David Hammons: Printing the Political, Black Body
by Apsara DiQuinzio
In 1963, when he was just twenty years old, David Hammons moved to Los Angeles from his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. For the next five years he studied art while attending several schools in LA, among them Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) and the Otis Art Institute, where he took a drawing class with the painter and printmaker Charles White. Prior to meeting White, Hammons says he had never encountered a successful black artist, and thus White made a great impression on the young artist. Hammons was particularly drawn to White’s figurative work that possessed “an agonized kind of look.” (1) During this nascent period of his artistic practice, Hammons became involved with the Black Arts Movement (BAM), centered in the Watts neighborhood from 1965 to 1976. Work associated with the BAM was characterized as image-based and socially motivated, or as art historian Kellie Jones notes, “[it was] figurative and commented on U.S. racism.” (2) Hammons was among the leading figures to come out of this movement in the late 1960s, frequently exhibiting at the Brockman Gallery and Gallery 32.

From the start Hammons’s work was politically driven and rooted in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements—perhaps an inescapable aspect of his coming of age in and around Watts during the 1960s. It hardly seems insignificant that Hammons started making his first mature works of art, his body prints, in 1968—one of the most violent, politically charged years in recent American history: Martin Luther King was assassinated, President Nixon was elected, and protests against the Vietnam War reached unprecedented levels, escalating in the U.S. with the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It is not surprising then, that all of the aforementioned events would inform the subject matter of Hammons’s body prints. One could even say the body prints—specifically those that incorporate imagery of the American flag—were the most overtly political works Hammons would make over the course of his fifty-year career. As time progressed, Hammons’s work would become increasingly ambiguous and resistant to easy interpretation, despite consistently retaining a unique brand of irony and critical edge.

David Hammons. "The King
David Hammons. "The King's Show Has Ended Let's Give Him a Hand," 1968. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles.

In the body prints, Hammons marries his interests in graphic art and performance. In order to make the monoprints, he coated his body (along with his clothes and hair) in margarine and then rolled his torso and limbs onto a large piece of illustration board, printing the image by pressing his body onto the smooth surface of paper, often arrayed on the floor. About this very physical act, he has stated, “When I lie down on the paper which is first placed on the floor, I have to carefully decide how to get up after I have made the impression that I want. Sometimes I lie there for perhaps three minutes or even longer just figuring out how I can get off the paper without smudging the image that I’m trying to print.” (3) Upon leaving his impression, he sifted powdered pigments over the coated paper, capturing color across the printed area. Once the image was set, he sprayed a fixative over the surface, which could also have the effect of intensifying the color. Later he added embellishments, such as the American flag, employing printing techniques such as silkscreen and lithography. Because of the unpredictable nature of the printing process, he printed his body first, adding the silkscreened elements later, once he had determined where the additions would work in relation to the corporeal imagery. By paying close attention to the textures created by certain fabrics, he was able to achieve a high degree of detail in the final print. If he wanted a lighter impression, he would roll his coated body against paper hung on the wall.

David Hammons making body prints, Slauson Avenue studio, 1974. Photograph: Bruce W. Talamon.<br />
David Hammons making body prints, Slauson Avenue studio, 1974. Photograph: Bruce W. Talamon.

This printing technique is not without precedent in art history. One might recall Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil’s experimental photograms with architectural blueprint paper from the 1950s, Yves Klein’s Anthropometries from the early 1960s, and Jasper Johns’s hand and face prints, also from the early 1960s. It is Johns, however, whose technique most closely relates to Hammons’s; he similarly coated his skin with baby oil before making impressions of his body on mechanical drafting paper. Johns’s visages, which seemed imprisoned beneath the paper, were revealed when he rubbed them with strokes of charcoal. (Moreover, it seems germane that nearly a decade earlier Johns also famously interrogated the American flag, recreating it with encaustic and torn fragments of newspaper.)

Jasper Johns. Study for “Skin” I, 1962. Courtesy of VAGA, NY.
Jasper Johns. Study for “Skin” I, 1962. Courtesy of VAGA, NY.

In contrast, however, to these noted precedents, Hammons’s work is distinctive in its incorporation of highly charged political subject matter that throws into question the relationship between being an African American and an American citizen—a dissonant reality that was in the process of being intensely challenged during the time that the body prints were made. Hammons has stated: “I feel that my art relates to my total environment—my being a black, political, and social human being. Although I am involved with communicating with others, I believe that my art itself is really my statement. For me it has to be.” (4)

David Hammons. "Boy With Flag," 1968. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.<br />
David Hammons. "Boy With Flag," 1968. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.

David Hammons. "Black First, America Second," 1970. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.<br />
David Hammons. "Black First, America Second," 1970. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.

In Boy with Flag (1968), one of his earliest body prints, Hammons’s figure is visible on the right side of the paper in profile, his chest pressing up against a section of the American flag that vertically dominates the left side of the composition. In works such as this one, Hammons uses the flag as a structuring device; its proximity delineates the body and its surrounding space. Hammons envisions an uneasy relationship between the two: The flag becomes an object the body must push against and resist, lest it subsume the African American subject. We see this tension perhaps most clearly in the work Black First, American Second (1970). For this print Hammons used black illustration board, rendering the background dark and murky. Twinned impressions of the artist’s body—again in profile with one higher than the other—are shown wrapped in the undulating form of the flag, as if they are hugging it for safety, in what one perceives as an ironic gesture. Yet the two bodies tightly compressed by the flag create an awkward spatial composition, further suggesting that the flag might also be smothering and constricting the figures. In the body prints, the American flag pressurizes the human form, as if it is the agent of disfiguration and distortion, and even a metaphor for agony and torture.

David Hammons. "Injustice Case," 1970. Courtesy of LACMA.
David Hammons. "Injustice Case," 1970. Courtesy of LACMA.

The subject of torture is rendered most explicitly in Hammons’s body print Injustice Case (1970) where we see the artist, again in profile, violently bound to a chair and gagged. The print is superimposed against an actual American flag that looks sullied in comparison to the stark white sheet of paper. Hammons erased the remaining pigment marks from the background to create the clean, crisp image. The portrait recalls the searing courtroom sketch of Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, during the 1969 trial of the Chicago Eight. After being denied the right to counsel of his choosing, as well as the right to defend himself in court, Seale was bound and gagged in the courtroom in response to his repeated vocal interruptions. He was later sentenced to prison for four years for contempt of court. Due to the unconstitutionality of the proceedings, however, Seale’s sentence was eventually overturned. The trial was widely publicized, and the broadly disseminated drawing became a sign of the injustice of the American legal system for African Americans at that time. Hammons’s use of the American flag in this work challenges the purity associated with the flag and its attendant virtues of “liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” conflating it instead with the inequity of actual black experience. Likewise, the translucent quality of the print, which resembles a photographic negative, conjures the latent absence of political rights, while the form serves as a material trace of Hammons’s own bodily presence.

David Hammons. "America the Beautiful," 1968. Courtesy of MOMA PS1/Oakland Museum of California.
David Hammons. "America the Beautiful," 1968. Courtesy of MOMA PS1/Oakland Museum of California.

Hammons throws the iconic nature of the American flag into question in his body prints, in a patent unraveling of the patriotic symbol—a deconstruction facilitated by the presence of his own black, male body, which he incisively uses as an agent of political indictment. In the ironic America the Beautiful (1968), America is anything but beautiful. Rather, Hammons portrays it as an unsettling yet enigmatic presence to behold—a signifier of the American grotesque. To make this frontal impression, Hammons needed to print each side of his face, so that the two profiles could merge into a single, distorted visage with obliterated eyes. The American flag draped over Hammons’s head, in a pose evocative of the religious cloak (or shroud) of the Virgin Mary, augments the haunting quality of the image. In this print, we see, perhaps, an apotheosis of the “agonized look” Hammons so revered in White’s work. The black figure, here, becomes a ghostly body (again both absent and present): a harbinger for American hypocrisy that at once represents the disenfranchisement, discrimination, and prejudice for an African American body politic.

By the mid 1970s Hammons had moved on from the body prints, and in 1974, he resettled in New York, where he has made his home ever since. His move to New York coincided with the end of the body prints, and henceforward his work became less graphic and, in general, less overtly political. He would later continue experimental printing techniques in his basketball drawings, bouncing a dirty basketball over a large sheet of paper on the floor to create a hazy, abstract pattern. Furthermore, his interest in rethinking stereotypes and racial identity persisted in his seminal works U.N.I.A. Flag (1990), and African-American Flag (1990), a clever amalgamation of the stars and stripes with Marcus Garvey’s nationalist palette of red, black, and green—a new insignia (with all of its latent irony) for an African American nation.

Apsara DiQuinzio is curator of modern and contemporary art and Phyllis C. Wattis Matrix curator at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).

(1) Ebria Feinblatt, ed., Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1973), 7.

(2) Kellie Jones, “Thoughts on Art in Los Angeles,” in LA Object & David Hammons Body Prints, ed. Connie Rogers Tilton and Lindsay Charlwood, (New York: Tilton Gallery, 2011), 45.

(3) Feinblatt, Three Graphic Artists, 8.

(4) Feinblatt, Three Graphic Artists, 7.