David Hammons - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, November 17, 2021 | Phillips

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    "Outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol." 
    —David Hammons



    Belonging to David Hammons’ highly acclaimed early series of body prints, Puzzling Times embodies the seeds of the artist’s renowned practice that harnesses the power of symbols to communicate notions of identity, myth, and Blackness in contemporary America. Oscillating between drawing and performance, painting and politics, Hammons’ body prints fuse the traditional monotype technique originating from the 17th century with a modern Yves Klein-esque approach channeled through his singular sensibility, employing his own body into his mark making. Here, the artist presents a ghostly face and fingerprints within the shape of a puzzle piece that floats amidst the colors of the American flag. The ostensibly hollow eyes tenderly depict two outstretched arms reaching for one another under a collaged piece of glass that signals to his pivotal transition to sculptural assemblage in the mid-1970s. Executed in 1976, Puzzling Times is a paradigm of the body prints that would ultimately launch his career into critical acclaim. Arriving to auction for the first time since its acquisition as a gift by the artist, the work featured in the artist’s important 1976 solo show, David Hammons: Dreadlock Series, at Just Above Midtown Gallery (JAM), New York.




    Hammons with his work at the exhibition Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971. Image: © 2021 Museum Associates / LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY



    At once physically corporeal and fleeting, Puzzling Times, like Hammons’ other body prints, was realized by greasing his own body, then pressing it against the paper and subsequently dusting the impression with powdered pigment resulting in its shimmering quality. Sticking to the greased areas, the pigment reveals in astounding detail the textures of the artist’s beard, lips, and unique fingerprints. Here, he also incorporates what appears to be a cutout of a puzzle piece rather than the actual object itself as suggested by its abnormal enlargement. Tracing back to the Italian artist Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664), the unique monoprint in art history saw a revival in the 19th century with artists such as Degas, Whistler, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and in the mid-20th century, Yves Klein in his well-known Anthropometries series of imprinting inked female bodies. 



    "I feel that my art relates to my total environment—my being a black, political, and social human being. Although I am involved with communicating with others, I believe that my art itself is really my statement. For me it has to be." 
    —David Hammons, 1970



    Jasper Johns, Study for Skin I, 1962. Private Collection, Artwork: © 2021 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY



    Hammons’ process, while certainly looking to that of the avante-garde artist, expands upon the longstanding technique by infusing powerfully charged symbols that quite literally materialize body politics. In the present work, Hammons masterfully employs the puzzle piece as a framing device to suggest that the figure is imprisoned on the other side of the pictorial plane, whilst the artist’s signature ghostly, X-ray-like rendering evokes the figure’s hands pressing onto the glass. Here, Hammons brilliantly manifests this two-dimensional allusion with the three-dimensional collaged glass whose sharp edges and curves recall that of a blade—at once intimating at a history of Black bodies as specimen for medical experiments and of violence.


    "I be into memory, more than the avant-garde."
    —David Hammons



    David Hammons, Injustice Case, 1970. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Image: © 2021 Museum Associates / LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © David Hammons



    Though the combined reference of the American flag and puzzle piece may perhaps allude to the modern “principle-policy puzzle”—a political notion encompassing the paradox of American racial attitudes and support, particularly regarding the Black community—the present work ultimately reflects the beguiling ambiguity with which Hammons composes his creations through indexical layers of meaning. In the words of Alex Greenberger, “Hammons’s art aspires toward unknowability. It is elusive, tricky, and often downright confounding—something akin to a puzzle without any edge pieces, or a riddle that has no answer.”i



    i Alex Greenberger, “Why David Hammons’ Elusive Art Continues to Intrigue, Mystify, and Provoke,” Art in America, May 25, 2021.

    • Provenance

      Gifted by the artist to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Just Above Midtown Gallery, Inc., David Hammons: Dreadlock Series, April 6-26, 1976

    • Artist Biography

      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. 

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Puzzling Times

signed and dated "Hammons 76" lower right
pigment and ink on paper and glass collage, in artist's frame
33 3/4 x 27 7/8 in. (85.7 x 70.8 cm)
Executed in 1976.

Full Cataloguing

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $877,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
New York Head of Department & Head of Auctions
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 November 2021