David Hammons, Unclassifiable as Ever, Comes into Focus in an Incisive New Documentary


David Hammons, one of today’s greatest living artists, does not appear in The Melt Goes on Forever: The Art & Times of David Hammons, a new documentary about him that is directed by Judd Tully and Harold Crooks. This won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows even a little about Hammons, who almost never gives interviews to journalists and has a tendency to be evasive with dealers, collectors, and curators. He’s an artist who is more often heard about than seen—a figure who often seems constantly present yet always just barely out of reach.

It’s not clear whether Hammons himself was ever given an opportunity to comment for this documentary, not that it really matters—he would have said no anyway. The late artist Steve Cannon alludes to this at one point when he says, “David believes that the less said about him, the better it is.”

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An installation view shows a space

Regardless, everyone seems to have something to say about Hammons, and The Melt Goes on Forever is chock-full of stories about him. Tully is a journalist (he’s published articles in this magazine), and Crooks is a documentarian; together, they have assembled an impressive array of interviewees, from artists like Lorna Simpson, Henry Taylor, and Fred Wilson to critics like Antwaun Sargent and Richard J. Powell, to shed light on a truly great sculptor whose objects are frequently shown and little understood by most who come in contact with them.

The picture of Hammons that emerges is that of an elusive chronicler of Black life in America who plays by his own rules. At times, it feels as if the viewer is the butt of Hammons’s jokes. For his justly famed piece Higher Goals (1986), he sculpted a grouping of basketball hoops that were so high as to be virtually unusable, even to a giant. For Concerto in Black and Blue (2002), a cult favorite among Hammons heads, he invited viewers into a totally darkened gallery and gave them blue flashlights to navigate the empty space.

“A good comedian, whoever’s speaking, has to know how to handle the hecklers, as well as those who aren’t,” Hammons tells filmmaker Michel Auder in archival footage. One way to deal with hecklers and fans alike, it seems, is to crack jokes that nobody completely gets.

In an attempt to begin to parse some of Hammons’s gags over the years, Tully and Crooks journey all the way back to the ’60s, when Hammons began making some of his first mature works in L.A. after having studied with artist Charles White. (Tully and Crooks elide many of the early biographical details that art documentaries often contain, probably because Hammons’s personal life remains somewhat shadowy, despite the considerable volume of writing out there about him.) Art historian Kellie Jones mentions that Hammons was one of a number of Black artists in L.A. at the time who were “making an art world” by working together. Among those he enlisted as his collaborator was the artist Suzanne Jackson, who offered Hammons one of his first solo shows at her Gallery 32, which was among the few Black-owned enterprises of its kind in L.A. at the time.

A gallery with a camera crew and a woman in a red dress in the center. Art historian Kellie Jones (at center) has written frequently on David Hammons. Photo Anthony Sherin

Some of the earliest works by Hammons to gain wider recognition were his body prints, which he made by lathering himself in oily substances and pressing his body against paper. These works are strange and, in some cases, ambiguous—though the best one of them, a picture in which Hammons renders himself bound and gagged à la the Black Panther Bobby Seale against the backdrop of the American flag, is so blunt that it sears itself into one’s brain.

In doing so, he merged life—his life—with art, a theme he continued to hone when he began using scraps of Black hair that he sourced from local barbershops. “He puts himself on the street and takes his cues from the people, and not art history,” says Robert Farris Thompson, a historian of African art and art of the African diaspora who died last year, after this film was made. (The Melt Goes on Forever represents nine years of effort.)

As is their wont to do, art historians love to box Hammons, an unclassifiable artist, into categories. The most common one suggests that Hammons is continuing the lineage of Duchamp, the Dadaist often credited with inventing the readymade. That makes Jones’s pronouncement in this film that Hammons isn’t really all that Duchampian rather shocking. “One of the reasons David is obsessed with Duchamp is because the art world is obsessed with Duchamp and putting Duchamp on him,” she opines.

It’s hard to know what Hammons thinks about this, but he very well may agree. In archival footage, he brings up Arte Povera, an Italian avant-garde movement of the 1960s that saw artists embrace organic materials in their quirky sculptures, and then says, “Now they’re putting me in Arte Povera. They stuck me there. They won’t deal with outsider art or folk art.” (Or, for that matter, West African art, which Farris Thompson notes is a major influence.)

The unspecified “they” is most likely white critics and curators, and Hammons seems intent on subverting their every expectation, bringing, for example, a sculpture composed of Black hair to the 1992 edition of Documenta, the recurring German art show which at the time was still almost entirely devoted to white artists. Noting that this work turns a European into “an outside observer,” Hammons says of his intentions, “It’s to outmaneuver at all times, to outmaneuver him, to draw him into your web.” This interview is some of the clearest footage of Hammons in the documentary; most of the time, when we see him, his image is streaky, grainy, or slightly distorted.

Portrait of David Hammons next to a sculpture made from Black hair. David Hammons beside Untitled (1992). Courtesy Documenta

In recent years, Hammons has continued to undermine traditional art structures, having a retrospective not at a Museum of Modern Art–type institution, as one might expect, but at the blue-chip Mnuchin Gallery in New York in 2016. (He retained a good deal of creative control over it, and even redid the installation himself just before the show opened, generating a mix of horror and admiration from dealers there.) Scramble the senses, confuse the masses—Hammons does it all with panache.

But one wonders if Hammons, in working now mainly in moneyed places like Mnuchin, isn’t sucking up a bit. The film implicitly nods to this, loading its back half with interviews with dealers like Dominique Lévy, Adam Sheffer, and Sukanya Rajaratnam. When Lévy reflects on showing a series of fur coats that Hammons spattered with paint and praises them as one might a formalist abstraction, it starts to feel as though Hammons’s class critique has been sanded down or lost altogether. Then again, this is may sort of be the point. To refer back to what Hammons said about the Documenta piece, maybe he has trapped Lévy in his web.

It can be genuinely amazing to watch Hammons twist the hand of institutions and force them to do bizarre things, like when, in 2017, he got MoMA to show a Leonardo da Vinci drawing owned by the Queen of England alongside a work by Charles White. Artist Fred Wilson and art historian Bridget R. Cooks speak exultantly of that gesture; it’s hard to disagree. But what, really, is the endgame here?

Here’s Steve Cannon again, possibly explaining it all: “The more he tells the art world to fuck off, the more they won’t.”

The Melt Goes on Forever: The Art & Times of David Hammons recently premiered at the Sheffield Doc Fest. It does not currently have a theatrical release date.