Review: David Hammons eludes documentation once more

David Hammons at work in his Harlem studio in the 1980s
David Hammons at work in his Harlem studio in the 1980s from the documentary “The Melt Goes on Forever: The Art & Times of David Hammons.”
(Michael Blackwood/Greenwich Entertainment)
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There is an inherently ephemeral quality to the work of Los Angeles-based artist David Hammons. From one of his best-known and influential works, “Bliz-aard Ball Sale,” in which the artist sold snowballs of various sizes in New York’s Cooper Square one blustery winter day in 1983, to his ongoing penchant for changing and removing artwork from exhibitions during their public runs, Hammons and his work continue to exist as perpetually moving targets, almost daring one to try to capture, in situ and in stillness, any trace of his practice in full.

As an artist who has primarily eschewed standardized documentation processes, turned down many offers of large-scale survey exhibitions and, generally, avoided all interviews, the challenge of covering the life and work of Hammons within the scope of a conventional feature-length documentary is an unenviable one. A directorial collaboration between filmmaker Harold Crooks and art critic Judd Tully, “The Melt Goes on Forever: The Art & Times of David Hammons” attempts just this and is the first theatrically released film to devote itself solely to the artist and, likewise, to attempt a cohesive overview of Hammons and his often ever-fleeting work.

Shaped largely by talking-head style interviews provided by peers, collaborators and critics such as art historian Kellie Jones, critic Antwaun Sargent, “A Gathering of Tribes” founder and poet Steve Canon, as well as acclaimed artists Betye Saar and Lorna Simpson, “The Melt Goes On Forever” is eager to showcase its vast array of participants. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience here to sift through and, at times, the film’s editing leaves these individual’s offerings unshaped or unclear. There is too often a lack of cohesion and fidelity within these interviews, possibly speaking to the fact that a film like this carries the burden of just how many people Hammons’ work has touched, never mind passed through institutionally.


The film makes decent work of grounding us in Hammons’ early days as a burgeoning artist. It offers a welcome amount of time to contextually ground Hammons as an artist emerging in the wake of the Watts riots, as well as the importance of his tutelage under the highly influential artist and educator Charles White. We are chronologically guided through Hammons’ works, from performance and space-based undertakings such as “Bliz-aard Ball Sale” to his ongoing “culture sculptures” — a practice in which the artist utilizes everyday non-art material objects, largely sourced from or in reference to a Black, working-class cultural context, to build conceptually multilayered architectural works.

If anything, “The Melt Goes on Forever” offers us a collated version of the scattered, often immaterial records of Hammons’ practice. From short glimpses of rare archival interviews and artwork documentation to the shared cultural memory offered by the individuals we hear from, the film’s first half seems committed, if somewhat bland in its approach, to mapping Hammons’ history as an artist. It is when we move toward the present day — toward Hammons’ status as a highly praised figure in contemporary Black artmaking — that the film begins tracing the artist’s movements largely through market value.

We hear less and less from peers and artistic and curatorial collaborators and more from gallerists, collectors and buyers. And while it is engaging to witness and hear of the ways that Hammons has continued to reject and undermine this market-minded approach to his work in the present day, the film’s focus on tracing Hammons’ work through capital, be it social or monetary, leaves the film with a bottom-heavy feeling of what can only be described as “ick.”

What began as a somewhat customary, but still informative, overview of an incredible Black artist is ultimately bogged down in its last acts by what feels like an almost compulsive desire on the part of these (largely non-Black, it must be said) buyers, gallerists and others to stake a claim in Hammons’ legacy. It is a self-serving impulse that mistakes a supposedly unique proximity to Hammons — the ability to speak of limited interactions with him, of being able to purchase and collect his work, of being able to offer the resources to stage exhibitions — for deeply engaged collaboration. Glaringly, Hammons himself remains largely on the periphery of “The Melt Goes on Forever: The Art & Times of David Hammons,” leaving us only with witnesses — some fantastic orators of a shared history, others more vulturine in nature — to his work.

'The Melt Goes on Forever: The Art & Times of David Hammons'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: Starts June 2, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica