Hair Relaxer

Create your first list.

A way to share and manage lots.

  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist

  • Catalogue Essay


    Hair Relaxer is an outstanding example of David Hammons’s artistry. Like many of his best works it is at once philosophical and humorous; deep and light-hearted; made from a combination of cast-off materials and high-minded principles; simultaneously a reflection of African American experience and a response to European American Modern Art.
     
    As so often in Hammons’s art, the title here is a pun; in the present work it refers to the practice among African Americans of “relaxing” or straightening their hair. The distinctive features of African hair have long been a source and a symbol of identity, pride and shame for African Americans, and Hammons has often used hair in his works as a means of provoking thought about these issues. But perhaps no other piece by the artist does so on such a large scale or in such a bold way.
     
    To straighten African hair requires the application of lye or other alkaloid chemicals, which breaks down the natural proteins in the hair, allowing it to uncurl and lie flat. As every reader of The Autobiography of Malcolm X knows, this is an extremely painful, and even potentially dangerous, process because the lye burns the scalp and skin. In Malcolm X’s blisteringly powerful account, both the person performing the “conk” and the one receiving it have to wear rubber aprons and gloves, and apply thick layers of petroleum jelly to any areas of skin — such as the ears, forehead, and the back of the neck — that the lye might touch. Still, the pain is so great it makes Malcolm X howl and his knees tremble. He movingly describes both his pride and his subsequent shame at the results: “How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking “white,” reflected in the mirror… I vowed that I’d never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years. This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined the multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior” — and white people “superior” — that they will violate and mutilate their God-given bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.” (Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, New York, 1965, p. 64)
     
    It is easy to see from Malcolm X’s description why African American hair could be such a meaningful emblem of power and identity. Yet the hair in Hair Relaxer is relaxing in a different way: unstraightened, still retaining its natural kinkiness, it is lying at ease on an old-fashioned divan. Hammons’s works often ask or require their audience to change its point of view, and that is the case here too. African American hair in this work is not a contested or anxious symbol of personal or political self-definition. It is, rather, at peace, in repose.
     
    With sly humor, Hammons also evokes a famous tradition in the representation of female beauty in European art. The sofa in Hammons’s work is of a type known as a Recamier, because of the presence of a divan of similar design in Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated portrait of Madame  Juliette Récamier from 1800 (fig 1). She was the wife of Napoleon’s chief banker and one of the most legendary beauties in Europe of her time. Her portrait entered the Louvre in the middle of the nineteenth century and earned instant fame. Théophile Gautier, for example, wrote of its “indescribable attraction, the poetry of the unknown.”The work inspired painters as well as poets. There is a practice in Modern art of paying ironic homage to David’s picture. This began in 1863 when Edouard Manet (who, incidentally, was a friend of Gautier) painted his notorious images of a courtesan, Olympia (fig 2), one of the breakthrough pictures in the creation of Modern art. The nude presses her left hand over her pudendum, hiding her pubic hair. All pubic hair is kinky and it is thus especially easy to imagine the hair in Hammons’ Hair Relaxer as pubic hair, especially given its arrangement in the shape of a delta along the crevice between the back and the seat of the sofa. If so, what Manet’s Olympia hides, Hammons reveals.
     
    The tradition of playful manipulation of the painting also includes the 1950 picture by the Surrealist artist René Magritte, Perspective: Madame Récamier by David (fig 3). Magritte and Hammons make very different use of the painting’s “poetry of the unknown.” A near empty seat also might recall another set of famous works: Gauguin’s painting of Van Gogh’s Chair, and Van Gogh’s painting Gauguin’s Chair.
     
    The mix of high and low, philosophy and comedy, African and European has few parallels in the history of the visual arts. It is easier to compare Hammons to some of his heroes among the great jazz musicians of the twentieth century, especially Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, for their unstinting originality, and nearly visionary capacity to re-imagine the limits of what is possible. Of jazz artists of his own generation —Hammons was born in 1943 — it is perhaps fitting to compare him to Anthony Braxton (b. 1945), who, like Hammons, makes art that defies definition, or Herbie Hancock (b. 1940), playing everything from Mozart to Funk. Duke Ellington defined artistic genius as being “beyond category.” Hammons makes art beyond category and asks us to imagine seeing and even living that way, too.

  • Artist Bio

    David Hammons

    American • 1943

    Few artists are afforded the liberty to dictate exhibition schedules and public appearances, but David Hammons eschews the spotlight and rebels against the conventions of the art world. Whether intentionally or not, Hammons creates works so laden with spell-binding metaphor that they have become symbols for movements both in the art world as well as in the public domain. (His now-iconic In the Hood sculpture has been used by Black Lives Matter activist group.)

    Hammons doesn't work in mediums or any formal or academic theory—he famously has said, "I can't stand art actually." Still, with controversial works including his PETA-paint-splashed Fur Coat sculpture, Hammons remains one of contemporary art's most watched artists. Hammons also doesn't frequently exhibit, and his last major gallery show, 2016's "Five Decades," only featured 34 works. With a controlled market, Hammons saw Untitled, a basketball hoop with dangling candelabra, achieve $8 million at Phillips in 2013. 

    View More Works

13

Hair Relaxer

Executed in 2001
Chaise lounge, natural hair.
25 x 65 x 30 in. (63.5 x 165.1 x 76.2 cm).
Signed ‘Hammons’ (on the back of the chaise lounge).

Estimate
$800,000 - 1,200,000 

sold for $902,500

Carte Blanche

8 November 2010  6pm
New York