Material Witness, Five Decades of Art
Hammond is not only a pioneering artist, but also an activist, author, and independent curator. She was the only artist to be a founding member of both A.I.R., the first all-women’s cooperative art gallery established in New York in 1972, and the Heresies Collective, which published the journal Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics from 1977 to 1993. She authored Wrappings: Essays on Feminism, Art, and the Martial Arts (1984) and Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History (2000), which remains the principal text on the subject to date. The invisibility of feminist, lesbian, and queer art and artists spawned Hammond’s interest in curation. Within the exhibition is an extensive archive featuring publications and ephemera that trace Hammond’s various practices as artist, educator, organizer, and writer.
This exhibition brings together works from significant series made in New York from 1971 to 1984: Presences (1971–72), Floorpieces (1973), Weave paintings (1974–77), and the Wrapped Sculptures (1977–84). In 1984, Hammond left New York for Santa Fe, New Mexico, intending to only stay a year. Shortly after, she purchased a stone lanera (wool barn) in Galisteo, which she still occupies today. From the mid 1980s through the late 1990s, Hammond made “installational” and mixed-media paintings composed with vernacular materials she recovered from the Arizona and New Mexico landscape. These works were followed by an ongoing series of paintings she dubbed her “near-monochromes.”
|1944||Born Chicago, IL.|
|1950||Family moves to Hometown, IL.|
|1957 – 1961||Attends Oak Lawn Community High School.|
|1960||Wins Art Club Scholarship to the Junior School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Spends time with Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, German Expressionist, and Abstract Expressionist paintings.|
Makes first oil painting, entitled Blue Abstraction.
|1961 – 1963||Attends Millikin University, Decatur, IL, majoring in Studio Art.|
Marries fellow art student Stephen Clover and moves to Minnesota.
First solo exhibition, Coffman Memorial Union, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
|1963 – 1967||Works as office clerk, waitress, slide projectionist, and artist’s model while attending the University of Minnesota,|
Minneapolis (BA, 1967).
|1967||Hitchhikes with Clover through Europe during the summer, traveling to England, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany,|
Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and Ibiza; visits collections and exhibitions of non-Western art.
|1968||Curates first exhibition, Contemporary Graphics Published by Universal Limited Art Editions, Dayton’s Gallery 12, Minneapolis.|
In the mid to late 1990s, Hammond made a series of works ranging in scale that utilized straw, a natural material that has many uses: fuel, feed, bedding, thatching, and even weaving and basket making. Hammond used pieces of straw, one to one and a half inches in length, which are usually mixed into adobe for plastering and brick making. Untitled (1995) is a large diptych in which the surfaces and sides of both canvas panels are entirely disguised with straw dipped in acrylic medium, with a few spots of paint. Between the two panels—which don’t quite line up—is a red crevice, a physical and figurative gap implying not only the menstruating body, but what Hammond describes as “a violent rupture, referring to the exploitation of both land and the gendered body.” In contrast, the smaller Untitled #1 (1995; also on view) utilizes straw as well as acrylic medium and oil paint, but bleeds from the edges and between its successive layers, suggesting an internal injury.
Over time, the paintings from the late 1990s became more minimal with fewer objects and streamlined materials. Sieve (1999), is made from a found sheet of eroded metal. Pierced by an uneven grid of nail holes, it was someone’s handmade “sieve.” The opposite side, an area that always interests Hammond, had points that projected from the holes similar to a “grater,” reminiscent of the bristly surfaces of the 1970s Weave paintings. Hammond fastened the metal, with the “grater-like” side out, onto a small stretched canvas painted red. The paint seemingly bleeds and thickens where it is attached around the perimeters of the metal and through the punctures. Oil from the paint stains the grimy surface, implying scabby flesh.
The Presences take their forms from multiple aggregate layers of dyed and acrylic-dipped cloth, secured and sewn together. Hammond refers to their demonstrative attributes as “three- dimensional brushstrokes.” Although she was formally trained as a painter, Hammond began making work that, over time, became more sculptural. Moving out into the room, the six of the seven Presences on view (originally eight, seven remain after Hammond destroyed Presence I) resemble specters, ceremonial robes, or powerful abstract bodies. The rags hang down from wooden coat hangers, dangling from perceptible ropes anchored to the ceiling, so their bottom edges gently graze the floor. The Presences insinuate primeval warriors or, as she offers, “a ragtag army of women claiming space.”
The Weave Paintings (1974–77) were named after their uniquely raised surfaces, which at first glance appear to be woven out of paint. To achieve this striking visual effect, Hammond scored herringbone and braid patterns into wet layers of oil paint and Dorland’s Wax Medium with the other end of her paint brush.
She says of her process:
For me, the painting skin, that edge where art and life meet, always relates to the body as site. To layer strokes of paint is to accumulate, to build on the body. To caress. To incise into the painting surface is to cut into the body. Looking beautiful and woven from a distance, almost monochrome, up close the under layers of color were exposed and little points protruded from the surface of the painting. These points were at once menacing and fragile.
The earliest Weave paintings are squares and rectangles and mostly feature somber hues. Some Weaves, like The Black Leaf (1976), are lozenge-shaped. Hammond, discovering the shaped stretcher bars at Pearl Paint, was attracted to their readymade corporal dimensionality—the bars’ curves reference subtle inflammations and rounded edges where she inserted rags or crumpled newspaper between the canvas back and the stretcher bars; what she describes as a minor tempering of the right angle of most paintings’ edges.
In 1973, Hammond created what she considers to be her “most radical works referencing women’s traditional arts.” The seven floor paintings in the series are made out of colorful and sometimes patterned commercial knit fabric waste (the ends of industrial bolts) amassed off curbs and pinched from dumpsters outside sweatshops in SoHo, then a garment district, near her Bowery studio in Lower Manhattan. Three Floorpieces were debuted in the 1974 exhibition, A Woman’s Group, at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York.
Hammond says of these works:
Strips of fabric were braided according to traditional braided rug techniques, but slightly larger and thicker in scale, coiled, stitched to a heavy cloth backing and partially painted with acrylic paint. Referencing rag rugs, but non-functional as such, the Floorpieces occupy and negotiate a space between painting (off the wall) and sculpture (nearly flat) although… I thought of them primarily as paintings. Approximately one inch high and five and half feet in diameter, the Floorpieces were to be placed directly on the floor and shown as a group without anything on the walls, thereby calling into question assumptions about the “place” of painting.
For Hammond, the braid represents an entrenched lesbianism; what she describes as “strands of like kind touching and being woven together for strength,” a form that made its first appearance in earlier drawings such as Oval Braid (1972; also on view). The Floorpieces do impersonate the character of customary rag rugs, but their incompatibility exalts the fringes, thrusting women’s manual labors into the sacred “center.” Putting pressure on traditional painting practice, the Floorpieces, according to curator and author Lucy R. Lippard, “could be seen as ironic comments on male Minimal art, especially Carl Andre’s flat metal grids, often referred to as ‘rugs’.*
To make these works, Hammond recalls that she would “sit on the floor in the center of one of the pieces, coiling the fabric, pushing it out from the center,” an approach indebted to both her martial arts training at the time (she practiced the ancient Chinese martial art, t’ai chi ch’uan, from 1970 to 1976, and the modern Japanese martial art, Aikido, from 1973 to 2009), and the consciousness- raising circles she formed with her female colleagues from 1970 to 1974.
The main five Floorpieces are exhibited together in the manner that Hammond had originally intended: on the floor, absent of any work on the walls. Installed to be carefully walked around and observed at every angle, each Floorpiece irradiates a mandala-like energy.
* Lucy R. Lippard, “Harmony Hammond: Towards a Politics of Abstraction,” published on the occasion of the exhibition Harmony Hammond: Ten Years 1970–1980 (Minneapolis: The Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota, 1981).
As Hammond traveled between New Mexico and Arizona, commuting between Galisteo and Tucson, she scavenged materials and objects from vacated family farms foreclosed during the 1980s farming crisis after years of calamitous drought: roofing tin, large swatches of linoleum, charred wood, gutters, troughs, buckets, and kettles, as well as screens, rakes, and slop sinks. For her, these are materials that “bear witness to the harshness of rural life and to lives acted upon by natural and man-made forces.”
Leaving their age and dilapidation intact, Hammond juxtaposed these retrieved objects with organic materials such as straw, leaves, and dried roots, sealing their “wounds” with paint and latex rubber. The dense compositions are loaded with biographical resonance and complex accounts about “loss, violence and survival.”
The immense triptych, Inappropriate Longings (1992), uses materials and objects retrieved from deserted farmsteads to allude to forbidden yearning and a veiled violation. It was exhibited, along with several other paintings, including Untitled (1995; also on view), in a 1998 exhibition at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn, New York. Hammond juxtaposes oil and acrylic paint and latex rubber against found materials: aged linoleum, a broken metal gutter, and an old trough filled partially with dried cottonwood leaves. Carved into the latex rubber of the left panel are the words “Goddamn dyke,” an act that Hammond says sought to “insert a queer bodily presence into the regions of rural America and the modernist painting field.” Unexpected vandalism, decipherable only when up close, these words link Inappropriate Longings to a hate crime that took place during Colorado’s 1992 passage of Amendment 2, an act that denied gays protection from discrimination.
For this series, Hammond affixed torn, frayed, canvas strips like dressings and compresses to an underlying grommeted grid, partially obscuring and padding its abscesses and fissures. Bandaged Grid #1 (2015) employs a range of off-whites and cream-colored pigments, applied sparingly, as a “poultice” to mend and bind. Thin watery reddish or brown tones soak through the ripped strips of canvas or leak out of the protuberant holes. The gridded holes never align; instead, they extend, expand, and unsettle the near monochromatic surface while also suggesting body orifices.
Hammond writes in her artist statement, Material Engagements:
A bandage always implies a wound. A bandaged grid implies an interruption of the narrative of the modernist grid and therefore, an interruption of utopian egalitarian order …a precarity.
But also, however fragile, the possibility of holding together, of healing.
Chenille #6 (2017-18) is one in a series of new near-monochrome paintings. Chenille fabric is defined as “a wool, cotton, silk, or rayon yarn with protruding pile.” Like earlier works in the exhibition, Hammond invokes undervalued textile traditions. She has said about this series, “Chenille experts, like quilters, share… [a] technique of puncturing fabric from the backside… the chenille reference is visual—performed by paint and other materials on the surface of the canvas, rather than the puncture of a needle and thread.” The near-white Chenilles integrate rough burlap recycled from coffee sacks and a relief of grommets. This series, Hammond says, “suggest[s] the soft grids of chenille tufts and domestic warmth of cozy bedspreads, but with an edge.”
In Chenille #6, pieces of crudely cut and painted burlap expose nubs and dimples to suggest a threadbare coverlet. The layers may well be protective, but they might also suppress or suffocate. Color seeps through in a buttery staining that mimics perspiration or infected tissue. A small section in the painting’s lower center reveals a gap where two burlap sections are just about to touch, evincing a maimed body in a dark red gash that suggests conditions festering beneath.
Hammond has made many bodies of drawings over the decades, which she refers to as “visual diaries”: early notebooks from the 1970s, as well as the Flesh Journals and Blood Journals (both on view), and, in 2015, the Ledger Drawings, Suite A and Suite B. Each suite is composed of five drawings on durable gridded record-keeping paper. Using blue or red ink, she filled each sheet in its entirety with verbal insults, descriptive ridicule, and disparaging slights of the kind she had often heard used to denigrate women artists late in their careers. This alluded to writing as a form of punishment, like the disciplinary tool frequently exercised by school teachers. In Ledger Drawings, Suite A Hammond dedicates each page to a singular sexist slur: “vintage” or “obsolete,” or an offensive descriptor, “dragon lady” or “your generation.” One permutation that is particularly jarring when written in succession is “down girl” or “girl down.” Reclaiming a punitive system, Hammond castrates such derogatory missives by exhausting their authority through reiteration.
Made during a residency at The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Northern Italy, Blood Journals (1994) incorporates menstrual blood, one of the most fraught and in some cases taboo human bodily fluids. In the 1970s, many female artists, from Judy Chicago (b. 1939) to Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939), used menstrual blood as a primary material to make political statements. Hammond’s initial choice was more pragmatic. Some of the art materials she sent to Bellagio in advance had not arrived. Anxious to get to work, she realized that she had her own internal pigment. After dripping and rubbing the blood onto the paper, she scratched phrases loosely lifted from filmmaker, author, and composer Trinh T. Minh-ha’s 1989 book, Woman, Native, Other: Writing postcoloniality and feminism, into one of the dry-blood pages; a bodily cycle, a text inscribed by and onto the female body.
Around 1990, Hammond began work on her epic opus, Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History (2000), the first history of lesbian art in the United States from 1970 on. The book adeptly unites art, gay, lesbian, and queer communities, and remains the principal text on the subject to date.
Combining text and latex rubber, Hammond made the Flesh Journals (1993) one semester while she was teaching in Tucson. Lacking the studio space to work on a larger scale, she poured liquid rubber into old broiler pans purchased at Goodwill. Once dry, she pulled the latex pages out of the pans and incised into them charged messages, words that resounded with internal conflicts experienced as she endeavored to complete the first (and still only) comprehensive history of contemporary American lesbian art.
In 1977, Hammond initiated a new body of work, the Wrapped Sculptures. These pieces were made by wrapping cloth around found or fabricated wooden armatures, then coating the resulting swollen forms with gesso and paint or latex rubber. At times she added glitter, faux pearls, or ruffles, to “feminize and mess with the ‘serious minimal’ (male) sculptural forms.” These works range in size from upper-body-scaled to life-size, from singular forms to pairings and groups, or site-responsive installations. Some of the forms were installed to project off the wall, others were supported by it, and, when in groupings, were in dialogue—“touching” or offsetting one another.
She writes in her book Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History (Rizzoli, 2000):
Their associations with female body parts and orifices… the physical manipulation of materials… conveyed the interior female body—the muscle, tissue, membrane, fluid. Intended to create a lesbian sensual presence in the world, they were not about mummifying, binding, bandaging, or protection, but about making something out of itself from the inside out, with the insides showing on the outside—a kind of presence as essence made visible.
Hammond refers to the paintings made in the early 2000s onwards as “near-monochromes” of thick paint with grommeted straps, pushpins, laces; ropes, folds, flaps, cloth strips approximating bandages, and patches of coarse burlap activating the painting surface. As with Sieve (1999; also on view), color asserts itself through gaps, rips, and apertures.
Hammond writes in her artist statement, Material Engagements:
Grommeted cotton canvas speaks of tarps, tents and drop cloths—it’s tough and functional—it has a job to do. For me there are additional associations. Some of the paintings . . . include or are on repurposed canvas that was originally used to cover the woven tatami mats used in Aikido, the Japanese martial art I studied for thirty-six years. Long six- to eight-foot-wide strips of canvas are sewn together to form a rectangular cover for the tatami mats that in turn cover the dojo floor. Over time these mat covers wear out and need to be replaced. The old covers, charged with repeated body contact, including my body, were given to me and I have used them as support in some of the paintings.
I have also included the seams. Consciously countering digital seamlessness, the connecting strategies are intentionally left visible revealing the hand of the artist and the facture of their own making.
In her statement about these works, A Manifesto (Personal) of Monochrome (Sort of), Hammond writes:
The paintings are layered and built out of themselves—from the inside out. Paint is applied with a brush, but it’s not about the stroke or mark in the abstract expressionist sense. The blotchy encrusted surface, both matte and gloss, simultaneously elegant, raw, crude—definitely handmade—functions as indexical sign of maker and making—and yet we aren’t sure how it is made.
Despite the thickness of paint—surface, color and space are indeterminate, unstable, fugitive. We can’t quite locate them. They resist definitive articulation. Unlike a lot of monochromes, the paintings refuse to settle down. The painting surface references other materials and substances at the same time it stubbornly remains itself—paint. Color freed from representation, retains referentiality. Dried blood and other body fluids, wounds, scabs and scar tissue, scraped hides, burned, weathered and patinated surfaces, topographical locations. The body is always near.
In their refusal to be any one thing at the same time they are themselves, the paintings can be seen to occupy some sort of fugitive or queer space and in doing so, remain oppositional . . . both in their refusal to participate fully in the received narrative of modernist painting and, at the same time, their refusal to “look” queer (though we might say that the paintings perform queerly).
During her first decade and a half out West, Hammond made work in response to the psyche of the vast geography and its distinctive cultural history, touched by artists who, like her, were drawn to the Southwest, most notably Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), Rebecca Strand (1891–1968), and Agnes Martin (1912–2004). Capitalizing on her large studio, she made big paintings, confrontational embodiments of a topography that evidenced a palpable emptiness and a haunting disposition.
Hammond began to incorporate panels of used corrugated roofing tin she collected from alleys and vacant lots in the Tucson barrios (then undergoing gentrification), where she initially lived while teaching. She was attracted to this material not only because it was pervasive (used temporarily by transients during the winter months), but also because, she says, it “crosses race and class lines,” like the rags. Reinforced and weather-beaten, it was symptomatic of a tenacious existence.
Chicken Lady (1989) combines a quilt left behind by Hammond’s close friend, the artist Ann Wilson, with three panels of rusted roofing tin. Text, lifted from a letter Hammond received from Marian Doherty, a former A.I.R. intern, is hand-painted in turquoise enamel on the side panels. Hammond’s 1982 exhibition at A.I.R. featured works on paper of her personages, feisty alter-egos she named: Cactus Lady, Fan Lady, Ruffled Waters, and Chicken Lady. Outward nonconformists, they embodied Hammond’s own outlaw attitude. Doherty’s letter (also reproduced in the exhibition) describes a homeless woman who lived among chickens and old cars along the river’s edge in Milford, Connecticut—land she claimed as family property—and asks Hammond if her Chicken Lady shares an affinity to the Milford Chicken Lady. Hammond answers “yes,” her Chicken Lady (as seen here in the large mixed-media painting, Chicken Lady, and in Chicken Lady: The Intention to Know, 1983), “refer[s] to the complexities of gender and social class—the homeless, the misfit, the alien, the artist, [those] who can’t integrate themselves into society or who choose not to”—a tribute to the freethinking women, who, like the Milford Chicken Lady, opted for a way of life that teetered along the peripheries, out on the rims; doing it all on their own terms.