Jonathan Hammer

Jonathan Hammer

Tarnish and Shine: Silverpoint Drawings in the Elma and Milton A. Gilbert Pavilion Gallery
Kovno-Kobe in the Derfner Judaica Museum

On view April 29–July 29, 2012

Jonathan Hammer – Tarnish and Shine: Silverpoint Drawings

Text by Emily O’Leary, Assistant Curator

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Jonathan Hammer, Twig #83, 2005, silverpoint and colored pencil on paper, 15 7/8 x 12 1/8 in. Collection of the artist.

Jonathan Hammer’s introduction to metalpoint occurred in 1989 when he began experimenting with precious metals to tool text onto leather. Trained as a bookbinder and leather craftsman, Hammer extended the metalpoint medium to drawing, and in the early 2000s, began a series of silverpoint studies of twigs and botanical subjects. This exhibition is the first survey of those works, which range in date from 2002 to the present.

The technique of metalpoint is rooted in medieval manuscript illumination, later reaching the height of its popularity during the Northern and High Renaissance from the mid-15th to late 16th century. The technique of using precious metals to draw is a highly precise and delicate process. Each drawing is executed on specially treated paper, and once a line has been laid down, it cannot be erased.

Silverpoint drawing is a recurring medium in Hammer’s work, and has taken varied roles. In 1997, he began to explore the symbolism of tarnishing, a quality unique to silverpoint, when he included a series of “tarnished heart” drawings in an installation created in response to a provocative postcard he received from minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Hammer described these drawings as: “Subtle, sublime but also self-annihilating indictment.”*

This inevitable chemical reaction visibly reveals the passage of time as the silver oxidizes and darkens, a process that Hammer explores conceptually in his work. The nature of silverpoint is to become warmer in color and softer in edge; ultimately mirroring time’s passing and the subsequent changes it brings about.

The twig drawings present meticulously rendered branches suspended against blank white space, resembling specimen studies in format, but functioning as portraits in each twig’s unique series of complex knots, knobs and twists. The recurring imagery of pathways and lines that twist within empty space evoke the interrelated themes of time passing, direction and movement.

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Jonathan Hammer, Twig #85, 2005, silverpoint and colored pencil on paper, 15 7/8 x 12 1/8 in. Collection of the artist.

The idea of darkening, or tarnishing, often connotes decay, dilapidation, corrosion–the process of change and transformation–whether of the metal, the physical body, or the heart.

*Jonathan Hammer, email correspondence with the author, May 11, 2011.

Jonathan Hammer: Kovno – Kobe

Text by Susan Chevlowe, Director, Derfner Judaica Museum

Jonathan Hammer, Kovno-Kobe, 2010, two-fold screen, diverse leathers tooled in precious metals, 40 x 30 x 1 in. Private Collection, New York.

It has been more than 70 years since the summer of 1940 when Japan’s Consul General in Lithuania, Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara, and his wife, Yukiko, provided 2,140 handwritten transit visas to mainly Polish Jewish refugees in Kovno (Kaunas), allowing many to escape the Nazis and almost certain death. For much of the past seven years, this story has taken hold of Jonathan Hammer’s imagination. He has created etchings, drawings, pastels and three-dimensional works on the subject.

Hammer’s works do not create a chronological narrative of the events of 1940–1944 in Kovno, the city from where his maternal grandparents had come to the U.S. in the late 19th century. Yet we know that from the time of the Soviet invasion in 1940, Jewish communal life in Kovno was suppressed; Jews were arrested, and their property confiscated. Before and after the German invasion, Jews were murdered by pro-German Lithuanian mobs. Then, in early July 1941, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia, German Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) and Lithuanian auxiliaries began the systematic massacre of the Jews of Kovno. A ghetto was established, and by the fall of 1943, it was turned into the Kauen concentration camp. The camp was evacuated on July 8, 1944, with most of the remaining Jews deported to Dachau or Stutthof. Shortly thereafter, it was razed.

Holocaust memory takes many forms, as does its representation. For some, the immeasurability of the Holocaust creates a void—the unrepresentable. For others, a literal representation has offered a route to redemption. For Hammer, there is something else. He has called it “non-explicit imagery.” Thus, his work is not exclusively Jewish, and may be read in the larger context of his explorations of disease/AIDS or the role of the artist.

Jonathan Hammer, Kovno, 2009, from a portfolio of 12 etchings, 29 3/4 x 21 5/8 in. Pizzuti Collection.
Drawing on Dada and Surrealism, as well as Neo-Conceptualism, Hammer employs a visual vocabulary of figurative and semi-abstract forms. The finely rendered and ironically delicate images of his etchings, for example, represent both victims and victimizers, evoking violence, mortality and the disintegration of the self. They conjure the nightmares of the unconscious—puzzle fragments of humanity shaped by patterned animal skins. One may identify the shower head of the gas chambers, the Angel of Death, the ink blots that read as massed corpses, the ubiquitous trains; and such figures of cultural memory as a Jewish patriarch, Mt. Fuji or the Rising Sun, Japanese symbols.

Hammer approached the Holocaust armed with the language he had established and that had matured by 1996, when, as Jeffrey Schnapp has noted, he began “a translation and corpus of drawings that interpret” the novella Tenderenda the Fantast, a piece of autobiographical fiction by the German Dadaist Hugo Ball. For that project, the artist created a work “animated by maimed clowns, twisted babies, mutant humanoids, and sadistic toys.”

Hammer went on to produce a number of unique large-format books for which he also created marquetry bookbindings. His use of precious metals and exotic animal skins, in particular in a series of leather “paintings” in 2000, informs, for example, the large-scale bifold screen, Lithuania (Collection of the artist), as well as the smaller version, Kovno-Kobe, included in the present exhibition. (The title refers to the Japanese port city where many refugees were assisted by the small Jewish community there.) Fabrice Bentot has noted that in these works: “What thus becomes absolutely visible is the maximal contrast between the material opulence of the marquetry work and the content of violence, rejection and abomination.” Like a book, the screen tells a story, written on animal skin, like the Torah itself.

For Hammer, skin is a fundamental signifier of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, where he lived in the 1990s. The skin marks the physical threshold of the self and signifies the healthiness or disease of the body. This notion is particularly relevant to Savior (Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, not in the present exhibition), a pastel from the series, in which the skin of the dying Jesus is a putrid green attesting to Hammer’s concern about the vague borderline between human and virus.

In the pastels, the child’s world of toys and clowns and monsters becomes Hammer’s language to express an essential ambivalence. According to the artist:

My interest in toys and clowns and monsters is not per se “about childhood.” What I am fascinated with is the extreme values placed on these images/objects. A doll or stuffed animal is something that we love to death. We adore the toy and we abuse the toy. We embrace it and kill it. We fondle it and desecrate it. But like the clown – a character both innocent and criminal – the toys that are sometimes victims are also victimizers. They are malevolent. Rag dolls and other dolls often morph into monsters from being “loved” too much. And yet we are also thrilled with monsters; we love the excitement and frisson of the fear.


The artist mirrors the endless desires projected on him by everyone else who perceives he is free and they are not. Thus the artist can be all things: a maniac, a seer, a victim, a victimizer, a fool, a sage, a magician, a slave, etc. The artist is the ultimate push me/pull me toy. Each person projects onto the artist what he is searching for.


Thus when confronting the inexplicable violence of the Holocaust, I believe my vocabulary holds up. It is a paradigm flexible enough to embody the unthinkable nature of the extremes. When does a Nazi or Lithuanian in this case, become no longer human? When does the Jew become no longer human? What is the endless love relationship between the two? The toys in this case represent the paranormal, as in “beside” the normal. But they are sadly, the possible.*

Invitation Image - Pastel
Jonathan Hammer, Victim, 2010, pastel on black paper, 32 x 24 in. Private Collection, Houston, Texas.

Hammer’s Kovno-Kobe project is brutally, and even uncannily, powerful. With these works, the artist briefly, but completely, tells a story using archetypal protagonists: victim, victimizer, perpetrator, witness and savior.

*Jonathan Hammer, email correspondence with the author, March 9, 2012.

Jonathan Hammer is an American artist living in Spain. For 25 years, his work has crossed the boundaries of various media and techniques using materials such as exotic skins and porcelain and including books, works on paper (pastels, silverpoints), installation, sculpture, standing screens, photographs and prints. Hammer has had 40 one-person exhibitions (including eight in New York, five with Matthew Marks Gallery) in eight countries, and museum surveys at the Geneva Center for Contemporary Art and the Berkeley Museum. His work is included in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles among others. Hammer is an authority on Dada and has published his critical writing on the subject in Ball and Hammer (Yale University Press, 2002). For further information please go to: We are grateful for the generosity and support of the following lenders without whom these exhibitions would not have been possible: Beth Rudin DeWoody; Jonathan Hammer; Karen Canner Moss; Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy; Pizzuti Collection; Collection of Brenda R. Potter and Michael C. Sandler; Private Collection, Colorado Springs, Colorado; Private Collection, Houston, Texas; Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman, LLP; MIYAKO YOSHINAGA art prospects; and Nadia Zilkha.

Further reading:

Fabrice Bentot. “Skintight.” Accessed March 30, 2012.

Jonathan Hammer. Introduction by Jeffrey T. Schnapp. Ball and Hammer: Hugo Ball’s Tenderenda the Fantast. Yale University Press, 2002.

Hillel Levine. In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked his Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Free Press, 1996.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Accessed on March 30, 2012. (URL corrected on May 26, 2016.)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Kovno.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Accessed on March 30, 2012.

This text, which originally appeared in the printed exhibition brochure, was produced in conjunction with the exhibitions, Jonathan Hammer: KovnoKobe on view in the Derfner Judaica Museum, and Tarnish and Shine: Silverpoint Drawings on view in the Elma and Milton A. Gilbert Pavilion Gallery, April 29–July 29, 2012.

As a member of the American Association of Museums, The Hebrew Home at Riverdale is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 19-acre campus, including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provide educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. The Home is a non-profit, non-sectarian geriatric center serving more than 3,000 elderly persons through its resources and community services programs. This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

All images courtesy the artist and MIYAKO YOSHINAGA art prospects

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Hebrew Home at Riverdale
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This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.