David Hammons at Mnuchin Gallery: Sellout, or Seer? [Art F City]

Mnuchin Gallery
David Hammons, Five Decades
Through May 27th

After entering a system as powerful and monied as the higher echelons of the art world, how do we gauge the threshold between subversion and endorsement?

I wondered this as I wandered round the David Hammons show at the bourgeois Upper East Side townhouse occupied by Mnuchin Gallery. The exhibition spans two floors and traces the career of this pivotal black artist from the late 1960’s to 2011 (the gallery has put on two exhibitions of Hammons before this one). An artist whose practice is rightfully applauded for its relation of everyday beauty, black experience, and political-mindedness, his work now sits in a five-story townhouse gallery that is itself a contemporary physical manifestation of colonialist taste: highly private, highly securitized property with red brick and wrought iron gates. Inside, the gallery is stately and white walled with moulding to match.

At an earlier time in his life, David Hammons was practicing a certain breed of street art: donning a dashiki, khakis and pumas, he took a piss on famed mega-artist Richard Serra’s T.W.U sculpture in 1981, a territorializing fuck-you to the gentrifying of Tribeca. But it was also a simple, reflective performance. The sculpture, after all, was graffitied and flyered, surrounded by empties, a sort of inverse image of what post-gentrification looks like today. The maneuver in this context was meant to exist like any of the detritus and bodily excretions gathering and flowing in the streets of New York City, yet it was different because it was art—parodic, dissenting—a cosmological takedown of abstract monoliths.

“The way I see it, the Whitney Biennial and Documenta need me, but I don’t need them.” Hammons told Peter Schjedahl in a 2002 interview. (He was in both.)

Does Hammons not need Mnuchin Gallery either?

The blue chip gallery’s owner, Robert Mnuchin, used to work for Goldman Sachs. His son Steven will be Trump’s chair of finance. This affects the way people see the work. Though much of Hammons’ work deserves respect and the high profile venue it’s been awarded, at times the venue also blunts the impact of the work. However, one can’t help but ponder, did the artist intend this? Is Hammons purposefully chipping away at his own cred in order to critique the beast from within the belly?

“In the Hood”, a 1993 work hung on the first floor, in which Hammons attaches the torn hood of a hoodie to the wall may demonstrate all of this. Though the hoodie itself evokes an immediate visceral effect (now amplified by more mainstream significance it’s taken on since the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin) I initially wondered whether it was diminished by its own reproducibility. As evidence, see the picture of two white women smiling and bechardonnayed, posing below the hood at the opening (courtesy of the Mnuchin website). Not that all art requires reverence, but the image seemed to make visible the chasm between the two worlds of black experience and the affluent art world—as well as the chasm between Hammons’ early and later work.


Published in Art F City, May 18, 2016

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