David Hammons at L & M Arts
January 26 to March 4, 2011
45 East 78 Street (between Madison and Park avenues)
New York City, 212 861 0020
How do you respond when a justly renowned artist whom you admire creates a high-profile fiasco? I remember with total admiration David Hammons’ last exhibition at L & M Arts, the display of defaced fur coats. I loved that this very cutting political commentary was set in an Upper East Side town house, in the one neighborhood where such coats are worn. I recall his great Kick the Bucket video (retitled Phat Free, 1995), which stood out in the Whitney Biennial a few years ago. And of course I have seen photographs of his fabulous performance piece Blizaard Ball Sale (1983). Hammons is a major artist because he is boldly original and highly independent and because he tackles issues of race in an art world that is much in need of his perspective.
This show attracted an over the top review in The New Yorker’s Goings on About Town section: “You know it the instant you step in the door: here is marvelous, very possibly great art, a game-changer and a joy. . . Nearly every one of these works belongs in a museum, in a room of its own. Any other art juxtaposed with it would curl up and die.” And Jerry Saltz expressed similar enthusiasm in New York magazine.
We seem to be looking at different exhibitions, for the show I saw was bleakly formulaic. Hammons covers abstract paintings with cheap plastic garage bags, tarps or fabrics of various colors, sometimes cut so that we see the painting underneath, often draped down to the floor. Some of the paintings look like de Kooning-esque gestural pictures in color. Others are black and white abstractions. At the back of the ground floor the tarpaulin is replaced an old wooden armoire, with its mirrored front facing the canvas. And the doorway between the two rooms on the ground floor is partly blocked by a hanging translucent tarpaulin. Upstairs is more of the same. Maybe Hammons’s conception is that here abstract painting is quite literally under wraps, or that it is now visually inaccessible. Whatever! These have become dull clichés, which are not animated visually by the art shown.
The veteran color field painter Sam Gilliam has done subtler, more aesthetically satisfying free hanging abstractions, and the recent Robert Rauschenberg survey at Gagosian/Chelsea shows how varied informal use of materials can create compelling art. Were they by some young artist, I would say that these constructions show real promise. But devoting two floors of a gallery, whose bread and butter exhibitions include displays of Abstract Expressionist masterpieces is a mistake. Just as Frank Stella’s recent fascination with assemblage has not yielded satisfying sculpture, so Hammons’s real greatness as a political artist does not make him a successful painter.print