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David Hammons - Biography and Legacy

American Sculptor, Printmaker, Performance, and Installation Artist

Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Performance Art

Born: 1943 - Springfield, Illinois

David Hammons Timeline

"I would like to be a myth, be on the invisible side of things. The shadow. When you are always seen people get used to that and you aren't a mystery anymore. I've seen it happen many times."

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Biography of David Hammons

Early Life

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.

Mature Period

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.

Most Important Art

David Hammons Famous Art

Pray for America (1969)

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 Weir, 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."
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Content compiled and written by Eve MacNeill

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Karen Barber

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Eve MacNeill
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Karen Barber
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First published on 14 Nov 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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