American Sculptor, Printmaker, Performance, and Installation Artist
Summary of David Hammons
David Hammons seeks to actively critique the nature of the art world and its absurd elitism by eschewing traditional modes of artmaking, dissemination, and display. Despite being an influential and highly sought after artist, he has, throughout his career, refused to play by "the rules" - refusing interviews and requests for exhibitions, selling work himself rather than through a gallery. This iconoclastic approach, taken in part from his interest in Dadaism and Marcel Duchamp, has allowed Hammons to create work in various mediums that is as powerful as it is subversive. Hammons is best known for his work with nontraditional materials and discarded objects that reference and comment on urban African-American experience. Often referring in his work to the legacy of racism and the damaging stereotypes imposed on African-American culture, Hammons seeks to demystify and reclaim the objects and the language that gave rise to these narratives. In so doing, he imbues these "symbols" with a new and transformative power.
- Hammons has said that "outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol," and he has consistently engaged with symbols and their complex and varied connotations. Often political in content, like the American flag, his use of spades, empty liquor bottles, bottle caps, hair, chicken bones, and basketball hoops, and other symbols connect directly to racism and longstanding cultural stereotypes about African-American life.
- Hammons is profoundly interested in neighborhoods and communities, and much of his work seeks to address the social, political, and cultural specificity of those sites by taking art out of the studio, museum, or gallery and returning it to the street where it can be experienced in a more democratic way. As he has said, "I like doing stuff better on the street, because the art becomes just one of the objects that's in the path of your everyday existence. It's what you move through, and it doesn't have any seniority over anything else."
- Although Hammons has claimed that he never liked art, his work demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of art history and the mechanisms of the art world. He looks closely at the history of art and its institutions and exposes their inherent prejudices and their preference for white artists and white ideas about beauty. But he is not just concerned with issues of race. His work also engages with class issues, which seeks to elucidate the continued economic disparities laid bare in an elitist art world.
- In a fundamental way, Hammons' art is about visibility. Whether in addressing what or who is seen or not seen (racism, bodies, communities, language), or by hindering our visibility or access to his work by covering it, making it ephemeral, or physically blocking our path to it, Hammons questions whether we can know a thing by simply seeing it.
The Life of David Hammons
Hammons' installation How Ya Like Me Now (1988) gave the African-American civil right leader Reverend Jesse Jackson white features, and thereby famously criticized the established political norms. Such provocations were hugely important for Hammons, and his biography includes a number of such powerful statements.
Progression of Art
Pray for America
Pray for America is one of Hammons' early "body prints" created while he was living in Los Angeles. Performative in nature, to make the prints Hammons coated himself in cooking fat or margarine then rolled around on the canvas, imprinting his face and body. He then sprinkled pigment over the grease to reveal a ghostly outline against a plain white background. These X-ray-like images were then juxtaposed with politically charged symbols, like the American flag, which were silkscreened onto the canvas or paper after the body images were fixed. For his body prints Hammons experimented with the use of unusual or "poor" materials, working in a similar vein to artists affiliated with Arte Povera. The performative aspect of the body prints and the use of everyday materials is also reminiscent of Neo-Dada, particularly Yves Klein's Anthropométries series or Robert Rauschenberg's large-scale cameraless photographs made in collaboration with his then-wife Susan Weil, however, in their use of the body, Hammons' prints also reflect the rise of Body Art in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In Pray For America, the figure, shown in profile with arms raised in prayer, is veiled in an American flag that covers much of the head and body. The figure thus takes on a quasi-religious symbolism, but with an explicitly political message. His reference to black identity and politics and his choice of a graphic medium reflect the influence of Charles White, who Hammons had studied with at Otis Art Institute. In its use of figuration and the commentary on racism it also reflected the concerns of the Black Arts Movement. As Kellie Jones has noted, in the body prints "the fulcrum of signification revolved around the performative body," adding that in this instance "Hammons was the dynamic agent, collapsing the position of auteur with those of signifier and signified."
Produced at a fraught moment in American history - a time of political assassinations, civic unrest, racial injustice, and national protests - Hammons asks the viewer to contemplate this history and its consequences. At a basic level, he is asking the viewer to pray for the government and by extension the American people. The American flag is thus a powerful symbol of lives forgotten and promises broken. In speaking about this work, Hammons has said that he felt a "moral obligation as a black artist to try to graphically document what I feel socially." As art critic Holland Cotter has noted, Hammons' body prints contain "a distinctive mix of popular graphics, black vernacular art, performance art and the emotional weight of Goya's print. Humor, particularly in satirical riffs on ethnic stereotyping, prevents clear-cut reading. Yet the simple fact that the imprinted bodies are black bodies, and self-portraits, makes the racial politics volatile and profound."
Screenprint and pigment on paper - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Spade in Chains
By the 1970s, Hammons had moved to New York, and began to shift his focus to popular symbols and language. This shift also involved a transition from primarily two-dimensional works that could be framed and sold, to three-dimensional objects and performance. While his past work referenced the power of symbols (like the American flag), in this period Hammons began to more overtly interrogate symbols and signs used in everyday culture and parlance. This exploration of symbols occurred, as art historian Kellie Jones has noted, in terms of "both [of] its connotations and physicality."
Spade in Chains (1973), part of his Spade series, dissects the layered history of racially derogatory language. The word "spade" had been used as a derogatory term for African Americans since at least the 1920s, perhaps deriving from the phrase "as black as the ace of spades" which referred to the suits of a deck of playing cards. Because of the association of spades and race, the phrase "to call a spade a spade" also took on racial undertones. There were efforts to reclaim the word by African-American communities, such as Ted Joans' poem dedicated to Malcolm X in 1965 entitled "My Ace of Spades".
David Hammons recalls "I was called a spade once, and I didn't know what it meant ... so I just took the shape and started painting it...Then I started getting shovels (spades); I got all of these shovels and made masks out of them. It was like a chain reaction." In this 1973 work, Hammons turns the garden spade upright and attaches a series of draped chains that allude to African masks, but also to the legacy of slavery and to the ways that language can be used to bind and oppress. As Jones has suggested, "The 'Spade' series led Hammons into the realm of the metaphoric, the allusional, into abstract art. He began to realize more fully the power of the symbolic, its cultural significance and potential for recognition and understanding by a broad audience. It is amazing that a discarded shovel could be transformed, so very simply, to carry another meaning." Indeed, the piece does not focus itself on simply criticizing or calling out racially derogatory language. Instead, it interrogates its origins, meaning, and function in American society.
Metal spade with metal chains
In the 1980s, Hammons' work became grander in scale and more public; often including large installations, sculpture, and street performances or actions. Working in the context of the urban and social landscape, Higher Goals continued Hammons' exploration of racially charged symbols, but brought the work into the urban environment.
Higher Goals, a temporary structure erected in Brooklyn's Cadman Plaza Park (and later in Harlem), was a public commission that consisted of five telephone poles of up to 30 feet in height covered in bottle caps and topped with basketball hoops. That there are five poles is not insignificant. According to Hammons, "It takes five to play on a team, but there are thousands who want to play - not everyone will make it, but even if they don't at least they tried." Made from the detritus of urban African-American experience, Higher Goals includes approximately 10,000 caps in total, which are flattened and arranged to create intricate patterns reminiscent of African and Islamic design and Italian mosaics. The bottle caps were collected by Hammons over the course of several months from local bars and pubs. In describing his use of discarded materials, Hammons has said "You can't miss if you use something people use everyday...Everyone has to pop a bottle cap sometime, especially in the summer. Also, I prefer to go with something that already has a spirit on it. That's why I never buy anything new, because it has no spirit. The bottle caps already have a story to them." As is typical in Hammons' work, the choice of materials and objects have multiple connotations that invite the viewer to address their meanings at the level of experience.
Although the work might be read as a positive symbol of African-American experience, basketball, in this context, takes on a more complicated set of references. On the one hand, as artist Kim Anno writes, "Unfettered joy surround[s] sports, no matter whether games result in defeat or victory. Legends are held in the hearts of elders and recounted to friends and family members in extreme detail. The National Basketball Association is in its own way a royal court, complete with the tallest people in the world at the center. The rags-to-riches stories of NBA players inspire generations of young boys who will most likely never enter the royal halls of elite athletes. Nevertheless, sports are the biggest leveler in a class-based society, an arena where privileged training resources cannot always triumph over impoverished full-hearted athletes." And indeed, for many young African-American men, basketball was viewed as a means of escape from life in the ghetto, but this dream was beyond reach for many. Higher Goals is thus a commentary on the role of basketball in contemporary urban culture. As Hammons said in a 1986 statement, "It's an anti-basketball sculpture...Basketball has become a problem for the black community because the kids aren't getting an education. They're pawns in someone else's game. That's why it's called 'Higher Goals.' It means you should have higher goals in life than basketball."
Temporary Installation using telephone poles, metal and bottle caps - Brooklyn and Harlem, Courtesy of Public Art Fund
How Ya Like Me Now
First painted in 1988, David Hammons' 20-foot-high painting on tin billboard appeared on a street corner in Washington, D.C., facing the National Portrait Gallery. The painting depicted black civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson with white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. Scrawled across the bottom, in graffiti-like script, were the words, taken from a song by the iconic eighties Rap artist Kool Moe Dee, "How Ya Like Me Now." Shortly after the painting was installed, without a label or any other indication that it was a work of art, a group of young black workers attacked the billboard with sledgehammers, partially destroying it. The painting was ultimately returned to Hammons, who re-created the work and installed it inside mounted to the gallery wall with a row of sledgehammers in a row directly in front of it. The vandalism inflicted on the work at its unveiling ultimately became a part of it. As David Hammons later said about the vandalism: "Whenever you put something outside you have to be prepared."
How Ya Like Me Now was Hammons' contribution to a Washington Project for the Arts exhibition entitled The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism. Curated by Rick Powell, the exhibition included a series of outdoor installations by seven African-American artists across Washington, D.C. While most of the outdoor installations were placed on private property, How Ya Like me Now was the only work placed on city property. It thus required additional approvals that significantly delayed its installation. For Hammons, the location of the work was critical to its meaning. Facing the National Portrait Gallery, the painting was a comment on the lack of diversity in the institution's collection. But more importantly, its presence in the nation's capital during Jesse Jackson's second run for President was an overtly political act. As Hammons has said, "This was a very on-the-edge experience. I think if Jackson had been white, he would have been elected long ago. I wanted the white community to see that very clearly - basically, how racism in America works." Depicting Jackson with pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, alluded to the belief that even the most influential black cultural figures were expected to assimilate into white culture.
The use of the quotation How Ya Like Me Now from eighties rap with the image of a prominent civil rights leader brings into question the nature of racism in American culture and politics. As Ellie Clarke has stated, "Many argue that the framing of an icon of black political solidarity with hip-hop graffiti was a way in which Hammons comments on the disparity between the civil rights generation and the incipient hip-hop generation. Perhaps black leaders, such as Jackson himself, were prepared to assimilate into a predominately white government. In which case, had their struggles been in vain?"
By placing the work outdoors in the heart of Washington, D.C., Hammons ensured that its political message would resonate. As curator Rick Powell has said, "For me it is very evident what it is about - are your likes or dislikes about people based on race? That was the question it was posing to people." And indeed, the work initiated a visceral and angry response among passers-by who took the painting as a cruel insult and because it was installed just three feet off the ground, it was an easy target. When asked about Hammons' depiction of him as a white man and the painting's subsequent destruction, Jesse Jackson said, "Sometimes art provokes...Sometimes it angers, which is a measure of its success."
Oil Paint and spray paint on tin billboard - Washington Project for the Arts. Private Collection.
African American Flag
One of David Hammons' most important works, African American Flag was created in 1990 for an exhibition in Amsterdam entitled Black USA. The group show, curated by Christiaan Bruan, aimed to give prominence to African-American artists that were under-represented in Europe. Featuring the colors of black liberation, African American Flag was a centerpiece of the exhibition, where it flew in the courtyard of the Museumplein that surrounds Museum Overholland.
WThe American flag was a recurring symbol in Hammons’ work. Here, by simply changing the flag's colors, he questions whether or not it can be a symbol of both African and American identities. Meant to represent abstract ideals of purity, valor and justice, the red, white and blue have been replaced by red, black, and green of the Pan-African flag, which represent "...the blood, skin tone, and the natural resource richness of the African land." Long a powerful symbol in African-American social, political and cultural life, the Pan-African flag was adopted by Marcus Harvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in the 1920s, and went on to become an emblem of the civil rights struggles in the 1960s and 70s.
The creation of African American Flag coincided with Nelson Mandela's release from Robben Island after years of campaigning and the election of David Dinkens as New York City's first and only black mayor. In this time of change, Hammons questions whether or not the United States is or can be a nation that is truly representative of its people and ideals. In changing the flag's colors, he changed its symbolism, creating a new symbol for a changing world. As artist Thomas Hirschhorn has noted, the "African-American Flag is not only an artwork, it is a flag for a new nation, a flag for a new insight, it is a new flag for a new form and a new truth. David Hammons creates a new truth - what more can art do?" Hirschhorn argues that the flag is hopeful about the capacity of a nation to change. For Hammons the placement of the flag in the Museumplein courtyard was significant, as it faced the flag-laden American consulate, a symbol of American political power. A version of the flag now hangs in front of the Studio Museum in Harlem, an important venue for African-American artists.
Dyed Cotton - Private Collection
Throughout his career, David Hammons has continued to make use of the detritus of African-American experience, including human hair collected from local black barber shops. Hammons thus encourages a new way of looking at these found objects; noting that "Old dirty bags, grease, bones, hair ... it's about us, it's about me. It isn't negative. We should look at these images and see how positive they are, how strong, how powerful. Our hair is positive, it's powerful, look what it can do. There's nothing negative about our images, it all depends on who is seeing it and we've been depending on someone else's sight ... We need to look again and decide."
In Hair Relaxer, Hammons combines an object of relaxation, the chaise lounge, specifically a Récamier couch, with discarded hair that has been scattered along its crevice. His use of the couch recalls Jacques-Louis David's famed 1800 painting Madame Récamier, which depicts the renowned beauty Madame Juliette Récamier reclining on an elegant divan. An idealized representation of female beauty, David's painting, which hung in the Louvre from the mid-nineteenth century, was influential to future painters, including Édouard Manet and his 1863 painting Olympia. The use of hair and its strategic placement on the chaise refers both to Manet's painting of Olympia, in which she subtly covers her pubic region with her hand while she is attended by her black maid (whose hair is covered), and the kinky hair that many African Americans sought to straighten.
A decades long preoccupation for Hammons, the use of hair in works like Hair Relaxer explores the complex set of associations that hair represents for the African-American community. For many, hair has been a source of shame, pain, desire and pride for those who felt the need to conform to societal pressures. In Hair Relaxer, Hammons creates a visual pun that refers to the chemical process for relaxing hair. For many years, African Americans have used chemicals to relax or straighten hair as a means of conforming to traditional white notions of beauty. As art historian Kellie Jones has suggested, hair "becomes an important vehicle for expression. And in African-diasporic practice, as a 'popular art form,' it is a method through which black people have been able to convey their sense of the beautiful and their creative aspirations, in the face of historical exclusion 'from access to official social institutions of representation'." In combining African-American hair with an object that references art history and depictions of female beauty, Hammons questions the history of representation and its erasure of difference.
Chaise Lounge and natural hair - Private Collection
Biography of David Hammons
Childhood and Education
David Hammons was born in Springfield, Illinois in 1943, the tenth and final child to a single mother. Fiercely private and unwilling to allow his biography to frame to his work, Hammons has long been reticent to speak about his early life and background. He has, however, referred to the struggles he and his family faced in the 1940s. The Hammons family, like many African-American families, struggled to make ends meet during wartime. Hammons' mother found that life was considerably harder at the height of the Second World War. As Hammons would later say, "I still don't know how we got by." As a young child in the late 1940s, Hammons witnessed firsthand the injustices facing African Americans living under segregation, developing a keen awareness of social and racial disparities.
At school, Hammons was not academically inclined and was instead encouraged to take vocational courses. He showed an early talent for drawing and art but found them "so easy" that he developed a "disdain for them." He was seemingly uninterested in the art historical canon he learned about in school. Hammons has famously said that he doesn't like art, but like an affliction, he claims: "I was born into it."
Education and Early Work
In 1962, at 19 years of age, Hammons left Illinois for Los Angeles. Once there, he attended Los Angeles City College for a year, then went on to study advertising at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. In 1966 he attended Choinard Art Institute (later CalArts), graduating from the prominent art school in 1968. Between 1968 and 1972 he took evening classes at Otis Art Institute. In 1966 he married Rebecca Williams (the couple divorced in 1972).
At Otis, he studied with Charles White, the African-American painter, printmaker, and muralist, who had worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the 1930s. For Hammons, White was an important early influence, particularly his belief that art could be a form of activism and a vehicle for social change. White's presence at Otis at the height of the Black Power movement and black cultural nationalism, and in the wake of the Watts rebellions and the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, coincided with the rise of the overtly political Black Arts Movement. The Black Arts Movement encouraged a "black aesthetic," the creation of art to build and foster community, and finding new, more democratic, ways to make and show work. In 1960s Los Angeles, the Watts rebellions were a turning point for Hammons and other black artists. As art historian Kellie Jones has noted, "it changed people's expectations and the way they looked at the world; changed artists' approach to their craft, and their materials, and led them to question what art might be and do."
During this time Hammons met Noah Purifoy, John T. Riddle, Jr., and John Outterbridge, all of whom were empowering other black artists and creating work that was in keeping with the Black Arts Movement. Purifoy, who had studied at Choinard Art Institute, went on to become the first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center. He worked with collage and assemblage, often making use of junk and other discarded material readily available in his neighborhood. This democratic approach to materials was particularly important for Hammons and informed his later work. Riddle later moved to Atlanta, where he gave Hammons his first solo exhibition.
In Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Hammons met Senga Nengudi, a conceptual and performance artist with whom he later shared a studio. They formed part of a group, including Betye Saar, Outterbridge, and others, that gathered frequently at Suzanne Jackson's Gallery 32. The gallery, which was located around the corner from Otis and Choinard, promoted the work of emerging African-American artists. It was at Gallery 32 that Hammons showed his first "body prints," produced by coating himself in grease and imprinting his body on paper then coating the imprint in pigment.
In the early 1970s, together with Nengudi, Barbara McCollough, Emory Douglas, Charles White, Suzanne Jackson, and Maren Hassinger, Hammons formed Studio Z (also known as LA Rebellion), an art collective that met in his studio in an old dance hall on Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles. Despite the group's name, their collaborative work often took place outside the studio in the form of improvised performances and participatory actions, some of which included the jazz musicians Hammons mingled with during this time. Jazz musicians, who had created their own sphere of success, were viewed as a model for artists like Hammons, Nengudi, and others.
By the early 1970s, seeking to expand his practice, Hammons began spending more time in New York City, where he often stayed with Nengudi before she moved back to Los Angeles. In 1974, he moved to New York City permanently, settling in Harlem, a predominantly African-American neighborhood with a storied history as a hub of creativity going back to the Harlem Renaissance. Through his work with Charles White, Hammons was well aware of the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance movement and he sought to actively engage with that legacy in his work by foregrounding African-American experience. As he once said about Harlem, "When you cross 110th Street you show your visa. The temperature is warmer; you're entering a time-zone, you're following the traces of the legends - Parker, Coltrane, Robeson, Malcolm." He continued to travel to Los Angeles, where he maintained his ties with Studio Z.
In New York, he was part of group of African-American artists affiliated with the pioneering art gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM) on West 57th Street, considered the east coast equivalent to Gallery 32 in Los Angeles. Founded by Linda Goode Bryant as a gallery and laboratory, JAM (1974-1986) showcased the work of contemporary black artists and artists of color, including Howardena Pindell, Lorraine O'Grady, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Dawoud Bey, Randy Williams, Nengudi, and Butch Morris. Created in opposition to the prejudice of the still predominantly white art world, JAM became a space where art was discussed and debated and artists could experiment freely. At that moment, New York was still very much a painter's town and it was difficult to be taken seriously if one was not a painter. Not surprisingly, Hammons' first exhibition at JAM was controversial. Many artists who saw the show were unconvinced by the unconventional "non-art" materials Hammons had taken to including in his work. During the exhibition at JAM, the group that gathered for the opening spent hours debating whether or not discarded materials could be called "art", concluding, as Goode Byant has said, "well, why not?"
As his work took a more public and participatory turn, and he began working with large-scale installations and actions that took place outside the confines of his studio, his friend, photographer Dawoud Bey, began documenting Hammons' activities on the streets of Harlem. Bey was on hand to document Bliz-aard Sale (1983), which involved Hammons selling snow balls on the street (next to other street vendors) in front of Cooper Union, Pissed Off (1981), which culminated with Hammons urinating on Richard Serra's sculpture T.W.U. (1979) that stood outside the Franklin Street subway station, and Higher Goals, which had been re-installed in a vacant lot in Harlem.
Late Period and Current Work
In the 2000s, Hammons has traveled more frequently to make and show work, including trips to Japan in 2002, Africa in 2004 and Egypt in 2008. If his previous work responded to communities and environments, the site-specific work he has created in recent years has become increasingly ephemeral. For example, his 2001 Concerto in Black and Blue required visitors to navigate a massive empty gallery space in the dark with nothing but a blue flashlight.
Hammons continues to live and work in New York City, having moved from Harlem to Brooklyn. Now in his seventies, Hammons is still actively making work and participating in exhibitions. In 2007 he collaborated on an exhibition at an Upper East Side gallery (L&M Arts), with his wife, artist Chie Hasegawa Hammons (who he married in 2003), and he recently purchased a warehouse building in Yonkers, a close suburb of New York City, where he plans to open his own gallery space. As an artist that shows infrequently, he has a disdain for the trappings of the art world, and has long sought to control how, when, and where his work is seen. He is also currently working a public art project, titled Day's End (which Hammons calls a "ghost monument"), with the Whitney Museum of American Art and Hudson River Park Trust that will open in 2020.
The Legacy of David Hammons
Well known in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, a retrospective of his work in 1990 at PS1 in New York introduced the larger world to Hammons' work. The same year, he was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. In order to directly assess Hammons and his legacy, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco brought together a group of artists, curators, and art historians to explore and discuss his work.
In the end, for Hammons, to be an artist is to make his life his art. Like the Dadaists before him, he purposefully remains a cultural outsider. While his work references racial issues, Hammons continues to defy the label of a black artist, and instead embodies something far more complex and harder to pin down. As Anthony Huberman has noted, "Hammons's work plays with art the way a jazz musician plays with sound - he gets inside it, bends it, twists it around and keeps it from sitting too still or getting too comfortable." His ability to bring difficult narratives to the surface by referencing the legacy of racism and racial stereotypes, has been important for a new generation of African-American artists like Kara Walker, Dawoud Bey, Lorna Simpson, and Kehinde Wiley.