April 2, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Drawing Back the Curtain: David Hammons in Printin’

David Hammons. Untitled (Kool-Aid). 2003. Kool-Aid on paper with terry cloth frame. Collection Alice Kosmin

“I think that art now is putting people to sleep…people aren’t really looking at art, they’re looking at each other and each other’s haircuts.” So proclaimed David Hammons in a 1986 interview. Today, over 20 years later, I am standing in front of Hammons’s Untitled (Kool-Aid) (2003), currently on display in the exhibition Printin’ on the second floor at MoMA. I am about to lift a curtain to unveil the work to an expectant visitor, thinking to myself how we could not be further from this statement than at this present moment.

David Hammons performing Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983, Cooper Square, New York. Courtesy Tilton Gallery, New York. Photo by Dawoud Bey

The visitor standing in front of me is waiting impatiently, his eyes transfixed on my white-gloved hands as I hold the curtain, preparing to reveal the work. Nothing, not even an outrageous haircut, could distract him. He is here with a purpose, intent on discovering what lies beneath. Untitled (Kool-Aid) is not “on view” at all times. Instead, it is covered by a white raw-silk veil that shrouds its form, only allowing the viewer a tantalizing glimpse of the neon-blue terry cloth frame peeking out from below. The wall label instructs the visitor that this work is to be viewed “by appointment only,” and supplies an e-mail address to arrange a viewing.

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).

Installation view of David Hammons at L&M Arts, January 26–March 4, 2011. Tom Powel Imaging, courtesy of L&M Arts

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.

David Hammons. Untitled (Kool-Aid). 2003

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.