David Hammons

Body Prints, 1968–1979

The Drawing Center
35 Wooster Street
Open by appointment
New York
Feb 5th 2021 — May 23rd 2021

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Across a group of intimate silver gelatin print photographs, a young David Hammons leans shyly against the doorway of his studio; rubs vaseline on his hands in preparation for a print; and beatifically presses his cheek to the sheet as if in prayer. Photographed by Bruce W. Talamon at Hammons’s West Slauson Avenue studio—as well as the studio at LaSalle Street which he shared with artist Senga Nengudi—the prints serve as documents of the artist's early experiments with the body. These photographs in turn presage the later sculptures made of matter sourced from or material used by the Black body. “Body Prints, 1968-1979,” at the Drawing Center, is the first museum show to take as its subject Hammons’s early paper-based works, bringing together the most comprehensive collection of his monoprints and collages to date.

Hammons began creating the monoprints during his time at the Otis School of Art in the late 1960s to early 70s. Made by greasing his own body or that of another person with baby oil, followed by applying charcoal or powdered pigment, and further collaged with paper, silkscreened, or even drawn upon, the resulting radioscopic images—with saturated light grey outlines and dark grey details—depict ordinary moments, such as prayer or drinking. The show also includes print experiments in superimposition. The pigment-on-gold-coated-paperboard Close Your Eyes and See Black (1969) reveals the negative of a face in the abdomen of a body.

Fittingly, the works which extend into the third dimension draw parallels between the planar limits of the print and the societal ceiling imposed upon Black Americans in exclusionary systems ranging from home ownership to education. Black Boy’s Window (1968) [pictured], is printed on a windowpane salvaged from his own demolished home, complete with crossbars and shade. The same print recurs in The Door (Admissions Office) (1969): a pair of handprints are pressed to the glass, as if trying, in vain, to enter.

Elsewhere, symbols proliferate, the American flag recurs as backdrop or shroud. In Spade (Power for the Spade) (1969), Hammons puns on the triplicate meaning of the word “spade”: the suit in a deck of playing cards; the gardening tool used to dig; and a derogatory term aimed at African Americans. Though the work takes the composition of a playing card, one fist of the figure is raised and pressed tightly against the sheet in the Black power salute. —Lisa Yin Zhang

David Hammons, Black Boy’s Window, 1968. Silkscreen on glass, 35 3/4 x 27 3/4 inches. Collection of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky.