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SITUATED BETWEEN “Love in the Night,” by Yayoi Kusama and John Baldessari’s “Exulting Figure (With Coins) and Witness,” a masterful body print by David Hammons is on display at Christie’s New York at Rockefeller Center. Depicting a lone figure executed with white pigment on a black ground, “Coach” is a rare example of the artist’s unique body print technique and is estimated to sell for $300,000 to $500,000. Executed circa 1974, the work is on view in advance of Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art auction on March 3 and covers the sale catalog.

Three body prints by Hammons are also featured in the forthcoming African-American Fine Art sale at Swann Auction Galleries on April 6. The headliner is an untitled double figure with collage image from 1976, estimated to sell for $200,000 to $300,000. According to the New York auction house, it is only the second double body print by the artist to come to auction.

BORN IN SPRINGFIELD, ILL., early in his career, before moving to New York in 1974, Hammons lived and worked in Los Angeles. There, from the late 1960s to mid-1970s, he was part of a group of pioneering artists and jazz musicians ensconced in LA’s black arts scene. The artists, including John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy and Betye Saar, concentrated on the experiences of black people in their work, exploring issues of racial identity, and American culture, history, and politics.

Hammons worked in assemblage, created performance art, and also developed an innovative printing method that involved coating his body with oil and then pressing himself at various angles against a sheet of paper. Only after he dusted the surface with pigment did an image, or “body print,” appear on the paper. The positive/negative aspects of the images remind one of an x-ray. As the Christie’s catalog essay notes, the resulting images are “at once vague and highly detailed,” suggesting the complexity of identity.

The Hammons body print for sale at Christie’s portrays a confident figure. His lips are in a snarl, his hands are on his hips, and he is wearing a UCLA sweatshirt with cut-off sleeves. The essay continues, discussing the symbolism of “Coach”:

    “Although necessarily a record of the artist’s own body, Coach is much less a self-portrait than a portrait of the black male body’s fetishized physical prowess in the decade following the genesis of the American Civil Rights movement. Considered within the context of the hard-earned progress of the 1960s, Coach becomes a triumphant and defiant image. Whereas the artist’s body prints of the 1960s often portray the black body fragmented or obscured, Coach presents the unified, self-assured torso of a man whose occupation implies a degree of authority, implicitly even over white athletes. Interestingly, Coach is executed in white pigment on a black ground, a possible reference to the ascendancy of the black male to a position of hitherto forbidden, albeit limited, power.”

THE STRENGTH AND CONFIDENCE of the figure’s stance definitely contrasts with the posture of figures in other body prints by Hammons, which in many cases are in a seated position or contorted (see double collage figure on offer at Swann, below). But I would quarrel with other aspects of the essay, including the assertion that the work is a portrait of a fetishized black male body, symbolizes a figure with authority over white athletes, and that the use of white pigment references an ascendency to limited, forbidden power.

Rather than define the image solely within the context of the white power structure and view the meaning behind the work from the perspective of the other, maybe its about black representation. Perhaps Hammons intended to create an portrait of black pride, black brotherhood, and blackness. The essay ignores the fact that the figure has a UCLA logo emblazoned across his chest. The inclusion of branding is rare for Hammons, and therefore significant. The image may be specific and historical. Larry Farmer was a starting player at UCLA in the early 1970s under coach John Wooden, the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history. Farmer went to work for his old team around the time Hammons made “Coach,” serving as assistant coach from 1973-1981. He was named head coach of UCLA’s basketball team in 1981, becoming the first black head coach in the school’s history.

Rather than define the image solely within the context of the white power structure and view the meaning behind the work from the perspective of the other, perhaps Hammons intended to create an portrait of black pride, black brotherhood, and blackness.

Basketball inspired Hammons later in his practice. In the mid-1980s, he produced “Higher Goals,” a public art installation in Brooklyn. The work consisted of five towering telephone poles covered in bottle caps with basketball backboards, hoops, and nets attached at the top. At the turn of the century, Hammons made a series of three unique, elaborately adorned basketball chandeliers. He consigned one for auction at Phillips in 2013 and it yielded more than $8 million (including fees), the most expensive work sold at auction by a living black artist. He started making basketball drawings in the mid-2000s by repeatedly pressing graphite-laced basketballs on paper for more dense, dark works. Lighter works were achieved by sparingly bouncing the balls on the surface.

It is entirely plausible that “Coach” has nothing to do with basketball, or with sports at all. For generations, black men, particularly contemporaries of Hammons and the generation prior, have unofficially christened their male friends and family members with nicknames that are actually titles—captain, doctor, chief, and coach, for example. These men may or may not have an association with the honorific. Someone called Doctor is unlikely to be a physician, and Coach, may have a fondness for sports, but probably isn’t in charge of a team. He may actually be an engineer, teacher, or truck driver. The names are generally random, a sign of endearment and familiarity, and a reminder of overarching strides for achievement and self-determination in the community. The inspiration for “Coach” may have been someone Hammons knew from the neighborhood around his Slauson Avenue studio or another creative active in the LA arts scene, with an affiliation with, or just an affinity for, UCLA.

 


Swann – Lot 102: DAVID HAMMONS, “Untitled (Double Body Print Collage),” 1976 (pigment and ink on paper and printed paper collage on cardboard). | Estimate $200,000-$300,000

 

ACCORDING TO THE LOT DETAILS, “Coach” was acquired by the consigner directly from the artist. I reached out to Christie’s to find out more about the provenance. A media representative said that all she could add is the owners were “friends with Hammons and both living in Los Angeles at the time that the work was completed and acquired.” In addition to appearing on the cover of the Christie’s catalog, there are four pages within the volume dedicated to the lot and Hammons’s practice. An image by Los Angeles photographer Bruce Talamon accompanies the essay. Captured the same year Hammons made “Coach,” the photograph shows the artist crouching on a sheet of paper, making a body print.

READ MORE about Bruce Talamon photographing David Hammons on Culture Type

In a 1986 interview with art historian Kellie Jones, published in her book “EyeMinded” (p. 249), Hammons said he stopped making body prints after he came to New York in 1974. “I had to get out of the body prints because they were doing so well. I was making money hand over fist,” he said. “I was running out of ideas and the pieces were just becoming very ordinary, and getting very boring. I tried my best to hold on to it. It took me about two years to find something else to do.”

“I had to get out of the body prints because they were doing so well. I was making money hand over fist. I was running out of ideas and the pieces were just becoming very ordinary, and getting very boring. I tried my best to hold on to it. It took me about two years to find something else to do.” — David Hammons

He made a few more, while he was trying to decide what was next. Many of the body prints in “L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints,” the exhibition first presented at Tilton Gallery in New York, were produced in 1974 and 1975. The body prints offered at forthcoming sales at Christie’s and Swann were created between 1972 and circa 1977.

THE CATALOG FOR THE SWANN AUCTION in April has yet to be printed. Nigel Freeman, director of the African-American Fine Art department provided Culture Type with the information to be published about the body prints by Hammons. The trio being offered comes from two different sources. The “Untitled (Double Body Print Collage)” was consigned from a private collection in California and was acquired directly from the artist in 1976, the same year he created it. Hand-colored, the work is composed of pigment and ink on paper and printed paper collage on cardboard. Similar body prints defined by vivid color and the collage technique appeared in “L.A. Object” and are illustrated in the catalog that coincides with the exhibition.

 


Swann – Lot 100: DAVID HAMMONS, “Spades,” 1972 (screenprint on silver metallic paper, 1/50). | Estimate $30,000-$40,000

 

From a private collection in Rochester, N.Y., “Spades,” is part of an edition of 50. Impressions of this work were exhibited in “L.A. Object” (2006) at Tilton Gallery in New York, and more recently, “Crosscurrents: Africa and Black Diasporas in Dialogue, 1960-1980” (2013-14) at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. A version of “Spades,” numbered 5/50, sold at Phillips New York in 2012.

Hammons discussed the origin of the spade motif in his work with Jones (EyeMinded, p. 147). “I was trying to figure out why black people were called spades, as opposed to clubs,” he said. “Because I remember being called a spade once, and I didn’t know what it meant; nigger I knew, but spade, I still don’t. So, I just took the shape, and started painting it. I started dealing with the spade they way Jim Dine was using the heart…”

“I was trying to figure out why black people were called spades, as opposed to clubs. Because I remember being called a spade once, and I didn’t know what it meant; nigger I knew, but spade, I still don’t.” — David Hammons

Another print featuring three impressions of Hammons’s face surrounded by a dense composition of graphic designs, also comes from the Rochester collection and was acquired directly from the artist. A similar hand-colored body print from 1977 was sold at Swann in 2010.

Swann’s African-American Fine Art department is celebrating its 10th year. The forthcoming sale features a wide range of works by African American artists spanning the late 19th century to the contemporary moment. Hammons’s body prints are being offered alongside a group of works by other 1960s and 70s Los Angeles artists, including assemblage works by John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and Timothy Washington. In 1971, Hammons and Washington were in a three-artist show with Charles White at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Eleven body prints by Hammons were on view in “Three Graphic Artists.”

In a statement for the LACMA catalog, Hammons said, “I feel that my art relates to my total environment—my being a black, political, and social human being. Although I am involved with communicating with others, I believe that my art itself is really my statement. For me it has to be.” CT

 

READ MORE about legislative efforts to win artist resale rights/royalties

 

BOOKSHELF
Over the years, David Hammons’s work has been captured in a number of collectible catalogs. Published in 1991, “David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble” celebrates two decades of his practice. More recently, “L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints,” offers an historical overview of the artist’s practice and the Los Angeles assemblage movement of the 1960s and 70s. In 2014, “David Hammons/Yves Klein Yves Klein/David Hammons” was published to coincide with an exhibition juxtaposing the work of the two artists at the Aspen Art Museum. Last year, catalogs accompanied important exhibitions at Mnuchin Gallery in New York (“David Hammons: Five Decades”), a career survey billed as the first of its kind in 25 years, and the George Economou Collection in Athens (“David Hammons: Give Me a Moment”), the artist’s first major show in Greece, and first survey in Europe. Jones’s interview with Hammons, referenced above, appears in her book “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art.”

 


Swann – Lot 101: DAVID HAMMONS, “Untitled (Body Print),” circa 1975-77 (pigment and graphite on wove paper). | Estimate $60,000-$90,000

 


Christie’s – Lot 67: DAVID HAMMONS, “Coach,” circa 1974 (pigment on board). | Estimate $300,000-$500,000