Blind Leading to Blind: Seeing Through David Hammons's "Blind Reality"
by Sampada Aranke
By the 1980s, David Hammons’s practice had moved well beyond his distinctive body prints toward a more explicitly conceptual practice. Hammons pointedly created sculptural objects, many of which fused modernism’s privileging of form with a contemporary emphasis on the social meanings of materials. He utilized detritus such as hair, chicken bones, bottle caps, and wine bottles as source material for these works. By 1986, he had already made a name for himself as an artist invested in sculpting, printing, and arranging the pains and pleasures of black life without the promise of figurative, representational, or illustrative explanation. In other words, he reveled in the aesthetic commitment to blackness as an originary abstraction (1) by using abstraction against its intended art-historical grain.

David Hammons. "Blind Reality," 1986. The George Economou Collection.
David Hammons. "Blind Reality," 1986. The George Economou Collection.

Blind Reality (1986) (2) is a material gesture imbued with commentary and critique (3)—a sculpture that attests to the existential relationship between seeing one’s world and knowing one’s world. Blind Reality is composed of seven Venetian blinds adjoined by nails and bent on both ends to form curves. These blinds are no longer pristine white; they have rusted into hues of deep brown, spotted with dark stains. This singular object made of many is then affixed onto a wood plane. The two wings form seven sensuous curves that ripple out from small to large in a figure-8 shape, an infinity sign that echoes out of its center into a circumscription of waves. It is a body, doubling over seven times, bending to form itself ad infinitum.

As window dressings, blinds perform a dual function: they conceal and reveal what is on both sides of the window, rendering into sight the external world and its attendant interior. In Hammons’s hands, these blinds no longer function. Indeed, this sculpture is blind leading to blind in which the materiality of the object itself makes possible the condition of not seeing. Public and private are thrown into crisis as the blinds mediate how to see and be seen through the window frame. Anne Friedberg’s elaboration of the history of the window as a constitutive foundation of seeing and perspective in the history of art is of particular relevance:

The window is an opening, an aperture for light and ventilation. It opens, it closes; it separates the spaces of here and there, inside and outside, in front of and behind. The window opens onto a three-dimensional world beyond: it is a membrane where surface meets depth, where transparency meets its barriers. The window is also a frame, a proscenium: its edges hold a view in place. (4)

Moving beyond the window’s delineation of inside and outside, Hammons suggests we turn to its covering as a mediator of sight between these two locations. The doubleness of the work is presented at the levels of form and meaning: blind as material and blind as a state of awareness. This doubleness refocuses our attention toward the actuality of sight itself, the close intimacy between seeing and knowing one’s reality. If, as the saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see, then Blind Reality asks us to consider what is left unseen, those modes of living left unattended to and in the margins of the visible.

For Hammons, these practices are often activated in the streets. Hammons is quick to say that he’d rather “play with the street audience” because “they’re already at that place that [he’s] trying to get to.” (5) This location that is not singular—the streets—always leads to a deferred point of arrival for Hammons. The streets traffic knowledge and meanings that exist outdoors and away from the window pane that frames what one sees from the comfort of the indoors. Hammons prefers to be outside, inhabiting modes of living that are relatively unseen if one is blind to their existence. This is yet another twist on what Glenn Ligon has so brilliantly called Hammons’s “movement toward placelessness” — an insistence that “not being from here” is a “deep critique of American society.” (6) If Hammons is not from here, then perhaps he is from there: that place seen in the distance, through the blinds and outside of the window’s frame. Over there, where the outside forms the inside, exterior forms the interior. Blind Reality is that möbius strip where blind makes blind. There, seeing is offered as a way of knowing and those unseen may in fact open on to ways of knowing rendered partially visible, if at all.

This blind reality—a there constituted by here, an inside made up of its outside—might best be felt in the closing stanza of Ben Okri’s poem “An Open Way,” written especially for Hammons’s 2016 show Give Me A Moment:

The infinity
Of an always
Open way
Of seeing.

Sampada Aranke is an Assistant Professor in the History and Theory of Contemporary Art at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her research interests include performance theories of embodiment, visual culture, and black cultural and aesthetic theory. She’s currently working on her book manuscript entitled Death’s Futurity: The Visual Culture of Death in Black Radical Politics.

(1) For more on the relationship between blackness as abstraction, see: Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Kobena Mercer, Discrepant Abstraction (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 2006); Adrienne Edwards, Blackness in Abstraction (New York: Pace Gallery, 2016); Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics (17) 2, 1986: 65–81.

(2) There is another, more well known Blind Reality (1989) by Hammons that is composed of a Coca-Cola bottle attached to a cane. First called Coke Cane as a commentary on what Amei Wallach, in a 1991 Los Angeles Times article, called the “blind waste and bottomless outrage of the drug epidemic,” this piece was later retitled Blind Reality, a move that Wallach has notably deemed “the improvisational mode that is at the heart of the art.” There is a story to be told between these two blind realities. The peculiar and seemingly unrelated nominal inheritance, the disparity between material choices, and the uneven uptake of the 1989 work as compared to the 1986 work all offer starting points for discussion.

(3) Blind Reality (1986) must also be understood in the time of its making, in which a reactionary politics of “color blindness” was emerging as a neoconservative response to the radical premises and promises of 1960s and 70s social movements. We can assume that Hammons was well aware of then-Attorney General Edwin Meese’s infamous 1985 speech in which he insisted that “counting by race is a form of racism.” This speech, now recollected as a hallmark in the architecture of colorblindness, manufactured as a so-called remedy to racism and deceptively aimed at dismantling affirmative action and other legal protections that came out of the Civil Rights era. We can extend his claim into a broader insistence that to see race is to somehow perpetuate the structures of white supremacy and racism. Meese insists that sight is the operative logic of racism, and not, for example, the socio-economic, legal, and affective structures that enable the logic of anti-black violence specifically and racism more broadly. Unbeknownst to Meese, his conclusion misleads but the means to his analysis remains true—racism does, in fact, encourage “us to stereotype” and invite “us to look upon people as possessors of certain characteristics.” Colorblindness, then, serves to not only reproduce the structures of racism, but to do so in the practice of seeing itself—a form of policing that takes place first and foremost at the level of sight. For more, see: Edwin Meese, Constitution Day speech at Dickenson College, September 17, 1985.

(4) Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 1.

(5) Kellie Jones, “Interview with David Hammons,” Real Life Magazine 16, autumn 1986.

(6) Glenn Ligon. “David Hammons and the Poetics of Emptiness,” Artforum, September 2004: 249.