by Lisa Heinis
It is often said that institutional critique is a form of unveiling the private and political mechanics of the contemporary art world. Artists expose, in one way or another, the subjective processes of institutions that engage with art. Of the many artworks by David Hammons that could be considered examples of institutional critique, he specifically plays with the idea of unveiling and veiling in two series: the Untitled (Kool-Aid drawing) series (2003 - 2007) and the Untitled series (2009 - 2015).

Hammons uses Kool-Aid powder to create the colorful abstract Kool-Aid drawings, which resemble watercolor paintings and sometimes include Japanese text written in pencil. The use of Kool-Aid powder by Hammons references both the clichéd connection between the popular soda and African American culture, and the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” derived from the Jonestown deaths. (1) Besides these more political associations, it might also relate to popular tutorials on different and low cost ways for children to paint with Kool-Aid. Unfortunately, Hammons doesn’t provide information on his inspiration, the way he made the paintings, or English translations of the Japanese writings. It is also clear that the works aren’t drawings, but paintings. Like much of Hammons’s work, the closer you look, and search, the more questions you will find.

Hammons clearly made a conscious decision to limit the accessibility of the Kool-Aid series in the context of exhibitions. For example, one of the ‘drawings’ was exhibited in Printin’, a group show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2012. The description of Untitled (Kool-Aid drawing) (2003) states that the work contains “mixed mediums on paper, terry cloth, and silk,” (2) but for the most part, the audience was only able to see the white silk. During the day, the work was covered by what has been described as a curtain or veil. A few times a week a member of MoMA’s staff would “lift the veil” for visitors who had made an appointment and came in through a separate entrance. (3) By adding these metaphorical hoops to jump through, Hammons forced the audience to move their schedule around in order to see the work, and hence, hopefully spend more time than they normally would with a single work in an exhibition.

David Hammons. "Untitled (Kool-Aid drawing)," 2004. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York.
David Hammons. "Untitled (Kool-Aid drawing)," 2004. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York.

The decision to veil the work also gives the painting an element of exclusivity. On the one hand the access to the work was limited to those who did—and could—take the time to come and see the work when it was revealed once a week. On the other hand, the covering up of the painting could be interpreted as an act of preservation, a way to not expose it to light, so the colors would stay intact—a treatment only the most precious, delicate objects receive. Other paintings in the series were not exhibited the same way, indicating that the veiling of the work was not out of necessity, but a choice by Hammons. At James Cohan Gallery only a few months later, another Untitled (Kool Aid drawing) (2004) hung on the wall next to other artworks, with a silk veil draped on the corner of the frame but not covering the work. (4)

Exhibition view of David Hammons’s "Untitled" exhibition at L&M Gallery, 2011. Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York.
Exhibition view of David Hammons’s "Untitled" exhibition at L&M Gallery, 2011. Courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery, New York.

The Untitled series, first exhibited at L&M Arts in 2011, also engages with the idea of “veiling.” The show again consisted of large, colorful, abstract paintings, but this time, instead of accompanied by a white silk veil, they were permanently covered with materials from the streets that many would consider trash, such as plastic, towels, paper, and garbage bags. The materials were ripped apart and draped—sometimes in layers—over the paintings. The viewer might attempt to find parts of the acrylic paintings hidden underneath, or might instead look at the beauty of the entire object. The act of veiling the frame and making its content almost invisible steers the focus away from the painting, and towards the canvas as an object. Traditionally, a painting hangs in a white—and supposedly neutral—space so that the viewers’ attention can be on the aesthetic content. Here, Hammons shifts that focus.

“White walls are so difficult because everything is out of context. They don’t give me any information. It’s not the way my culture perceives the world. We would never build a shape like that or rooms that way. To us that’s for mad people, you get put in them in the hospital. There’s no other place that I’d seen that kind of room until I came into the art world.” (5)

Because of Hammons’ rejection of the white cube, it is important to include the gallery in this analysis. L&M Arts is a high-end gallery, located on New York’s Upper East Side, an elite part of the city. Hammons is very particular about the places he exhibits in, and in his first show at L&M Gallery—a collaboration between Hammons and his wife Chie Hammons—he approached the gallery, and not the other way around. (6) Both of Hammons’ exhibitions at L&M Gallery have been described as institutional critique, so the choice by Hammons to exhibit these particular works in that space, with its tony location and elite audience, is definitely not a coincidence.

David Hammons. "Dirty Money," 2012.
David Hammons. "Dirty Money," 2012.

A year after the L&M show, Hammons made Dirty Money (2012), the only titled piece within the series. Here, the entire canvas is covered by a tarp, and only a small rip at the top of the frame exposes the presence of a painting underneath. Why Hammons chose to give only this work a title is unclear, but the title emphasizes his critique of the white cube, as well as the capitalist art market and its elite players.

Lisa Heinis is pursuing her Ph.D in Art History from the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels and is currently a Visiting Student Scholar at UC Berkeley. She is a research assistant at the Wattis Institute.

(1) In 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, more then 900 people died from a collective suicide by adding cyanide to Kool-Aid and drinking under the direction of cult leader Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple.

(2) Christophe Cherix, ed., Print/Out: 20 Years In Print (New York: The Museum Of Modern Art, 2012), 117.

(3) Lotte Johnson, “ Drawing Back the Curtain: David Hammons in Printin’moma.org.

(4) The work was included in the exhibition Everyday Abstract - Abstract Everyday, curated by Matthew Higgs (June 1 - August 1 2012).

(5) Robert Storr, Dislocations (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991), 55.

(6) Jerry Saltz, “Fur What It’s Worth: Roaming beyond the art world grid with David and Chie Hammons,”
The Village Voice, February 27, 2007.