IN THE LATE 1960s, David Hammons developed an inventive method for creating monoprints, using grease, pigment, and his own body to make the impressions. He was living and working in Los Angeles at the time. Over the span of a decade, Hammons produced a spectrum of body prints, combining the process with silkscreening and collage, introducing vivid color, and invoking the symbolism of the American flag. Evincing x-ray images, the works are at once figurative, abstract, conceptual, and performative.

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “Untitled (Man with Flag),” n.d. (grease, pigment, and white crayon on paper, 29 3/4 x 39 3/4 inches / 75.6 x 101 cm). | Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland. Photo by Alex Jamison, Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York

 

The Drawing Center in New York recently opened a new show featuring 32 body prints. “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979” is the first museum exhibition dedicated to the artist’s early, pivotal works. Photographs by Los Angeles-based Bruce Talamon are also on view. Beginning in 1974, Talamon documented Hammons in his studio making body prints. Curated by Laura Hoptman, executive director of The Drawing Center, the show gathers a broad range of works from public and private collections.

“From their earliest presentations, Hammons’s body prints were popular with the public, and Hammons sold and gave away number of them Such was the artist’s generosity during these early years that there is no record of how many body prints were made in total, nor where many of them are today,” Hoptman wrote in the exhibition catalog. “The more that come to light, the more complex the series becomes, with body prints incorporating objects like bits of lace, straw, and colored paper, and displayed on supports ranging from doors and windows to shaped Plexiglas.”

She continued: “Hammons’s body print series is an eloquent and consummate first expression of his artistic brilliance and, in many ways, these deeply meaningful works on paper speak for themselves. The body prints contain the techniques, concepts, and messages that Hammons would continue to expand upon in an array of mediums over the next half century, but their singularity lies in that they represent a first act of artistic and political bravery.”

Today, Hammons lives and works in New York. Hoptman first met Hammons in the late 1980s and has had a sustained interest in his work throughout her career. Before joining The Drawing Center in 2018, she was a curator in the Painting and Sculpture department at the Museum of Modern Art. In an email interview, Hoptman responded to questions about how she met Hammons, new insights about his body prints, and the historic significance of the works and the exhibition:

 


Installation view of “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979,” The Drawing Center, New York, N.Y., Feb. 5-May 23 2021. Shown, DAVID HAMMONS “The Door (Admissions Office),” 1969. Collection California African American Museum. | Photo by Daniel Terna

 

CULTURE TYPE: How did the exhibition come about? You said in the introduction to the catalog that when you arrived at The Drawing Center a Hammons body print show was top of mind, something you “dreamed of.” Why now at The Drawing Center and not at any other time at other institutions where you’ve served?

LAURA HOPTMAN: I first approached David Hammons in 1988 when I was an assistant curator at The Bronx Museum. I asked if he was interested in doing an exhibition, and he politely declined. Over the years, I have made it my business to ask Hammons to work with me at every position I have held: at MoMA, at the Carnegie, at the New Museum. He has never been inclined to do so, but over the years, we have had the chance to become acquainted. I have avidly followed his work, and have been instrumental in its acquisition when I was employed by collecting institutions. I am aware of scholarship on Hammons’s work, as well as most of the exhibitions in which he has participated. This knowledge has allowed me to note that there has never been an exhibition that concentrated solely on his first, most important series, his body prints. When I became the executive director of The Drawing Center, a small nonprofit dedicated to specifically to drawing, I realized that it would be the perfect venue to exhibit a portion of this body of work.

In the catalog acknowledgements, you note your introduction to Hammons in the late 1980s and state that “the numerous times I have met him since were the most memorable of my curatorial career.” Where did you first meet Hammons and what about the artist and his work, the body prints in particular, has drawn your interest over the years?

I believe that Hammons is America’s most important living artist, and one of the most significant American artists of the postwar era and the new millennium. My acquaintance with him began in 1988. In every encounter over the years, I have benefitted greatly from his wisdom in discussions about art, and his generosity in sharing information about artists he believes to be of great importance.

Because of David Hammons, I was able to meet and work with Senga Nengudi in the 2004 Carnegie International and subsequently in a Creative Time project in 2005. At the time of the Carnegie, Senga introduced me to Linda Goode Bryant who has become not only a great source of wisdom and information about Hammons’s and Nengudi’s work, but is also one of my activist heroes. In 2011, Hammons also took me to the studio of Ed Clark, an artist he admired and collected but one whose paintings had at that time, very little exposure since the 1970s. It was also because of David Hammons that I learned about A.C. Hudgins and his deep collection of Hammons’s work. I met A.C. a decade ago, and I have learned so much from him about Hammons, as well as many other historical and contemporary artists.

As an art historian, I can see the seeds of many of Hammons’s great achievements in the body print series. I can also see these works in the rich context from which they emerged; the assemblage artists working in L.A.—from Outterbridge, Purifoy and Saar to (Wallace) Berman, Herms, Kienholz and Conner. On the other hand, the performative quality of the body prints can also be related to the work of some of his contemporaries like Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, and Houston Conwill.

“I believe that Hammons is America’s most important living artist, and one of the most significant American artists of the postwar era and the new millennium.” — Laura Hoptman


Installation view of “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979,” The Drawing Center, New York, N.Y., Feb. 5-May 23 2021. | Photo by Daniel Terna

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “The Wine Leading the Wine,” circa 1969 (grease and pigment on paper, 40 x 48 inches / 101.6 x 121.9 cm). | Hudgins Family Collection, New York

 

I was going to ask whether Hammons was at all involved in the show. In the introduction to the catalog, you said he was not, but he is aware of it. Can you say more? How was he made aware? Would you have wanted his involvement? In what capacity? Or was “benign neglect,” as you characterize it, a preference?

Because I have spoken with Hammons many times before about the possibility of exhibiting his work, I know from him directly that he isn’t really interested in being part of exhibitions of his early work. Of course, I would have welcomed Hammons’s involvement and/or intervention in this project. I was not surprised though, nor offended, when this didn’t come to pass.

What was the process of identifying and sourcing the body prints in the show? Did you have certain works in mind that you thought it was important to include? A handful of collectors and a small group of institutions contributed to the exhibition, how well represented are the body prints in museum collections? Does the universe extend beyond those participating in the show?

The fact is, no one, except maybe Hammons, knows how many body prints are still extant. Recent historical exhibitions of the period like “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980,” “L.A. Object,” and “Soul of a Nation,” among others, featured groups of body prints, as did the surveys of Hammons’s works at Mnuchin Gallery and Hauser and Wirth, Los Angeles. They all provided information for this show. A large group of body prints was assembled in juxtaposition to “Anthropometries” by Yves Klein at the Aspen Art Museum several years ago for a provocative exhibition entitled “Hammons/Klein,” and this was helpful too. My position as a curator at the Carnegie, at the New Museum and at MoMA gave me the chance to see quite a number of body prints in private collections, and my friendship with A.C. Hudgins led to introductions to people like Ian White, Alonzo Davis and Bruce Talamon in Los Angeles, all of whom had intimate knowledge of this body of work. Finally, with the help of Isabella Kapur, a great research assistant, the internet proved to be key in finding work.

Is there a particular work(s) in the show that stands out for you, that you think is particularly insightful or important? Please name and cite why.

I think the biggest revelation for me is the work entitled “Feed Folks,” which was probably made around 1970. It includes an actual American flag which is the background for a body print that is cut out from a piece of cardboard. The work also includes some newspaper photo transfers and stenciled words. To me, this work really cements Hammons in a moment in American art history in the 1960s. Another astonishing object is “Untitled (Black Boy’s Window).” I first saw this work in the collection of Alonzo Davis in Los Angeles, maybe five years ago now. It is powerful, and so aligned with what artists like Betye Saar (who created a work called “Black Girl’s Window” around the same time), that I think it is a truly important work. Another personal favorite is the large double body print called “The Wine Leading the Wine.” Hammons knows his art history, and the pose of the two drinkers in this work looks like a detail from Peter Breughal’s 16th century painting called “The Blind Leading the Blind.”

“I think the biggest revelation for me is the work entitled ‘Feed Folks,’ which was probably made around 1970. It includes an actual American flag which is the background for a body print that is cut out from a piece of cardboard. To me, this work really cements Hammons in a moment in American art history in the 1960s.” — Laura Hoptman


Installation view of “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979,” The Drawing Center, New York, N.Y., Feb. 5-May 23 2021. Shown, from left, “Pray for America” (1974) and “Feed Folks” (1974). | Photo by Daniel Terna

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “Pray for America,” 1974 (screenprint and pigment on paper, 60 1/2 x 30 inches / 153.7 × 76.2 cm). | The Museum of Modern Art, New York and The Studio Museum Harlem. Gift to The Museum of Modern Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem by the Hudgins Family in honor of David Rockefeller on his 100th birthday, 2015

 

Did any earlier presentations of body prints inform this exhibition? If so, in what way?

I saw L.A. Object in the Tilton Gallery in New York. That show presented the body prints in conjunction with work by Outterbridge and Purifoy. It was great. The show at The Drawing Center has some of the same body prints, but also includes others that have come to light since then.

The catalog includes a great conversation between Linda Goode Bryant and Senga Nengudi. They share their early involvement with Hammons, their friendships, and experiences with his work and also reveal their assistance with making some of the body prints. What new scholarship and insights were you able to learn from them, collector A.C. Hudgins, photographer Bruce Talamon, or any others, who were interested in or directly involved with the body prints during the time period when they were produced?

Other than the fact that Hammons had help with the prints, one of the things I think we have learned about these works is how performative they were, what with the two instances of exhibitions where people could actually make their own body prints that Linda Goode Bryant details in her chat with Senga Nengudi. Seeing work in the flesh also reinforces how many different techniques Hammons used—from silkscreen to papier collée, to photo transfer.

Hammons made his body prints about a half century ago. Can you talk about how they speak to the contemporary moment, how they resonate creatively and in terms of the social and political climate around race, agency, and humanity in the United States today?

These are works of great formal ingenuity, but also of serious engagement with Black community of Los Angeles and the celebration of Black lives. They also engage with the politics of the day, and the racism embedded in the daily life of America. The celebration of Black life in America as well as the racism that still permeates our society continue to be pertinent and necessary to examine today. Both will be, until we, as a country, figure out a way to root out systemic racism in everything from our laws to our language. CT

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

“David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979” is on view at The Drawing Center in New York, N.Y., Feb 5–May 23, 2021

 

READ MORE about Bruce Talamon photographing David Hammons on Culture Type

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “Black Boy’s Window, 1968 (silkscreen on glass, 35 3/4 x 27 3/4 inches / 90.8 x 68.6
cm). | Collection of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky

 


Installation view of “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979,” The Drawing Center, New York, N.Y., Feb. 5-May 23 2021. | Photo by Daniel Terna

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “Spade (Power for the Spade),” 1969 (grease, pigment, and silkscreen on paper, 51 1/2 x 33 1/2 inches / 130.8 x 85.1 cm). | Private Collection, Courtesy Tilton Gallery, New York

 


Installation view of “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979,” The Drawing Center, New York, N.Y., Feb. 5-May 23 2021. | Photo by Daniel Terna

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “Untitled (Body Print),” 1975 (mixed media on paper, 39 x 29 inches / 99.1 x 73.7 cm). | Collection of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg

 


BRUCE W. TALAMON, “David Hammons preparing to create a Body Print,” 1974 (digital silver gelatin print, 16 x 20 inches / 40.6 x 50.8 cm). | Courtesy the artist (Note Hammons has rubbed baby oil on to his hands and face and will press his face and hands onto the paper. Note the Johnson’s Baby Oil bottle by his right hand in the photograph.)

 


BRUCE W. TALAMON, “David Hammons inside the Slauson Avenue Studio creating a body print in Los Angeles,” 1974 (digital silver gelatin print, 16 x 20 inches / 40.6 x 50.8 cm). | Courtesy the artist

 


BRUCE W. TALAMON, “David Hammons reviews body print, Slauson Avenue Studio in Los Angeles,” 1974 (digital silver gelatin print, 16 x 20 inches / 40.6 x 50.8 cm). | Courtesy the artist

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “Bye-Centennial,” 1976 (grease and pigment on paper, 19 x 24 inches / 48.3 x 61 cm). | Collection of Lonti Ebers, New York, Photo by Bruce M. White

 


Installation view of “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979,” The Drawing Center, New York, N.Y., Feb. 5-May 23 2021. | Photo by Daniel Terna

 


Installation view of “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979,” The Drawing Center, New York, N.Y., Feb. 5-May 23 2021. | Photo by Daniel Terna

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “Untitled,” 1975 (grease, pigment, and mixed media on paper, on two sides, 41 x 31 inches / 104.1 x 78.7 cm). | Collection of Eleanor Heyman Propp

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “Untitled,” 1975 (grease, pigment, and mixed media on paper, on two sides, 41 x 31 inches / 104.1 x 78.7 cm). | Collection of Eleanor Heyman Propp

 


Installation view of “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979,” The Drawing Center, New York, N.Y., Feb. 5-May 23 2021. | Photo by Daniel Terna

 

BOOKSHELF
“David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979” accompanies The Drawing Center exhibition and includes an introductory essay by Laura Hoptman, text and photographs by Bruce Talamon, and a conversation between Linda Goode Bryant and Senga Nengudi. The fully illustrated volume is available through The Drawing Center, where it can be purchased in hard copy or read for free online. “L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints” documents the exhibition of the same name at Tilton Gallery. “David Hammons Yves Klein / Yves Klein David Hammons” was published to coincide with the 2014 exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum. “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art” by Kellie Jones features an interview with David Hammons. “Pray for America” (1969) by Hammons, one of the body prints featured in the exhibition, served as the promotional image for “Tradition and Conflict: Images of a Turbulent Decade 1963-1973” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The work was presented in the 1985 show, illustrated the exhibition poster, and covered the catalog.

 

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