Installation view, ‘David Hammons: Five Decades’ (2016), Mnuchin Gallery, New York, with “Basketball Chandelier” (1997) at center (courtesy Mnuchin Gallery, art © David Hammons, photo by Tom Powel Imaging) (click to enlarge)

Why doesn’t the Whitney Museum of American Art inaugurate a series of exhibitions in honor of Herman Melville? It would certainly be fitting given the museum’s recent change of address. In its brand new home, the eight-story building — with its views of the Hudson River and downtown Manhattan, equipped with large indoor and outdoor galleries designed by the world-renowned architect, Renzo Piano — is located at 99 Gansevoort Street. As you must no doubt know, Herman Melville’s mother was Maria Gansevoort, and his maternal grandfather was General Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the American Revolution, as was his paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, who took part in the Boston Tea Party. (The family added an “e” to their name later). The author’s older brother was named Gansevoort Melville.

None of this would mean much to us except for the salient fact that Melville is the author of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). This is what D. H. Lawrence wrote near the end of his essay, “Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’” included in his book, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923):

The Pequod went down. And the Pequod was the ship of the white American soul. She sank, taking with her negro and Indian and Polynesian, Asiatic and Quaker and good, business-like Yankees and Ishmael: She sank all the lot of them.

Boom! As Vachel Lindsay would say.

To use the words of Jesus, IT IS FINISHED.

Consummatum est!

But Moby Dick was first published in 1851. If the Great White Whale sank the ship of the Great White Soul in 1851, what’s been happening ever since?

Post-mortem effects, presumably.

From John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, to the Civil War, to the Great Migration, to the reelection of Barack Obama to a second term as President of the United States, to the killing of nine people by an avowed white supremacist at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina — Lawrence’s question remains timely, don’t you think? As Lawrence also makes clear in the paragraphs that I cited: America isn’t a nation of only black and white people.

Lawrence’s question — which is really our question, isn’t it? — is the reason for mounting this series of exhibitions, which would address issues, from capitalism to race relationships, that Melville first raised in Moby-Dick. After erecting its new building on Gansevoort Street, the Whitney Museum of American Art seems destined to honor the masterpiece written by the family’s most acclaimed descendent.

Ishmael, the only survivor of the whaling ship, Pequod, is the narrator of Moby-Dick. Ruminating on why he was willing to sign onto a ship as a sailor, rather than as a “Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook,” and why he will listen to “orders […] to get a broom and sweep down the decks,” Ishmael asks: “Who aint a slave? Tell me that.”

Later, Melville has Ishmael say:

And there is all the difference between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid, – what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! How cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

The deeper, more compelling reason to inaugurate a series of exhibitions in honor of Melville is to examine his challenging observations about race, beginning with Ishmael’s memorable first encounter with Queequeg, when they are forced by circumstances to spent a cold night sleeping in the same bed at The Spouter-Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts. After a series of comical and not-so-comical misunderstandings, which the inn’s landlord, Peter Coffin, clears up, both men are able to get in bed together and go to sleep. The chapter ends with Ishmael commenting: “I turned in, and never slept better in my life.”

This is what Ishmael thought when he sees his bedmate for the first time:

Such a face! It was of dark, purplish, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares. Yes, it’s just as I thought, he’s a terrible bedfellow; he’s been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man – a whaleman too – who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooner, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, I thought after all! It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin.

Along with my suggestion for a series of exhibitions the museum could inaugurate in response to their location on Gansevoort Street — which might be another definition of site-specific — I would like to offer the outline of its kickoff exhibition: An exhibition of a small group of works by David Hammons and Jeff Koons.

David Hammons, ”How Ya Like Me Now?” (1988) (photo by Daniel Yovino/Flickr

Central to the exhibition would be the pairing of Hammons’s “How Ya Like Me Now?” (1988) and Koons’s “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988). These two well-known works have much in common. Both were made in the same year and shown shortly after they were completed. Both were derived from a mass media image. Both were controversial when they were first shown. And although both are portraits of black men with the last name Jackson — Jesse and Michael — the artists have presented their subjects as white men. I do not believe these affinities have been previously explored, nor do I know of an instance where Hammons and Koons have been paired in a museum sanctioned exhibition.

“How Ya Like Me Now?” is painted in enamel on sections of tin, which can be taken apart and reassembled. The 14-by-14-foot painting shows Jesse Jackson with pinkish-white skin, blue eyes, blond hair and blond eyebrows. He is wearing a pale blue suit, red necktie and white shirt. Emblazoned on the front of the portrait, in black spray paint, is the phrase, ”How Ya Like Me Now?” which is a line from a rap song performed by Kool Moe Dee. The piece looks almost as if it had been made by two people: the one who painted the portrait in a bold graphic style that shares something with West African barbershop signs, and the vandal who spray painted the question across the front.

I think it is important to remember that Hammons made “How Ya Like Me Now?” in 1988, in the midst of Jackson’s second campaign for the President of the United States. Jackson’s principal opponent in the Democratic primaries was Michael Dukakis, Governor of Massachusetts. While many people did not believe that Jackson stood a chance of getting the nomination, he did far better than expected. This prompted R. W. Apple of The New York Times to declare 1988 “The Year of Jackson.” Jackson’s momentum suffered a major setback in the Wisconsin primaries, where he received significantly less votes than predicted by the pre-election polling. The inconsistency has been referred to as the “Bradley effect,” named for the African American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, who lost a bid for California governor in 1982 despite his lead in the polls.

This is Wikipedia’s definition of the Bradley effect:

The Bradley effect posits that the inaccurate polls were skewed by the phenomenon of social desirability bias. Specifically, some white voters give inaccurate polling responses for fear that, by stating their true preference, they will open themselves to criticism of racial motivation. Members of the public may feel under pressure to provide an answer that is deemed to be more publicly acceptable, or ‘politically correct’.

Richard Powell selected “How Ya Like Me Now?” for an exhibition, The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism, he organized for the Washington Project for the Arts in the fall of 1989. It was one of seven outdoor pieces that were to be placed around Washington D.C. While the other six works were approved and installed, the approval for Hammons’s piece, which was to be placed in a D.C. city-owned parking lot across the street the National Portrait Gallery — where no portrait of a black person was on display — did not come until three months after the show opened.

When the billboard-size piece was finally installed, a crowd of young black men immediately gathered, upset by what they felt was a racist depiction, and knocked it down with sledgehammers, leaving only the section with Jackson’s blond hair in place. Eventually, the piece was returned to Hammons and repaired; it was reinstalled with a set of sledgehammers — joined together by wire — functioning as stanchions, adding another level of meaning into the work. The handle of one of the sledgehammers is encircled by a Lucky Strike cigarette pack, its red logo clearly visible. An American flag on a stand is placed nearby.

According to the Washington Post (December 5, 1989), when Jackson, who came to Washington, D.C., to tour the exhibition and saw the remains of the piece after the damaged lower sections had been sent back to the artist, he had this response: “It’s not the picture that’s the insult. It’s the reality behind the picture: That’s the insult.” The article goes on to say: “Jackson said he did not personally find the work insulting ‘because I understand it. My response was interpretation and intent. But I understand those that reacted violently. We must appreciate the source of their pain. They must not be painted out of the equation.’” By including sledgehammers in his reinstallation of the piece, Hammons seems to have heeded Jackson’s compassionate response.

Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988) (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” is a gilded porcelain sculpture of the pop music star and his pet chimpanzee: both have bright white skin with touches of pink; bright red lips; gold (or is it blonde?) hair and eyebrows; and identical gold and white costumes. Jackson reclines on a flower bed with his arm around Bubbles. Koons has stated that he based the sculpture on a photograph, but changed the pose after being inspired by the triangular composition of Michelangelo’s “Pietà” (1498-99).

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” was made the year after the singer released his seventh studio album, Bad (1987), which is listed as one of the thirty bestselling albums of all time. The sculpture was included in Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, organized by Scott Rothkopf for the Whitney Museum of American Art (June 27–October 19, 2014), which was the last show in the Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue before the move to Gansevoort Street.

The exhibition’s wall label for “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” provided one reason why Koons picked Jackson as a subject:

I wanted to create him in a very god-like icon manner. But I always liked the radicality of Michael Jackson; that he would do absolutely anything that was necessary to be able to communicate with people.”

Koons has also famously said: “If I could be one other living person, it would probably be Michael Jackson.” During the late 1980s, when Koons made the piece, Jackson was undergoing plastic surgery as well as skin-lightening procedures. This was Koons response, recorded in the same Whitney wall label, to those actions, which he felt was a direct result of Jackson’s desire to attract the attention of a wider audience: “That’s radicality. That’s abstraction.”

This is what Rothkopf had to say about the artist: “It’s hard to think of another living artist who has pushed as many aesthetic and cultural limits as Koons has.”

Jeff Koons, “Dr Dunkenstein” (1985), framed Nike poster, 45 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

It seems to me that these two works can be complemented by Hammons’s outdoor installation, “Higher Goals” (1986), which consists of five bottle cap-studded telephone poles, which are topped by basketball backboards (also studded with bottle caps), basketball hoops and nets. An alternative would be “Basketball Chandelier” (1997), an indoor piece consisting of chandelier glass, venetian blinds, plumbing pipe and electric candles. This could be paired with Koons’s Nike posters featuring black basketball players, which were included in his exhibition, Equilibrium, in the East Village gallery, International With Monument (1985), the show that also featured the first appearance of his basketballs floating in tanks of water. One reason Koons appropriated the posters, as Rothkopf writes in the retrospective’s catalog, was because he viewed the athletes “as ‘sirens’ beckoning young people (especially African Americans) with the promise of social mobility.”

Ideally, I think that “How Ya Like Me Now?” and “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” should be opposite each other with Michael facing Jesse — eye to eye, so to speak. The pairing of “Higher Goals “or “Basketball Chandelier” with Koons’s Nike posters and floating basket balls should be at a discrete distance from the encounter between Jesse and Michael.

David Hammons, “Higher Goals” (1986), mixed media, 35′, 30′, 30′, 20′ high (photo by Pinkney Herbert / Jennifer Secor, courtesy Public Art Fund, NY)

Various panels, lectures and events could be organized around this historical encounter. Walt Whitman and Herman Melville walked the same downtown streets; they liked standing by the water, and in 1846, shortly after it opened, even went to the gallery, American Art Union, on Broadway, near Franklin, with Whitman reviewing the exhibit, but they never met. David Hammons and Jeff Koons have had work in the same galleries and museums, but I don’t think their work has ever been paired before. Perhaps it’s time they were.

One further note: The Whitney Museum has previously included Joe Scanlan’s “Donelle Woolford” as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. In that piece, which has been ongoing since 2005, Scanlan, who is white, hires black women to play the part of a fictional black artist named Donelle Woolford. Koons’s “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” was included in his 2014 Whitney retrospective. On some level, the museum has embraced the work of a white man passing himself off as a black woman artist, and a white artist celebrating a black man’s attempt to successfully transform himself into a white man. However, I cannot remember if the museum has ever sanctioned the work of a black artist that comments on white culture’s wish for a black man to be white. Might it not be time to put on this show and see what kind of dialogue ensues?

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

One reply on “Dear Adam D. Weinberg, Donna De Salvo, and Scott Rothkopf”

  1. As always, John Yau alerts me to possibilities. And may I suggest a joint maybe temp exhibit at the Armory on Lex/26. Where Melville wrote Billy Budd. Which was the first DNA collection site after 9-11.

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