Rather than putting people to sleep, Hammons intentionally puzzles his viewers. He teases his audience, holding their gaze by withholding information from them. Earlier today, as I wandered through the exhibition, I watched as the gallery guard carefully eyed a group of schoolchildren who were huddled around the work, desperately peering at the curtain in a futile attempt to make out the source of the pink-orange haze emanating through the cloth.
Hammons has a history of playing with his public, constantly oscillating between the ironic and the sincere in his work. In the 1980s, he sold snowballs in the streets of New York (Bliz-aard Ball Sale), and in 2002 he presented an empty, unlit gallery as a work, equipping his visitors with blue flashlights to help them fumble around the space (Concerto in Black and Blue, Ace Gallery, NY).
More recently, in 2011, he obscured exquisitely colored paintings by draping plastic garbage bags and old towels over them. In Printin’, his covered Untitled (Kool-Aid) hangs opposite Steps of Pedestrians on Paper (1960) by Stanley Brouwn, an artist whom Hammons admires—and who is also notorious for his evasiveness. Brouwn insists that his work should never be reproduced in catalogues and should be shown without the customary museum-label information of the artist’s nationality and birth date. In a society where information is constantly at our fingertips and whatever we desire can be delivered to our door with a click of a button, artists like Hammons and Brouwn deny our access to ultimate control. Hammons makes us work for the pleasure of viewing his art, makes us stop and think, arouses our curiosity. He demands that we go to the trouble of sending an e-mail to request an appointment and then return to the museum another day, at an allotted time, in order to see beneath that silk curtain. He creates a sense of ceremony around his work, challenging our expectations of what art can be and how we should approach it.
Over the past couple of months, I have had the pleasure of holding these “appointments,” arranging specific times for interested viewers to return to MoMA to view Untitled (Kool-Aid). I meet them in the lobby, take them up to the second floor, stand in front of Hammons’s piece, put on my white gloves, and roll up the raw silk curtain to reveal…ah, but that would be telling! You’ll have to come to MoMA to see the work, then e-mail me to make an appointment, and then, finally, you will find out.
Printin’ is on view in the Museum’s second-floor Prints and Illustrated Books Galleries through May 14.