In the summer of 1982 I had an internship at the Studio Museum in Harlem. One day I was walking from the administrative offices in the front of the building to the artist-in-residence studios at the back when I noticed a framed print depicting the late dramatist and poet Amiri Baraka. Kellie Jones, who was an assistant curator at the museum at the time, happened to walk by as I was staring at the print. “Why do they have a picture of my father in the hallway?” she said, bemused. “Right, your father,” I responded. Then I realized that Baraka’s given name was LeRoi Jones. Embarrassed, I headed to the AIR studios to give David Hammons his monthly stipend check.
Although I later remembered the saxophone music I heard coming from the AIR studios that summer as being played by David Hammons, it was actually being played by the late sculptor Terry Adkins, Hammons having been in residence the year before. I now realize that, even though my dates were off, I’ve associated Hammons with jazz since before I knew his work. He certainly dressed like a jazz musician: beautiful suits, polished shoes, hats. For example, check out his mohair coat, scarf, and multicolored knitted mittens in the photos of his Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983). Hammons was always “clean,” though his materials—preserved chicken wings, hair gathered from barbershop floors, grease, empty Night Train bottles and coal—were often “dirty.”
Repetition. Rather, “takes.” Jean-Michel Basquiat, CPRKR (1982). Did Hammons and Basquiat ever meet? I want that picture. In a catalogue for a sale of Warhol photographs there is an image of Basquiat smiling at André Leon Talley and some other queens. Chile, just to have been in the room …
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Blacknuss (1971). To riff on a poster by the artist Carl Pope: “African-Americans, Negroes, Blacks and Post-Blacks All Agree: The Use of the ‘U’ Instead of the ‘E’ Changes Everything!” Change the joke and slip the yoke. Thelonious Monk’s composition “Ugly Beauty,” for example.
Basketball drawings. Dirt as “matter out of place.” Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966).1 Harlem dirt. Traveling dirt. Funky dirt. Nasty dirt.
Turn me loose
We shall overcome
Where’d you get that funk from, huh?
Went looking for the art and we were the art.
A body print by David Hammons of soft green dicks. O’Jays, “For the Love of Money.”2 Mean green.
Her lecture started offstage. I didn’t see her beforehand so I thought I was hearing her voice over Skype. Halfway through the talk she came to the podium in a beautiful red suit and a black hat with a feather. I thought of Richard Pryor because I’d just seen a concert movie where he wore a dazzling red tuxedo, black shirt, bow tie, and gold shoes. This was in 1982, after his star turn in the movie The Wiz. What is the impulse to be “clean” as you perform “dirty”? (Unless your performance is based on a kind of abjection—Moms Mabley, for example?)3
She was absent and present at the same time, like Hammons: famously a no-show but sitting outside on a bench during the opening with his back to the museum because he is not for the museum, he is against it. Dissing the location. “DISLOCATIONS,” MoMA (1991).
To not be easy. “Once the white folks started buying the work Hammons started making something else.”4 Miles playing with his back to the audience (also a better position to cue the band from). We’re the band.
Is there black abstraction or just abstraction? Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue (2002), for example. Darby English’s How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007), for example.5
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1 “If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt, then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is a system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. … Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing.” Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966), 36–37.
2 “For the love of money / People will steal from their mother / For the love of money / People will rob their own brother / For the love of money / People can't even walk the street / Because they never know / Who in the world they're gonna beat / For that lean, mean, mean green / Almighty dollar, money.”
3 “Let Moms tell me what happened to me in the good old days. You couldn’t do nothing you wanted to do. And you better not open your mouth, and if you did they’d knock your brains out. They hit my brother so much … his lips were way down here. Looked like he had on a turtleneck sweater. … Think of somebody picking somebody you got to spend the rest of your days with. Make no difference what kind of condition it was in, if Daddy said so then that was it. I wasn’t nothing but a child. Nothing but a child, fourteen going on fifteen years old, and just as cute as I want to be. Hair hanging down my back—see I’m half Indian, and the other half, the beauty parlor takes care of that!—and this old, dead, puny, moldy man. I mean an old man. Santa Claus looked like his son. He was older than his mother … and his brother was older than him, and he married a girl of thirteen. Didn’t live more than five days. [Even when he was dead they couldn’t get] the smile off his face.” Moms Mabley, Live at the Apollo, Paula Records, 1994, compact disc.
4 Kellie Jones, “On David Hammons, Or the Presence of Art and the Absence of the Artist” (Value Talks, March 14, 2014).
5 “It is now less convincing than ever to speak of black artists as if they share an enterprise. The work of black artists for whom questions of culture are a subject but visualizing or representing race/identity is not an end obligates us to displace race from its central location in our interpretations of this work. … It obligates us to expand our view of the many contested fields of possibility out of which ‘black art’ is seen to come, so that we might accommodate in our interpretations all that the work engaged in order to be possible.” Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 11–12.