Hammons’s striking images from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, reflect the ferment in America and in African American social consciousness. The body prints, the artist’s first major body of work, anticipate the provocative assembled sculptures and installations for which he has become internationally known.
Hammons made his unique prints by applying oil and pigment to his body and `printing’ the forms on paper, created nuanced, ironic, and humorous commentaries. The initial impressions were amplified by drawing, painting, and collage. Often politically and emotionally charged, Hammons’s work reflect the sense of crisis, pride, and struggle in the African American community at the time. The images range from intimate, abstracted portraits in domestic settings, to street life, to anguished figures emerging from the surrounding darkness. A number of the prints feature the American flag interacting with the figures in ways which question the nature of the relationship of American society to black aspirations. Other symbolic devices that Hammons uses include the spade and the black power fist. In many of the works the artist comments on racial cliches and on the work of other artists including Klimt, Johns, and Bearden.
The current exhibition, L.A. Object and David Hammons Body Prints, presents Hammons’s work in the context of the Los Angeles assemblage movement of the 1960s and 70s, and especially the work of other African American artists active at the time. Their work is often left out of mainstream gallery and museum historical exhibitions. This exhibition places the work of Noah Purifoy, Ed Bereal, Betty Saar and John Outterbridge, alongside works by their better-known contemporaries such as Ed Keinholz, Wallace Berman and George Herms. African American artists, including Hammons, were strongly affected by the civil rights movement, the 1965 Watts riots, and general social and cultural change. These events, along with the influential presence of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, built from 1921 to 1954 out of scrap metal and found objects, had an important impact on their work.