Barbara Hammer, the American artist celebrated as a pioneer of lesbian experimental filmmaking – with a formidable career spanning several decades – has passed away at the age of 79.
Hammer was born in 1939 in Hollywood, California. She first attended the University of California, Los Angeles, graduating with a degree in psychology in 1961. She later studied film at San Francisco State University during the 1970s – around the time that she first came out as a lesbian, leaving her marriage, and taking off on a motorcycle with a Super-8 camera.
‘Evidentiary Bodies’, a 2017 retrospective at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, situated Hammer’s groundbreaking films with collages, installations, photographs, and early drawings executed in acrylic, ink and pencil. Such drawings demonstrated an artist in search of her own style – but also that, ‘a predilection for organic shapes had congealed already; from the colourful phallic forms of Chumash Bright (1969–71), which bring to mind Roberto Matta’s biomorphic landscapes, and the limb-like figure of Red Hill With Boxes (1969–71), where body parts become topographic features’, Lorena Muñoz-Alonso wrote earlier this year.
Hammer is perhaps best known for her erotic experimental piece Dyketactics (1974), composed of more than 100 super-imposed shots across its four minute span. The film – focused on the sensuality of touch – drew from footage of naked women in the woods of Northern California, and of the artist having sex with a friend. ‘I was lucky when I made Dyketactics I didn’t realize that it was the first lesbian film made by a lesbian,’ Hammer later said. ‘Instead, I just burst out and let my energy carry me through my work.’ Hammer is also well known for her trilogy of feature-length films, Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fiction (1995) and History Lessons (2000) which explored suppressed and marginalised queer histories, through documentary and essayistic forms.
Also included in the Leslie-Lohman show was Hammer’s 1994 piece 8 in 8, which comprised interviews with breast cancer survivors, each activated through a button embedded within a synthetic breasts. ‘Hammer […] forces her audience to imagine the sensation of discovering disease underneath one’s skin. Female bodies are constantly in flux, as reactive to arousal as to illness, and Hammer leaves no room for passive spectatorship of these many states of being,’ Hannah Stamler wrote in 2017.
Hammer was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in 2006. ‘The wonderful thing about dying is the interesting processes. I find it fascinating as an artist and as a writer. Your ability to talk in the world is changing. And you still remember what you used to be able to do,’ Hammer said in an interview last year. ‘What is it like to die? Why don’t we know? I try to take notes on it. It is harder to write now. I don’t really feel like going into so many details when pain hits hard, though I kind of feel like I should. I mean, what am I? An investigator, an archeologist.’
In 2017 the artist helped found the Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant with New York nonprofit Queer|Art, to support the work of lesbian filmmakers in the US. At the time, Hammer said: ‘Working as a lesbian filmmaker in the ’70s wasn’t easy in the social structure – the educational institution that I was in. It was difficult. And I want this grant to make it easier for lesbians of today.’