Profile: David Hammons (1943-)

David Hammons is an American artist especially known for his works in and around New York City and Los Angeles during the 1970s and 1980s.


Early life

David Hammons was born in 1943 in Springfield, Illinois, the youngest of ten children of a single mother. In 1962 he moved to Los Angeles, where he started attending Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) from 1966 to 1968 and the Otis Art Institute from 1968 to 1972. There he was influenced by artists such as Charles White, Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, and Chris Burden, all of whom would soon be internationally known, but was also part of a pioneering group of African-American artists and jazz musicians in Los Angeles, with influence outside the area. In 1974 Hammons settled in New York City, where he slowly became better known nationally. He still lives and works in New York.

Art practice

David Hammons has become a renowned artist for his Body Prints. Hammons began this artistic practice in the 1960s and these prints were the start of Hammons’ career and one of the first artworks he made. This unique art was made by greasing Hammons own body; then, he would press it on the paper and add graphite or another medium to accentuate the body print. Much of Hammons’ Body Prints coincide with his work identifying radicalized representation. The prints come from grease which is black and there are prints that contain a traditional African mask for the face. These Body Prints are typically untitled, but some reside in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Much of his work reflects his commitment to the civil rights and Black Power movements. A good example is the early Spade with Chains (1973), where the artist employs a provocative, derogatory term, coupled with the literal gardening instrument, in order to make a visual pun between the blade of a shovel and an African mask, and a contemporary statement about the issues of bondage and resistance. This was part of a larger series of “Spade” works in the 1970s, including Bird (1973), where Charlie Parker is evoked by a spade emerging from a saxophone, and Spade, a 1974 print where the artist pressed his face against the shape leaving a caricature-like imprint of Negroid features. He also has a painting, ‘Black First, America Second’, that was made in 1970. It is 2 images of himself being wrapped into the American flag. It is his black self and his American self. He feels as if these two identities that he has been split and fundamentally at odds. They are constantly fighting each other and cannot be joined.

In 1980, Hammons took part in Colab’s ground-breaking The Times Square Show, which acted as a forum for the exchange of ideas for a younger set of alternative artists in New York. His installation was made of glistening scattered shards of glass (from broken bottles of Night Train wine).

Other works play on the association of basketball and young black men, such as drawings made by repeatedly bouncing a dirty basketball on huge sheets of clean white paper set on the floor; a series of larger-than-life basketball hoops, meticulously decorated with bottle caps, evoking Islamic mosaic and design; and Higher Goals (1986), where an ordinary basketball hoop, net, and backboard are set on a three-story high pole – commenting on the almost impossible aspirations of sports stardom as a way out of the ghetto. Hammons is noted to say, “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.” Higher Goals were on view at the Cadman Plaza Park in New York from 1986-1987.

Through his varied work and media, and frequent changes in direction, Hammons has managed to avoid one signature visual style. Much of his work makes allusions to, and shares concerns with minimalism and post-minimal art, but with added Duchampian references to the place of Black people in American society. Hammons’ work is made of not only allusions, but also metaphors. These metaphors develop into symbols that hold significant meaning in the art world as well as in the public eye. David Hammons continues to offer a crucial interpretation of the African-American art history in the life of a colored person through these symbols.

On James Turrell’s works concerning the perception of light, Hammons said “I wish I could make art like that, but we’re too oppressed for me to be dabbling out there… I would love to do that because that could also be very black. You know, as a black artist, dealing just with light. They would say, “how in the hell could he deal with that, coming from where he did?” I want to get to that, I’m trying to get to that, but I’m not free enough yet. I still feel I have to get my message out.”

Along with his focus on cultural overtones, Hammons’s work also discusses the notions of public and private spaces, as well as what constitutes a valuable commodity. An illustration of these concepts can be seen in Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), a performance piece in which Hammons situates himself alongside street vendors in downtown Manhattan in order to sell snowballs that are priced according to size. This act serves both as a parody on commodity exchange and a commentary on the capitalistic nature of art fostered by art galleries. Furthermore, it puts a satirical premium on “whiteness”, ridiculing the superficial luxury of racial classification as well as critiquing the hard social realities of street vending experienced by those who have been discriminated against in terms of race or class.

Also noteworthy is the artist’s use of discarded or abject materials, including but not limited to elephant dung, chicken parts, strands of African-American hair, and bottles of cheap wine. Many critics see these objects as evocative of the desperation of the poor, Black urban class, but Hammons reportedly saw a sort of sacrosanct or ritualistic power in these materials, which is why he utilized them so extensively. These discarded objects have become some of David’s Hammons’s most well-known sculptures that represent the life of an African-America living in the United States. One discarded material has evolved to be a symbol of what it is like to be young, black, and a male. In the Hood was done in 1993 and showed in the Mnuchin Gallery in New York. This simple sculpture is a cut piece of cloth nailed to the wall with a wire threaded through the lining to open the hood up. It may be simple, but it is so effective and aligns with how much of Hammons’ work is done

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