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Important Art by David Hammons
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."
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.
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."