Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Getting an authoritative grip on a conceptual artist as elusive and unsusceptible to classification as David Hammons is no mean feat. He has been a willful outsider, defensively attuned to an art world that has, until recently, systematically excluded Blacks and others of color, and remains determined to disrupt and, in some ways, to frustrate the art establishment as he cajoles it into changing. Yet in their deft and moving documentary The Melt Goes on Forever: The Art and Times of David Hammons, which had its American theatrical debut at the Film Forum on May 5, Harold Crooks and Judd Tully essay Hammons’ iconoclastic critique with admirable clarity and due appreciation, plumbing the art, finding the man, and situating him firmly in art history without ever succumbing to hagiography or expository dullness.
Tully and Crooks knew they weren’t going to get an interview, and they don’t wring their hands in bemused meta-frustration about it. They get on with their task, resorting to narrative triangulation that involves illustrative anecdotes from Hammons’ friends, patrons, and fellow artists (including Suzanne Jackson, Betye Saar, Lorna Simpson, and Henry Taylor); first-person context from gallerists, collectors, and art historians; and, crucially, considered depictions of his work. Anchoring the film is the swaggeringly witty testimony, interjected intermittently, of the late Steve Cannon – the Black poet and Hammons muse who founded the communal gallery and salon A Gathering of the Tribes in a vibrantly shabby town house in Alphabet City, blind in his later years but still presiding over the enterprise from a couch, fueled by coffee, cigarettes, and relentless sardonicism.
Cannon’s gruff voice, magnetic smile, and naughty laugh are perfectly aligned with Hammons’ philippic, quietly minatory attitude. A gravelly recitation of the kinetic rap-style piece Cannon wrote for the catalogue of Hammons’ show “Rousing the Rubble” at P.S.1 n 1990–91, channeled through animation, functions like a live wire downed by a storm crackling through America’ presumptively benighted landscape. That has been Hammons’ turf, as the filmmakers make clear, from the Watts rebellion in 1965 to Black Lives Matter today. They frame Higher Goals (1986) – his decorated and sometimes bejeweled basketball goal sculptures, which long predated the celebrated documentary Hoop Dreams (1994)– as portraying what he might elliptically call the “asymmetrical” promise held out to Black Americans. Ditto his culturally lacerating How Ya Like Me Now? (1988), conjuring Jesse Jackson as a white man; iconic Untitled (African-American Flag) (1990), fashioned in Marcus Garvey’s Black nationalist colors; and In the Hood (1993), a hoodie’s enclosure poised open yet still freighted with the threat that white people infer from its Black street provenance. If kindred aesthetic statements seem glib or cliched now, it is substantially because Hammons made them first and rendered them familiar.
Hammons clearly abhors verbal oversimplification – another feature, in addition to his reclusiveness, that makes him a tough subject. But Crooks and Tully have managed to cadge some choice words of his from archival interviews, and they deploy them very effectively. The gist of one perhaps uncharacteristically trenchant disquisition is that while white Americans are blessed with one ready-made cultural language that is easy to learn, Black Americans are required not only to learn that language but also, if they are to be comfortable in their skin, to fashion their own language and then to synthesize a new one that somehow harmonizes the other two. Jazz and hip-hop are elements of a language pioneered by Blacks, as reflected in Ramachandra Borcar’s fine and seamlessly integrated score. The new, synthesized language awaits.
In this light, it’s worth noting that Hammons, notwithstanding his outward defiance, is essentially a multiculturalist and envisions, in time, mutual accommodation. Especially in the current political environment, that is an ambitious agenda to say the least. But the movie’s titular “melt” suits the moment. It refers to the paradoxically deteriorating perpetuity of the snowballs that Hammons, in a niftily deadpan bit of performance art styled Bliz-aard Ball Sale, offered one cold winter day on an East Village street corner in 1983. The film ends with an unhurried yarn about a wistful art dealer’s sidelong attempt, decades later, to buy one of the snowballs that might have been preserved. Some might question the filmmakers’ segue from polemical viewpoints to conventional art-world mechanisms. But it would be naïve for them not to acknowledge that such mechanisms remain the soundest means of spreading an artistic message and are to an extent unavoidable – or at least irresistible – for any artist, including Hammons. As Cannon succinctly put it: “The more he tells the art world to fuck off, the more they won’t.” Even so, the story’s conclusion – on another street corner, this one pointedly uptown, on Park Avenue – metaphorically vindicates Hammons: the melt is his quest, and it goes on forever because, ultimately, he can’t be bought.
The Melt Goes on Forever: The Art and Times of David Hammons. Directed by Judd Tully and Harold Crooks, written by Harold Crooks. Distributed by Greenwich Entertainment in the United States, Films We Like in Canada, 2022.