On ViewThe Whitney Museum Of American Art & Hudson River Park
In the fall of 2017, the Whitney Museum announced that David Hammons would create a permanent, large-scale public work for a new park on the redeveloped Gansevoort Peninsula just to the west of the museum. Hammons, who has spent over 50 years creating works whose unprepossessing materials and occasional ephemerality place them in defiant dialogue with modern art and its institutions, was a somewhat surprising candidate for such a commission. The artist has willfully positioned himself as something of an outsider, turning down invitations for major museum retrospectives, eschewing gallery representation, and generally looking askance on the art world establishment. During the opening of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, for example, he reportedly stood across the street from the museum, paradoxically performing his refusal to participate in what became known as the “Multicultural Biennial.” In 1991 Hammons had rejected an invitation to participate in that year’s biennial as well, telling the critic Amie Wallach, “I couldn’t wait to tell ’em no,” going on to add that “their relationship with black artists has been negative since Day 1.”1
If the Whitney commission reflects the institution’s increased commitment to Black artists, which is evident in the current shows on view by Dawoud Bey, Dave McKenzie, and Julie Mehretu, it also suggests Hammons’s sustained if wary relationship to the museum. Like a number of Hammons’s works—most notably Pissed Off (1981), where he urinated onto Richard Serra’s large public sculpture T.W.U. (1980), thus reversing Marcel Duchamp’s designation of a urinal as a sculpture—the new commission slyly recodes the work of another artist. In this instance Hammons’s piece summons and appropriates the title of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End (1975), a work in which the artist made five large cuts into the floor, ceiling, and walls of an abandoned shed on the now-destroyed Pier 52.
Hammons’s original sketch for the work, purportedly mailed unprompted and unsigned to Whitney Director Adam Weinberg in 2014, designated the proposed structure as a monument to Matta-Clark. Yet by tracing the dimensions and siting of the original shed in stainless steel rods, Hammons’s work eliminates signs of Matta-Clark’s cuts and, for that matter, the dilapidated industrial ruin that served as their material basis. Rather, Hammons’s Day’s End, which was officially opened last month (although the ultimate development of the adjacent park will not be completed until 2023) resembles a three-dimensional architectural diagram, the scaffolding for a construction site, or the internal bracing of an unfinished building. On one level the difference between these two Day’s Ends can be seen as registering the changing character of the west end of Manhattan, from a waterfront port for the city’s manufacturing base, to, at the moment of Matta-Clark’s intervention, a postindustrial playground for various forms of intoxication and sexual activity, to its current incarnation of haute-couture boutiques and high-end real estate, which the presence of the new Whitney exemplifies and exacerbates. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine how some viewers, particularly those unfamiliar with Matta-Clark, could misconstrue Hammons’s work as a Postmodern recreation of some earlier pier, like the “ghost” reconstructions of colonial buildings in Franklin Court in downtown Philadelphia. It could similarly be mistaken for the latest instance of land reclamation and urban renewal along the Hudson River, a project akin to Barry Diller’s recently-opened folly just north of Gansevoort Peninsula. Considering that Hammons prefers working outside of established art spaces and is most interested in non-art audiences, one might argue that this is precisely the intended effect of the work.
Hammons’s remake of Day’s End offers a sleek, streamlined reminder of a grittier New York, its open transparent forms precluding the sort of illicit behavior that once took place around the piers, as well as the commercial activity before that. In this regard it seems quite different than the artist’s last major public art commission in lower Manhattan: Delta Spirit, a small, funky house that the artist constructed as part of Creative Time’s “Art on The Beach” program in 1985, which was notably sited on an as-yet-undeveloped landfill peninsula produced by the construction of the World Trade Center. In an interview with Kellie Jones, Hammons’s described that work as an example of the sort of “Negritude architecture” found in the American South, a kind of building which “doesn’t have that neatness about it, the way white people put things together.”2 Day’s End, with its crisp geometric linearity, seems the antithesis to such vernacular untidiness, implying different sources and suggesting different audiences.
Matta-Clark ironically described his Day’s End as a “renovation” of a “decaying sad reminder of a previous industrial era.”3 He went on to contemplate how the ultimate destruction of his interventions could paradoxically complete them. Matta-Clark’s critique of the progressive ideals associated with urban development has been an influential model for contemporary artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Lucy Raven, and Hammons’s appropriation of Day’s End draws upon these currents in similar fashion. If Matta-Clark’s work produced, as Dan Graham wrote, a form of “instant ruins,” Hammons’s reiteration, which seems to hover in a state of incompletion, suggests Robert Smithson’s concept of “ruins in reverse.” Here, a structure, like a building under construction, points to a future state of completion. This Janus-faced temporality, commemorating a past moment in time while, through its permanence, pointing to an unknown but hopefully distant future, marks Day’s End’s monumentality. That said, this is a monument for an increasingly homogenized future, where the clandestine chance encounters that once took place in the abandoned piers are replaced with the eversame comforts of what used to be called late capitalism.
Situated upon and framing an artificial shoreline that currently consists of large boulders and slabs of concrete strewn with trash but is slated to be sanitized and made safe for park-goers, Day’s End invites viewers to contemplate even more expansive temporal registers. The sound of the tide lapping against the rocks, and the concrete pilasters which will in time become beds for native mussels, summon the slow geological processes that signal both a posthuman future and a past prior to the European colonization of Manhattan. Such a vision is arguably present in Hammons’s original sketch, which seems to position the structure entirely over the water, indicating perhaps a potential movement of the shoreline caused by rising sea levels. (This is a future that the Whitney has already prepared for, devising a strategy to protect its collection from flooding by buttressing the glass façade of the building with stacks of aluminum “logs.”) One imagines that Hammons, an artist who has dabbled in various forms of forecasting and who once memorably sold perfectly rounded but materially impermanent snowballs at an outdoor flea market in Cooper Square, had these broader and more evanescent horizons of time in mind when he chose to recycle the title of Matta-Clark’s work. Paradoxically making its short-lived predecessor permanent, this new Day’s End is a monument for a precarious present whose days, as the saying goes, are numbered.
- David Hammons, quoted in Amei Wallach, “ART: Rubble-Rouser,” Los Angeles Times (18 August 1991). https://www.latimes.com/arvhives/la-xpm-1991-08-18-ca-1418-story.html. Accessed 18 May 2021.
- David Hammons, in Kellie Jones, Eyeminded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 256.
- Quoted in Thomas Crow, “Gordon Matta Clark,” in Corrine Diserens, ed. Gordon Matta Clark (Phaidon, 2001), 12.