Barbara Hammer

Company Gallery and The Leslie-Lohman Museum, New York

In Corky Wick and me, 1979 (2017), a photograph in Barbara Hammer’s solo exhibition at Company Gallery, the artist stands nude in front of a mirror and embraces a woman, perhaps a lover or friend. She unhooks one arm, turns her eyes from her partner, and uses her free hand to snap a photograph into the glass, flash blazing. If any still image could encapsulate Hammer’s work, surveyed concurrently at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, it might be this one. The 78-year-old artist is not one to put distance between herself and her subjects. The experimental queer films for which she is best known are intimate, frequently diaristic reflections on the lesbian and female experience. She often features as an actor, using her own body to express lust and tenderness, or in more recent years, aging and illness. One gets the impression that Hammer is a constant observer, enthralled by acquaintances, paramours, and above all, herself.

This is not to accuse her of narcissism. To the contrary, as these exhibitions demonstrate, Hammer is deeply invested in queer community. Both shows, centered around never-before-seen pieces in varying mediums, situate her filmic practice within a larger iconographic project to represent queer women in a multiplicity of guises, as lovers, warriors, patients or mystics – to give only several examples.


Barbara Hammer, On the Road, Baja California, 1975, 2017, silver gelatin print, 20 x 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Company Gallery, New York

Barbara Hammer, On the Road, Baja California, 1975, 2017, silver gelatin print, 20 x 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Company Gallery, New York

The show at Company features 28 silver gelatin prints shot from 1970 to 1979 and printed in 2017. Some document film and performance production, like Sappho Pre-Production Meeting, Los Angeles, 1978, but the majority are personal photographs taken in California or on trips abroad. Bowsprit, Hornby Island, British Columbia, 1972 depicts a friend sunbathing nude, her back arched against a rock. In Party Time, Montreal, 1979 two women double over in laughter. Folsom Street, San Francisco, 1973 shows figures from the waist down, clad in leather and distressed denim.

Bowsprit is one of many outdoor scenes, and recalls photographs by Anne Brigman and Imogen Cunningham, who staged sumptuous nudes of women in West Coast landscapes. What they did for straight female photographers, Hammer here does for queer ones – naturalizing the explicitly lesbian body and eroticized gaze. Vscape, On The Trail to Machu Picchu captures a suggestive, fertile valley nestled between two mountain peaks; in The Maiden from The Great Goddess (film), Mendocino, California, 1977, a naked female torso is decorated with rings of sand and itself transformed into land art, like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) on flesh.


Barbara Hammer, I love you , 1969-1971, ink, felt tip pen, pencil, watercolor on paper, 42 x 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist and KOW, Berlin

Barbara Hammer, I love you , 1969-1971, ink, felt tip pen, pencil, watercolor on paper, 42 x 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist and KOW, Berlin

At Leslie-Lohman, documentary video projects, paintings, collages, journals and other ephemera appear alongside 12 better-known films from the 1970s through the 1990s, among them her career-launching sensuous romp Dyketactics (1974). As with the work at Company, these evince Hammer’s quest to find appropriate representation for herself and her community within art and visual culture at large. In two black-and-white photographs, Protegée I and Protegée II (1972/2017), Hammer contorts her body to match the poses of female nudes by Rodin on display in a museum. In the ‘Charlene Atlas’ prints (1998), she superimposes her face onto magazine spreads of famed bodybuilder Charles Atlas. The ‘Merkin’ (1979) drawings and collages abstract lovers’ pubic areas as upside-down triangles. Each is decorated to evoke a different person’s essence: Marilyn, ‘a closely guarded secret’ (according to a description scrawled underneath the picture), is represented by thin grey horizontal lines, while someone named Kathy is imagined as an exuberant combination of red, yellow, green and blue.


Barbara Hammer, Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS, 1986, film still, analog video transferred to digital video, color, sound. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Barbara Hammer, Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS, 1986, film still, analog video transferred to digital video, color, sound. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

8 in 8 (1994), the most viscerally moving piece in either exhibition, comprises a reel of 8 short interviews with breast cancer survivors played on side-by-side monitors. To activate each woman’s story, you press a button buried, like a cancerous node, inside of a synthetic, rubbery breast. Hammer, herself a survivor of the disease, forces her audience to imagine the sensation of discovering disease underneath one’s skin. Female bodies are constantly in flux, as reactive to arousal as to illness, and Hammer leaves no room for passive spectatorship of these many states of being. 

Main image: Barbara Hammer, Bowsprit, Hornby Island, British Columbia, 1972, 2017, (detail), silver gelatin print, 39 x 58 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Company Gallery, New York

Hannah Stamler is a New York-based writer and Ph.D. student at Princeton University. 

Issue 192

First published in Issue 192

January - February 2018

Most Read

Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018