Harmolodics is a compositional method developed by the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who defined it as “the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group. Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time, and phrases all have equal position in the results that come from the placing and spacing of ideas.” David Hammons, who has been influenced by Coleman’s thinking, has expressed particular interest in his statement, “Follow the idea, not the sound” of a song. As Hammons explains, “I use this logic a lot. It moves in the realm of poetry as opposed to the actuality that people are used to or expect.”
The enigmatic press release for Hammons’s recent exhibition contains only the words “This exhibition is dedicated to / Ornette / Coleman / Harmolodic Thinker / David Hammons,” superimposed over a freeform drawing of squiggled, wavering horizontal and vertical lines. The press release not only set the tone for this sprawling, theatrical show, it also manifested Hammons’s total control over the display and public presentation of his work within the context of one of the world’s most powerful galleries. It mirrored the tenor of an exhibition that was rambling, discursive, yet sharply on point—a collection of manifested, spaced and placed, ideas that reference, through puns, direct address, abstractions, and realities, aspects of the African American experience, the reality of homelessness, the life and work of Ornette Coleman, and the profundity of art.
Operations of chance stand at the heart of Hammons’s work. He rewires presumptions about what art can be, producing performances, films, sculptures, and installations as well as paintings, while leaving room for an eruption of humor and pathos. The work is as straightforward as it is complex. Embedded within it are numerous philosophical, visual, biological, and language-based subtleties. The astounding variety of Hammons’s output—the range of reference, vitality, and curiosity underlying it—makes him one of the most singular and ambitious American artists. Together, his works engage in constant conversation with one another—conversations that, like music, can be dissonant and harmonious. They’re also slyly or overtly humorous and deeply poetic in their pointed critique of elitism, poverty, race, and racism. There were many direct references to Coleman, including two suits he wore to perform, presented in large cylinders. In one room, Coleman’s music emanated from an old-style record player.
Hammons is able to orchestrate all of these ideas because, above all, his work is profound, generous, and deeply rooted in personal experience. He is an extraordinary bricolleur; his work parallels the aesthetics of Arte Povera and conceptualism but adds a personal level of associative abstraction that mirrors the mechanics and eclecticism of jazz music and the dream world. The show eliminated conventional explications; there were no wall texts, titles, checklists, or artist statements to relieve viewers of the responsibility of coming to their own conclusions. With few exceptions, all of the works were made of found objects. The largest installation was the first to greet the viewer—an immense compound of brand-new colorful tents pitched outside, many stenciled with the phrase, “this could be u.” Hammons’s opening shot was a direct, even blatant, reference to the landscape of homelessness that occupies block after block on the periphery of what’s called the “downtown arts district” (just a 10-minute walk from the gallery) and a scathing indictment of a housing crisis out of control.