Harold Crooks and Judd Tully on Keeping Their Cool in “The Melt Goes On Forever: The Art and Times of David Hammons”

It is telling that co-directors Judd Tully and Harold Crooks introduce David Hammons in their spry profile of the artist “The Melt Goes On Forever” with one of his most ephemeral works, marketing well-crafted snowballs as one-of-a-kind pieces to sell on the street in St. Marks Place in New York to customers who might not make it home in time to properly display it, but surely taking up a place in their mind forevermore. As much as Hammons is said to love a good joke, there is serious genius at work as he sets the context for what is considered art than be trapped within it, defying the art world’s inherent biases towards Black artists and the kind of work they should be producing by offering up the truly unpredictable, from paintings created by pressing his flesh upon the canvas so he couldn’t ever be thought to be invisible to sculptures made of found objects that reflected a warped perspective of the masses towards Black life.

Hammons rarely has let anyone in to his mischief making until it’s on display – and declines all interview requests, including Tully and Crooks’ – yet “The Melt Goes On Forever” nonetheless shows how his gifts for recognizing the presentation of art can be as important as the work itself, from his early days attending the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles where he learned from Charles White — later honoring his mentor by drawing a comparison between the painter and Leonardo DaVinci by getting MoMA to place their works side-by-side at a 2017 exhibit — to presaging the likes of Banksy with large scale public provocations such as imagining Jesse Jackson as white in the streets of Washington D.C. and causing a stir at Williams College with “Rock Fan,” which struck some on campus as being far too literal as a giant piece of granite with an accordion fan, though it worked well as a conversation starter.

When replicas of Hammons’ 1990 piece “African American Flag” could be seen waved in Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, there is no doubt that his influence is legion, but remains elusive, though Tully and Crooks impressively manage to capture his spirit through conversations with his contemporaries and admirers, as well as honor his appreciation of dipping into different disciplines by having Tynesha Foreman’s lively animation illustrate scenes of some of Hammons’ wilder exploits and the electricity of Young Poets’ Umar Bin Hassan reading Steve Cannon’s poetry inspired by Hammons’ work. After traveling around the world for the past year, “The Melt Goes On” is finally starting its U.S. run in the artist’s home of New York and Tully and Crooks spoke about how to approach a biography of someone who’d prefer his work speak for itself, the fortuitous timing of making an appreciation of Hammons now and how they ended up creating a platform for so many other exciting artists beyond the one they profile.

How’d you join forces on this?

Judd Tully: I’ve known Harold for years and from the time I met him through his girlfriend and later wife, the artist Medrie MacPhee, he was pretty much away, making documentaries all around the world. We would talk about how it would be fun to work on a project together and then back around 2013, we decided to seriously collaborate on a film project and that eventually led us to David Hammons.

Harold Crooks: Yeah, Judd and I have known each other for 30 years, maybe a little more than that and as a documentary filmmaker, I knew that whatever the subject is, access is critical. And Judd, in his California days covering Black Panther trials and coming up through his career as an art journalist and developing relationships with the community, that gave us access [with] all these eminent artists, critics, gallerists, which made the film possible.

It must be interesting to approach a subject who has made it clear throughout his career that he doesn’t want to be a subject.

Judd Tully: We knew from the outset that the possibility of Hammons participating was not going to happen, but given that, we were very careful from the outset of contacting someone very close to him who was like a backer and a champion of what we intended to do. He sent us a one-line emails saying something to the effect that, “Well, you never know with David,” whether he would participate. So we were always hypersensitive in just approaching him and his artwork, not going into his personal life, but it was an effort to bring him out into a broader, brighter light. [He’s] super famous within this little elite art world and art school students, but beyond that, he’s not known.

Harold Crooks: We were able slowly over time to build up an ever more impressive roster of participants, but this was never intended as a biopic. It was absolutely critical to respect the mystic or aura that has been at the core of his practice and over the course of his career, he’s gone from being the ultimate outsider to ultimately becoming an ultimate insider, yet never letting go of that outsider dimension and critical attitude towards the art world, so our ability to make the film and in the end get very positive [responses] from people who are very close to him is a testimony to the respectfulness with which we dealt with his tactical evasion or invisibility. And given that direct access to David was out of the question, it required this hunt for archival materials that could give a presence to him on screen.

Judd Tully: [For instance] that footage at Williams College that had Hammond standing in front of this very controversial sculpture, “Rock Fan” that he installed on campus, our archivist sourced it from the Williams Library archive, and it was a student shooting the video [where] you saw Hammond’s almost like a standup comic taking on all of these questions with just a casual brilliance and it really brought him to life.

Were there any directions this took that you might not have expected but could get excited by?

Judd Tully: When we decided that we were going to try to make a film about David Hammons, he was well-known [within the art community] and had pretty great track record, both exhibition wise and art-market wise, but during the time that we worked on the film, his reputation just grew exponentially. He had these major exhibitions which were perfect launch pads for us to investigate, both in L.A. at Hauser-Wirth, and New York at what was called L & M Arts, now Mnuchin. And Black Lives Matter didn’t exist by name [yet], so there was this whole change in the white-only art world before our eyes that’s exemplified in the film by David being invited to curate a show at MoMA and then juxtaposing his teacher Charles White with Leonardo [Da Vinci]. It seems to signify the end of the apartheid era in the elite art world of which his unprecedented career plays a very significant role.

Harold Crooks: And one of the things that’s mindblowing about that exhibition is that [when] Hammons requests a work by Leonardo, the Museum of Modern Art doesn’t [have it] — no one in New York has it. So it came from the Queen’s Royal Collection and the fact that MoMA went out and got it, [facing] this Charles White piece, it’s amazing.

Judd Tully: There were also parts of the film about the art community in Los Angeles and LACMA. We had interviewed a mother and son Kinte and Miriam Fergerson and Miriam’s husband [Cecil Fergerson] worked at LACMA as a janitor. He was a person of color and actually sued the museum, which was supported by city funds, so they elevated him to an assistant curator position and he wound up working with this eminent curator named Maurice Tuckman, and Fergerson, meanwhile, was very much involved in the Black community [in Los Angeles], and brought [them] in with this early show that had David Hammons and several other artists of color, even though they had it in the basement [of the museum]. That part of the story just never quite fit into the actual film, but learning about that was fascinating.

You make fascinating use out of Steve Cannon’s poem that was penned for Hammons’ 1990 MoMA exhibit “Rousing the Rubble,” read by the Young Poets’ Umar Bin Hassan at select points in the film. How did that emerge as a way to narrate this?

Judd Tully: I have to credit Harold here [because when we were first] trying to tell the story of Hammons, this poem/essay that was commissioned for this early exhibition at PS1, just really brought the film to life as a thread. We spent quite a bit of time with Steve Cannon, who sadly passed away several years ago, but he was blind, so he couldn’t recite the poem and we had a good friend of his [try] and it just didn’t work. Then our composer Ramachandra Borcar suggested to us, “One of the members of the Last Poets — Umar bin Hassan — you might try to contact him.” And this was during the pandemic, so Umar was somewhere in Michigan, but he said, “Oh yeah, I can hop on a Greyhound bus. I’ll be in New York.”

Harold Crooks: And Ramachandra, who actually lives in Los Angeles, became obsessed by the subject, so this wasn’t just a gig for him. He has a past as an ethnomusicologist and has worked as a composer and musician using found objects as his instruments, so not only did he raise the level of the film in terms of bringing Umar Bin Hassan on board, but in the course of composing for the film, he brought in some legendary musicians, including Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Orchestra. It’s almost hard to believe what I’m saying, except it’s true that a few months ago, Judd and I went to see a concert of the Sun Ra Orchestra here in Queens and he’s 98 and he was just going strong. And besides Marshall Allen, Ram brought in other great musicians, Idris Ackamoor and Shabaka Hutchings in the UK and the upshot of all this is the soundtrack is going to be released by Strut Records, a UK-based record label that specializes in jazz.

It seems fitting that you’re giving a platform to other artists in this — there are also some lovely animated sequences created by Tynesha Foreman. How did you come across her work?

Harold Crooks: Given that we had to tell a story without the participation of the subject, it seemed that we should explore the possibility of animation, so we began looking online for an animator and found some historical videos The Atlantic had done, including of W.E.B. DuBois that Tynesha had animated. We thought that Tynesha could really add a lot to the project and did. Given that this was all going on during the pandemic, Tynesha was originally based in Brooklyn when we started working [together] on the film, and [they] got out of Dodge and moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and our assistant editor was also working and living in Brooklyn, and scattered to his parents’ garage in Youngstown, Ohio, so this was an interesting technological challenge to put this all together. We’ve still never actually met Tynesha in person, but [they] added such an important dimension to the film. It was great to be able to collaborate with someone that was really open to talking about making changes and improving. It was a great effort.

After nine years, what’s it like to get this out into the world?

Harold Crooks: It’s going to be an amazing upcoming week in the life of the film. We’ve already been out in the world on the festival circuit — we premiered in Sheffield in the UK and talk about being unanticipated, but when we were at the Sheffield, the festival there has had a relationship with Kiev and some Ukrainians from that festival invited our film to screen during the Venice Bienniale in a program that they had curated about art and decolonization, so the film has had a significant life — we were in Barcelona where we won a critics award and we were in Florence, but but in terms of going out to the general public, we have our opening weekend at Film Forum, beginning on May 5th.

“The Melt Goes on Forever: The Art and Times of David Hammons” opens on May 5th in New York at Film Forum.

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