Friday, August 30, 2019

Artist Interview: David Huffman

The following interview took place at Magnolia Editions on July 29, 2019 as David Huffman's new mixed-media work on panel Rise was in the final stages of fabrication. Rise was commissioned by SFMOMA on behalf of the Golden State Warriors for installation in the Warriors' new Chase Center in San Francisco; other artworks featured at the Chase Center include Alexander Calder’s mobile Untitled and Isamu Noguchi’s Play Sculpture, both on loan from SFMOMA, as well as an additional mural-sized commission from San Francisco artists Hughen/Starkweather (also fabricated by Magnolia Editions) and a sculpture by Olafur Eliasson located outside the arena.

The Chase Center in San Francisco (photo by Paul Chinn, The Chronicle)

Rise is a 14-foot square abstract work that draws upon art-historical and urban vernacular forms, including basketball nets, handmade basketball stamps, and glitter. Nick Stone spoke with Huffman about the work's genesis, his artistic inspirations, and basketball greats from the Harlem Globetrotters and Dr. J to Lebron James and Stephen Curry:

NS: How did this commission come about for you?

DH: I got an email from Erin O’Toole, a curator at SFMOMA, and she asked me if I was interested in doing a commission for the Chase Center. It was very short notice: from beginning to end I think it was a four-month window, which is pretty tight. They were contacted by the Golden State Warriors asking about some artwork for the Chase Center: they wanted something of a high caliber, so they approached the Museum of Modern Art. Erin O’Toole, who’s a curator of photography at SFMOMA, had seen of my pieces in a group show at MoAD [Museum of the African Diaspora] and thought of me; she saw one of my net paintings, the mindset of the work, how I was dealing with basketball and since it was for the Warriors, thought: here’s somebody who’s already working with relevant iconography.

Detail from David Huffman's Rise; photo by Nick Stone

You’ve created a variety of artworks incorporating basketball imagery. When you got the commission, how did you end up selecting this particular composition?

Since recreating the piece would take a long time, we decided to take an existing piece and manipulate it; they didn’t know exactly how we would do it, but I researched and Magnolia was recommended very highly, and I looked at Magnolia’s website and saw some of the things the studio had done with other artists that I like. Then when I came in to the studio, I saw the Deborah Oropallo piece up here [Teardrop, 2015] and the Clare Rojas piece [a small print of Blue Deer on panel] and I saw how strong it looked: it looked like an original piece, not a printed reproduction, so I was really compelled by the quality. I thought, wow, it would be great if we could get one of the paintings to work that way. The tricky thing is that some of the work is so exact in scale that it might lose some of its quality when it’s blown up, so we had to think about that. And this piece — Double Jump — was the best when it came to scaling up. I used stamps to make these [basketball] patterns and I’ve recently created a stamp that is actually this size, so the enlargement has reached the scale of work that I’m already doing anyway. Also, this was a piece they were particularly interested in because it has both the chain hoop-net pattern and the nylon or cotton hoop netting, as well as the basketball shape itself. So this one had a certain quality that they thought would work well with the Chase Center and the whole ethos of basketball.

My concern is abstraction – color field painting and hard-edge abstraction – and social identity; I’m dealing with the language of the history of painting, reflecting on some of the moves that have already been made but also interjecting my own ideal in the social space that I felt was always left out of formalism in abstraction. So this was a merging of those two worlds. And Double Jump was one of my better, larger pieces; smaller ones might look a little more spread out when you enlarge them, to the point where you might lose the quality of the composition, whereas this one actually increased as it got bigger. And then when I started seeing these amazing samples that Magnolia was making, I got more confident about it and thought: this is a new piece. So I’m retitling the Chase Center piece Rise, as if this piece was born out of Double Jump. It was rising out, and in a certain way went slightly above the original painting, which was a little bit less saturated in color. The saturation increased, the scale increased — so the work will have a different relationship with the viewer’s body. The name Rise also came about because of the Warriors rising to the next stadium, and the game kind of takes place in the air now; there’s many attributes to the title.

David Huffman - Double Jump, 2014
Acrylic, oil, spray paint, glitter and printing ink on canvas, 69 x 69 in.

You’ve described basketball as a “black ballet that takes place in the air,” and there’s a weightlessness suggested by a lot of your work.

My priority as a painter is to reflect on the history of painting and to have a conversation with it, but also to inject my contemporary experiences — so that’s the social aspect of what I’m trying to do, to combine them. And they definitely look celestial in a way, because I’m what they call an Afrofuturist, so I love astronomy, sci-fi, I like things spacey. From my earlier works dealing specifically with outer space and astronauts and the whole space program, all of that is still there, even in abstraction — there’s a sort of “spaceness" to it, even though I’m not necessarily looking to achieve it.

There might be a link too between the physical excellence, the feats that you see on the basketball court, and the idea of “one small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”

It’s funny because I recently found Julius Erving [“Dr. J”] on Instagram, and he was the first player when I was growing up who put the game in the air. He would leap from the top of the key to dunk; no one was doing that. Everything was rudimentary — not to say there weren’t great players, of course there were; it’s just that he had put it in a different category, he literally raised it up.

Literally head and shoulders above everyone else.

Right. I had that poster, I’d stare at it in my room and I’d just look at this guy — he had lights below him! And the excellence, to use your term, in anything, it’s this type of unencumbered weightlessness of total freedom. Whatever it is, you hit that place where it ascends. And obviously the easiest way to think about it is physical ascension, flight, but literally that’s how creativity works. When it’s open, you lighten up; you get taken by it, as a subject.

David Huffman applies gesso to panels for Rise at Magnolia Editions; photo by Tallulah Terryll

Tell me about your connection to the Warriors. I know you grew up in Berkeley; were you always a Warriors fan?

Growing up in Berkeley, I was more of a baseball fan, actually; I was a big A’s person. Back when I was a kid, baseball was really the top thing, and basketball was around — but you just played basketball at the park because it was the fun thing to do. Most of my basketball experiences were just playing basketball outside with friends at the courts. But the Warriors were definitely champions. It was mostly Rick Berry: he was the most popular player on the Warriors when I was growing up. He had the weirdest shot. He would shoot underhand — it was the silliest thing. You almost thought, this is really bad skill; but he’d make it! And every kid started doing it. We all did it.

Sounds like something you’d see on the Washington Generals, the team that would play against the Harlem Globetrotters.

Right; it’s a silly thing. But you know, you mentioned the Harlem Globetrotters; they were more exciting to me than the actual game. I knew the Warriors and was definitely interested in them, but the Harlem Globetrotters were a much bigger influence. Because I would go and see them, and they would do all the magic. I mean, they did the hardest stuff I’ve ever seen.

And that’s the word, too: they brought magic to the game in a way that later players would do one at a time.

Well, if you look at it, they did stuff that they’re trying do in the NBA now. They’d do it in sections, as a show, but their feats were pretty high-level skill. But then there’d also be this vaudeville-esque type of performance that was about getting people interested. And you know, you’re not going to spin the ball on your finger all day long when you’re trying to make a shot in a real game. There’s just things that you do for entertainment, and then there are things like: what are the possibilities here when I go up for a layup? They really spread out the creativity map to say: there are various things that can happen on the court.

I would never have thought about it if you hadn’t brought it up, but the Harlem Globetrotters were really the deal. Curly was one of my favorite players. That ballet aspect — they really did it in an exceptional way. It was like they were superhuman. And the funny thing is, when we’d go there to see them, the crowd would be locked in such a way — it was like you were seeing something you couldn’t see anywhere else. You knew it was a unique moment. We were all mesmerized. And then I think later on, it turned into a thing that everyone expected. And I didn’t keep going as I got older — I got into real basketball. That’s when Julius Erving came in and changed the game and put it in the air. So you saw this excitement about this new kind of athleticism that the game started producing, and that Harlem Globetrotter thing got put to the side as a sort of circus. They’re still geniuses — but the NBA got more exciting. It’s almost like their energy went into the NBA and now you get these players doing really wild stuff.

The ballet part of it is this proficiency of the body, how it can be unencumbered by gravity, and the tradition of these moves. There’s a synergy in ballet of music and performance; if you just see the performance, it looks good, but it doesn’t have the same spice that music gives. When it’s tuned in with a certain piece of music, it becomes profound. It’s like John Coltrane taking “My Favorite Things” apart: a traditional tune, but brought back to you in this new way.

Detail from David Huffman's Rise; photo by Nick Stone

In terms of the combination of abstraction and more familiar iconography, you’re incorporating the basketballs, the nets; are there any other elements in this piece that are more consciously specific signifiers?

When I brought the chains in, I thought the chains were extremely apropos as a nod to the imprisonment and captivity of slavery, the idea that even though the shackles may have been physically removed, there are still emotional shackles. I remember when we would go to the park or were looking for a court, you would see a chain net and you’d just get depressed a little bit because it’s not what you want to play on: you want the cotton nets because they make a certain sound —

That satisfying “swish” sound.

Yes! But it also signified the durability and the kind of affordability — or lack thereof. Even those chain nets would be hanging off of three hooks, and kids would try to dunk and cut their hands all the time on them. They were this signifier of poverty, race, and location, a convergence of those things in a peripheral way. So it was important for me to add the chains along with the netting, because the netting, even though it was the ultimate material to play with, the chain was often the default.

The netting was aspirational, but the chain was what you had to work with.

The chain reflected the poverty of the situation in a certain way. So for me, the chains were a harsher signifier. As far as the stamping goes, it was also about recontextualizing form and camouflaging certain patterns into nods to hard-edge abstraction — so you would recognize it as a formal experience in painting, but then you’d see how these things were built by other forms. In traditional abstraction they would definitely aim for elements that didn’t signify anything outside the painting; the painting had its own dimension and priority that removed you from the world. And my take was, race and racism are also a type of abstraction — one that doesn’t get solved because it’s so abstract. So I thought, maybe abstract painting should include such things. It’s a way to have the definition in a subtle way: you lose its definition but gain pattern, and then after you understand the pattern, you might see the definition. So it’s a shape-shifting symbol, depending on how it’s being presented. There are also specific stamps where I put down the color and stamp the basketball on top of it, whereas with others, I’ve linked the negative spaces to create other qualities.

Some are discrete, and some become a field.

Yes, exactly. Because it’s kind of like I’m dealing with two different thoughts at the same time, which is really tricky to do.

So it becomes an elegant way to visually approach the idea of code-switching.

Formal elegance is extremely important, as a painter, for me. The priority again is the history of painting. So I’m after boundlessness there; but it has always emptied out the social experiences in a lot of ways, so it would just stay rudimentary in the sense of shapes and formal notions that really wouldn’t tell on who’s painting it or who the painting’s for. And I wanted to be specific: I’m an African-American person making these paintings, talking about abstraction, to have more of a contemporary twist on it.

Individual panel from David Huffman's Rise at Magnolia Editions; photo by Tallulah Terryll

Is there spray paint in the original composition?

Yes, all this is spray paint. But when I talk about the chains and nets, I’m using real netting and real chains to create all the patternwork. The basketballs are handmade stamps but most of it is sprayed.

Spray paint has a kind of populist feeling to me; it’s a technique that almost everyone has access to, not one that I tend to associate with institutionally sanctioned artwork.

Exactly, it’s a default. It’s a weird discovery. I’ve used it in the past for different things but was always using it like a brush. So this was different. Everyone asks about the netting patterns — is it stenciling? No, it’s not. The difference between stenciling and what I do is that stenciling uses a block-out system that isn’t composed of whatever it is you’re trying to depict. Whereas I’m using the object itself. The term is aerography, which is an archaelogical term used to describe a cave painting technique, when you see the pigment blown through a hand to depict a hand on the wall. When you see the spray painted netting here, that’s exactly what that is; it happens to go way back. The only other time I’ve seen it is during the Surrealist period when Man Ray was doing that in photography. He did lots of real objects. And David Hammons did a beautiful piece of himself in a chair being strangled. So there are these moments where it is something basic that anyone can access, but it also goes back to the hand, which is super basic.

What can you tell me about your use of glitter?

I’ve used it a lot in the past, even before the abstract work, when I was doing more narrative work. I was after a sense of atmosphere. So I would put down a wash and then add the glitter, and the glitter would give a dimensional, atmospheric effect. There’d be angles where you don’t see any of the glitter — because I didn’t put a ton to where it would plate — there would just be enough to where it was embedded into the paint, so you saw it at an angle. I would only apply it with the paint; I never put it on top of a dry piece. It’s a layering, and it has to be organically settled through the drying process of the paint. So even if the paint is totally muddled and it breaks and the glitter settles into little rivers, that natural drying process is part of how it should look, too. So for me it’s about an atmospheric quality: how do I make this green “do” more green? Well, add some green glitter, so this essence of glitter is both flat and opaque, but also shimmers with light; it has a little bit more depth.

In Rise, the glitter is in the varnish on top?

Yes, but the original painting style, the glitter was in the washes. In this piece we can add it on top because it’s digitally printed; but it’s also being added with consideration to where the glitter was in the original painting. It’s not about adding glitter to an area that didn’t have it already; it’s just that the glitter didn’t show up in the photography of the original piece. So I’m looking for the mapping of it, and trying to follow it.

Detail from David Huffman's Rise; photo by Nick Stone

If a young person were looking at this work and trying to find some entry points into the history of painting, what might you suggest? Say someone came to you and asked, ‘David, who are you dialoguing with in this work…’? I see Twombly...

Of course, I’d be excited if a young person cared that much! (laughs) I’m also an instructor of painting, and my main emphasis in teaching is research. Everyone who’s interested in making a body of work that’s specific to what they care about has to develop their research skills. So you have to look at art not only aesthetically; you have to break it apart, how was it made, what are their intentions — there’s this research space where you gain access to more attributes that are otherwise unknown.

When it comes to one big artist that disrupted the space and performed colors that are unusual, I’d say Willem de Kooning is really important. He was kind of an illustrator when he first started making art, and he did very refined, tight line drawings. Then all of a sudden he started doing these super emotional, loose strokes — but somehow, those loose strokes are also deliberate. They’re just not the same look. I think what he’s done with painting in the sense of Abstract Expressionism — which is a term he probably wouldn’t care about; these terms are sort of thrown on a group of artists, but they all have their own take on it. Helen Frankenthaler is another person I would mention — these are people who have taken space and composition and sort of rebooted the conversation around them. The idea that Helen Frankenthaler would pick certain colors that were connected to her mindset. And de Kooning is in there, boxing with the boys that have always had control over the canon of painting; and she gets to have her own little thing that’s there, she’s doing it with them, but she also has her Other.

When it comes to some of the hard, conceptual components that I’m trying to inject into what I consider a monoculture of abstraction, people like Fred Wilson, Arthur Jafa; Kerry James Marshall — he’s not an abstract painter, but he’s done abstraction in an interesting way. People like Basquiat, too, when it comes to drawing, created a sense of freedom. I got to Cy Twombly through Basquiat. He went through Twombly, and got himself — I went through him, and got to Twombly (laughs). Drawing has always been extremely important to me, and Basquiat had this permission to just do it any way he wanted to. I’m sure there’s more —

But those are some fine names to start with! To wrap it up, who’s your favorite Warriors player currently?

Stephen Curry is it! The guy is underrated — he’s a genius, he’s humble, he’s powerful — every time I look he’s doing something trickier to break through. To make a quick comparison: Lebron gets the love; he can do things with ease, because he has all this support behind him. Someone like Curry, to me, doesn’t get that support; they’re always questioning him, waiting for him to not do it well — and he does it anyway. So I feel like he has a much tougher job with what he does than someone like Lebron. To me, Lebron is a crying baby whiner. Whereas Steph Curry is like, I’m just going to keep going —

Lebron James and Stephen Curry; photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Even if I have to work twice as hard for the same acclaim.

Exactly — and maybe I don’t get that acclaim, which is fine, because history will show that he can handle the ball so well. And at his height, too! His anatomy isn’t a tank coming down the middle; he has to be super sharp and fluid. I personally don’t think Kevin Durant should’ve even been on the team. It was top heavy! Here you’ve got a fantastic player and a team that just got its greatness going — and you push them around to fit a greater player in… The pillars of support before KD were already in place. When he came in they had to redo the architecture. Then when he got out of there, they have to redo the architecture again now. That’s why I don’t think they needed him. Anybody wants a great player, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I felt like: if he’s not going to stay there for the long run, it’s not healthy. I think Lebron has set a course on self-centeredness in playing that seems to be happening everywhere now. There’s no team loyalty. I grew up with team thinking; now—

Everybody’s a free agent.

The “teamness” of the game is really diminishing. And one thing I’ll say about the Warriors: they’ve got players that don’t want to leave that team. But I can’t say the same about any other team that’s successful. With all the adjustments and changes going on in the world, in technology and politics, I don’t want another unsettled space! So as much as I think Lebron is the greatest player — I do — I feel like there’s another part of his personality that has nothing to do with the game, it has to do with him. That’s not exciting. I like to think of a team – how they work together and get strong and produce greatness together. I don’t want to think about one player who wanders around doing whatever they feel like doing until they get a bunch of rings. That just doesn’t have the potency to me.

A friend of mine and I used to race slot cars. We’d have the fastest cars and the slowest cars. Everybody wants to race the fast cars: it’s more fun. And nobody wants to race the slow cars. Then we’d decide: let’s just race these slow, VW-style cars. They were really bad: they slid around... but if you were good at this, this was actually pretty great. It doesn’t have the speed, it doesn’t have the sense of control — you’d have to really feel it out. But we’d end up having way more fun with these slower cars, and it took way more skill to get them to work than the fast cars. So I think some of that quality, that nomadic, hot-dogness of a great player moving around is a similar thing: ‘I’m only going where I can get good stuff.’ Your greatness should be that you build your team! And that becomes magnificent. There’s something more glorious about that than waiting to hear who they’re going to pick.

That’s when a team really starts to Rise...!

David Huffman: artist's website
More information on the Chase Center's art commissions - SF Chronicle