Some artists show up at every opening or art fair and talk about their work until it’s drained of mystery. David Hammons, by contrast, has conducted himself like the Invisible Man. (ARTnews critic Andrew Russeth recently called him “famously, willfully, inaccessible” and his work “a sustained refusal, cloaked in beauty.”) But this month Hammons—the work, not the man—will be fully visible, its beauty entirely uncloaked in a way that it hasn’t been for decades. Starting May 18 Hauser & Wirth presents a selection of his pieces both old and new (including a sculpture titled Orange Is the New Black), with the exhibition unfurling across the downtown gallery’s many spaces. It’s his first Los Angeles show in nearly a half century.
Born in Illinois, Hammons drove a beat-up car to L.A. in 1963 and spent the following decade studying at the Otis College of Art and Design and the Chouinard Art Institute before departing for Harlem and, later, Brooklyn. Though he’s rejected most offers of gallery representation, rarely shows his work, and almost never does interviews, he’s generated a substantial reputation. “I decided a long time ago,” he once said, “that the less I do, the more of an artist I am.” His art is nearly as elusive as he is—with a style influenced by jazz and the Italian movement Arte Povera, his projects have included selling snowballs on a New York street corner, bouncing a dirty basketball on paper, and collecting hair from black barbershops.
Far less ambiguous than Hammons’s work is that many of the other African American artists who got their starts in L.A. alongside him in the ’60s and ’70s—Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, Charles White (who is the subject of a retrospective running at LACMA through June 9)—have begun to draw some of the attention formerly reserved for Ferus Gallery white boys. And we’re in the midst of an international surge of interest in African American artists of that era: The most obvious evidence is the Broad’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, organized by London’s Tate Modern and on view through September 1. Less heralded but no less important is the California African American Museum’s retrospective on the work of Ernie Barnes, a North Carolina native who played for the NFL in the early ’60s and later moved to L.A.’s Fairfax District. Barnes is best known for neo-Mannerist paintings marked by realism and exaggeration—chances are you’ve come across his Sugar Shack, a scene of a Southern dance party that became the cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You LP. (CAAM is set to host a Gaye-themed karaoke night June 13.) Barnes spent almost four decades here before dying of leukemia in 2009.
In his heyday, Barnes once said he was mapping out “the aesthetics of black America,” aesthetics that were built on the possibility of beauty. Catch Hammons’s show, and you’ll see how his work pursues beauty in a far more abstract and indirect way—by emphasizing how fleeting and complicated beauty can be.
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