Theses Doctoral

For a Politics of Obscurity: David Hammons and Black Experimentalism, 1974-1989

Schriber, Abbe

Around 1990, artist David Hammons transformed into arguably the best known African American artist in contemporary art, following a Rome Prize and retrospective at MoMA P.S.1. The type of mainstream “discovery” that led to his increased visibility, however, had originated in the multicultural turn of the 1970s-80s, which actively sought diversity in cultural programming. While artists of color gained more exhibition opportunities during this period, their longstanding communities of artists, teachers, and collaborators continued to be ignored. Hammons has since withdrawn from typical art world conventions, giving few interviews, working without gallery representation, and refusing museum retrospectives. Scholarly literature has tended to fixate on his approach as the provocative antics of an art world trickster, a word he himself has used. Still other scholarship has framed Hammons as critiquing the luxury art commodity after Marcel Duchamp or has contextualized his early body prints within lineages of Black Arts radicalism in California. However, these approaches do not fully address Hammons’s tactics as serious refusals of white institutional expectations in the 1970s-80s.

This dissertation historicizes “obscurity” as fundamental to Hammons’s sculptural assemblages, street performances, and public art installations as a means by which to reroute the limits of art world legibility--how he both pointed to and evaded the frameworks of inside and outside, “known” and unknown, that hemmed in readings of black artists by a well-meaning, liberal multiculturalism. The project argues that Hammons’s actions, and more importantly his artworks, are not acts of solitary individual genius, but are made legible through their relation to other sets of archives, objects, viewers, and artmakers whose bases for knowledge defy what dominant white institutions, given more voice and credence, have considered permissible or even significant. Obscurity is a potential side effect of opacity, as outlined by Édouard Glissant, which references the opaque, experimental, “difficult” tactics that defy the conventions of mimesis and illusionism. Hammons’s staging and wielding of obscurity puts into relief the consequences of what is meant when we say something is “obscure,” “outside,” “other,” or “marginal,” isolating these as discursive positions predicated on relative positions of power, rather than essential truths. Amid a post-Black Arts Movement milieu, his work calls attention to an overlapping range of black cultural producers who must be seen as dynamic and vibrant, rather than marginal. Drawing on original archival research and previously unpublished documentation, I focus on the period 1974 to 1989, a part of Hammons’s career in New York that has not been researched in depth. Muddying traditional boundaries between histories of African American art, American art, and avant-gardism after World War Two, I draw upon postcolonial and critical race theories to understand Hammons’s genre-defying works as rejoinders to the limitations of both modernist and African diaspora art historical narratives.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Jones, Kellie E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 13, 2020