Before his work turned even more conceptual, David Hammons made dozens of “body prints” by smearing himself with grease, imprinting his body on paper, and preserving the marks with pigmented powder. While it’s important to set them in the context of “black arts” and the civil rights movement, I think it’s fascinating how these works are interpreted as politically volatile or racially provocative. Is there anything inherently confrontational about this project, or does that rely squarely on a white viewer’s reaction to a black body? Is that the point? Hammons is a pretty elusive figure who doesn’t offer much by way of commentary, which you could argue augments this effect even further; these works are closer to presentations than representations, forcing viewers to grapple with their own prejudices and subjectivities directly. Much like his later works with chicken wings and African American hair, these prints only become “about race” when someone interprets them as such, revealing how racist stereotypes work. These reductive ideas fail to account for the subversive dialogue Hammons enters directly with other canonical artists, from Klimt to Klein.
David Hammons, Untitled (Body Print), 1974