WILLIAMSTOWN — A silly little thing, “Rock Fan” is a classic case of the flimsy gesture, the light-as-dust conceit, turned weighty and transfixing. Every time I see the work, by the artist David Hammons, on display at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, I do a double-take, and wonder: How did this craggy little rock, with its acne-cratered surface and bland, accordion-style fan, manage to come together so neatly? How can two objects, wildly unrelated and out of sympathy, merge and conspire so tenderly? It’s a model marriage.
And like all good marriages, it has a good story behind it.
Hammons, an African-American artist in his late 60s, has been an elusive, unpredictable but hugely influential presence in the art world since the 1960s. In 1993 he was an artist in residence at Williams College.
During his time there he produced an outdoor sculpture, also called “Rock Fan”: He placed a bouquet of old electric rotary fans, their cords hanging listlessly, on top of a large boulder. Occasionally, lazily, the blades of the fans would spin in the wind, as if preparing to take flight, then thinking better of it.
Rock Fan. Dumb joke. But just as in journalism, where the dumb question reliably produces the best answers, the dumb joke in art can often be unexpectedly fertile.
Some Williams students reacted skeptically to the piece. The rock was painted purple (a college color). One undergraduate even made her own small variant of the piece: a stone with a hand-held fan made from folded newspaper.
She left it beside Hammons’s work. Hammons saw it, and years later, back in his studio, made the work we see here, which Williams College Museum of Art smartly bought from his dealer.
What do I like about it? Its flippancy — its sheer lightness of being — in tension with the presupposed profundity of art, the heaviness of rock.
And that the idea was stolen from a student — I like that, too (where would we be without the young?).
Finally, I like the fit — the way Hammons has bent the fan around at the sides so very neatly. The work suggests great formal simplicity and rightness (Brancusi would surely have smiled) but carries it off with insouciance. A found rock, a folding fan: Voila!
Like much of Hammons’s work, it also alludes mischievously, magically, to African-American tropes — in this case, flamboyant hair or headgear.
Related works (one is on display at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art) cover similar rocks with black hair trimmings from barber shops.
Hammons’s influence on some of today’s best known African-American artists — Mark Bradford, Sanford Biggers, Radcliffe Bailey — runs deep. Many artists have stolen ideas from him. Here he showed that, like all the best artists, he has light fingers himself.Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.