American Studies. Zoë has worked in various capacities with Creative Time, Artforum International Magazine, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvard Art Museums, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- See plates from exhibition catalog David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979 (New York: The Drawing Center, 2021), p. 140.
- See, for example, David Hammons Yves Klein / Yves Klein David Hammons. Aspen Art Museum. https://www.aspenartmuseum.org/exhibitions/24-david-hammons-yves-klein-yves-klein-david-hammons.
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1952) p. 4.
- Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics vol. 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987), 64–81.
- “David Hammons: MoMA,” The Museum of Modern Art. https://www.moma.org/artists/2486.