“I'll play with the street audience. That audience is much more human and their opinion is from the heart. They don't have any reason to play games, there's nothing gained or lost.” –David Hammons, 1986
David Hammons has brought into question the majority of the tenets of contemporary art. From the gallery system to the concept of the observer himself, Hammons has rebelled against the prevailing model of an artist, eschewing conventional methods of business partnership and humbleness in favor of radical self-ownership, both economically and intellectually. From his racially charged work of the 1970s up until his modern work, Hammons has refused to stay within a chosen medium, opting instead for a startling evolution of form. Though his recurring themes of Duchampian ready-mades and collage may represent a large part of his oeuvre, it is far from defining his much larger, much greater, and much more mysterious artistic project. The most ornate, voluptuous and substantive of Hammons’s three chandelier works, Untitled, 2000 enhances and embellishes Hammons first sculptural usage of the form of a basketball hoop in the 1980s with spectacular flare, comprising an intricate and impressive work that fans the flame of his continuing blaze through decades of epoch-defining creation.
In one of Hammons many unconventional methods of living in the world of contemporary art, his refusal to fully engage with the representative gallery system has given birth to an idiosyncratic form of production—one that does not rely on the approval of a specific business model. Because of this wonderful independence, Hammons has been able to produce work that is singular in it’s clarity of voice. He has achieved a rare kind of artistic autonomy.
This sense of liberation stretches back to his early work. Born in 1943, and raised in Illinois, Hammons lived through the gross intolerance of the pre-civil rights era in all its abhorrence. Receiving his education both at Cal Arts and later at Otis College of Art and Design, he became entrenched in both the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, which would both become vital and recurrent themes in his works. Hammons’ first body of work to receive attention stemmed from a marriage of text and visual: his Spade series of the 1970s paired derogatory terms literal counterparts, inviting a wealth of commentary. Though the series was Hammons first high-profile investigation into Duchampian readymades, it would hardly be his greatest achievement in the genre.
As he entered the 1980s, and as he gained a higher profile due to his participation in the now legendary Times Square Show of 1980 (which featured some of the first works of Jean-Michael Basquiat, Keith Haring, and others), Hammons began to employ strategies that made use of objects that were specifically related to Black Americans: “While Duchamp changed ways of seeing art by turning everyday objects into “readymades,” recontextualizing material and the meaning of an object, Hammon’s use of the materials of everyday existence goes further in its connection to humanity. His translation of humble materials into poetic forms yields his art’s essential character as content-driven abstraction, spiritual food for the soul.”(F. Sirmans, “Searching for Mr. Hammons”, David Hammons: Selected Works, New York, 2006, np.)
Finally, in the mid-1980s, he struck upon a vein of rich material that was as visually stunning as it was metaphorically charged. Higher Goals, 1986, was a literal interpretation of the dreams of the street; meant to signify the impossible aspirations of urban youth. The sculptures were of basketball backboards and hoops afixed atop fifty-foot poles. As a game, basketball had come to represent a very specific African-American cultural identity for Hammons, one that was both ritualistic and, unfortunately, all-too frequently self-limiting for its players. As the artist himself noted in one of his rare interviews, “It’s an anti-basketball sculpture. Basketball has become a problem in the black community because 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.” (Rousing the Rubble, New York, 1991, p. 29) Higher Goals, 1986 is not only a piece meant for street players, but it is one close to Hammons’ heart, and one in which he can find purpose and artistic translation quite easily: “As a former high school basketball player, Hammons brings his own love and devotion to the theme of sport, regardless of the prime social, cultural, and economic metaphors that play out in his works on that theme…basketball remains a favored target, foil, and object of devotion” (F. Sirmans, “Searching for Mr. Hammons”, David Hammons: Selected Works, New York, 2006, np.) Hearkening back to Higher Goals nearly fifteen years later, Untitled, 2000 is a perfect embodiment of Hammons’ maturation as an artist and his continuing devotion to the game and its fascinating implications. At first glance, the present lot is almost shrine-like, its spectacular illumination glowing around the icon sitting at its bottom center. Yet Hammons’ piece is a study in fusing many dissonant eras of craftsmanship into a single piece—a sculpture drawing from separate epochs of art history. Most obviously, Hammons backboard and hoop are flanked by an endless variety of crystal glass and candle light, his Victorian references replete with decadent splendor; though we can assume that no nineteenth century chandeliers resemble this one.
Elsewhere, draping over and in between the chandelier crystals like creeping vines, luxurious braids of plant-life cast in bronze spiral around the center. Here, we find Hammons bringing in a Roccoco element. Around the modern day shrine of sport, this is hardly an unexpected gesture, and one ripe with intimations of glory, exuberance, and, of course, decadence. The metal vines also bear light reflecting crystal seeds themselves, a marvelous interconnectedness of décor and function. And, with perhaps a nod to taxidermied trophies, two horns of leaves grow from the top of the hoop.
Elsewhere in the comic realm, Hammons is quick to show his absurdist side. Numbering eleven on each flank and three centrally positioned at the top of the piece, Hammons’ electric candles serve as a hilarious counterpoint to the self-seriousness of the crystal and metal work of Untitled, 2000. In an era of their own these candles present the illusion of old-world functionality from a distance, but assume the familiar status of kitsch. Hammons’ use of them is biting, signaling a false undertone to his otherwise grandiose shrine. In light of impossible aspirations of Higher Goals, 1986, here we find Hammons calling back to the anaesthetizing effect of basketball as street game, where the ambitions are simultaneously genuine and foolish.
Equally sharp in its bite is Hammons’ subtle patterning of the glass backboard. Hammonds’ preciously delicate backboard does not consist of floral patterns, as one might expect from an aristocratic indulgence, but rather bears intricate waves of a textured bathroom glass, almost as if the sculptor has torn out his own shower panel in order to use it in his piece. This undercurrent of contingent decoration and domesticity is equal parts comic and serious, for, in the aforementioned absurdist scenario, the glass is symbolic of amateursism. In this humor and its accompanying analysis, Hammons presents us with several layers of meaning in his art. Within these, we can choose to pause at the superficial if the substantial proves too frightening in its power or the reverse when neccessary.
But Hammons’ most dazzling visual achievement (and his most telling) is at bottom center, where his basketball hoop itself shimmers with countless glass crystals braided upon its thin metal chain. Almost as if the chain were a pearl necklace waiting to be strung, it reflects light from both the backboard and the candles at its sides, a glittering centerpiece of Hammons’ marvelous shrine to the sport. And, as a shrine, the hoop’s materialism underscores a prominent theme both here and in Hammons’ former experiments: that the hoop itself should be elevated (either physically or materially) in order to portray its deification visually. Here, Hammons chooses not to suspend the hoop far above the heads of its worshippers, but rather to dress it in a crystal gown, daring its devotees to sully its immaculate beauty with a perfect dunk. In this way, Hammons presents two different modes of basketball’s elevation in contemporary culture: the religious and the material.
Hammons use of vaguely precious material is a subtle evolution from his earlier works consisting of found materials, and even detritus. Continuing to explore the seams of meaning set forth by the Italian Arte Povera movement, Hammons illuminates the negligence concerning its remediation: “His visual experiments with ‘non-traditional’ materials are much more than simple formal gestures, for he strategically chooses the detritus with which he works to evoke aspects, attitudes and sensibilities of black American culture. His work is an absolutely critical bridge that links the radical populism of the late 30s and 60s, which influenced his earlier development as a black artist, the experimental vocabularies of the 70s, and the resurgence of interest in vernacular culture in the 80s and 90s. More than a sophisticated junk dealer, Hammons sifts through our society’s waste to show us just how powerfully it can speak to the unfinished business of troubled race relations in America, which continues to irk us as we approach the millennium.” (C. Haye, Freize, Issue 22, [May, 1995], Hammons felt as though his materials that best fit that project were those found on the street, accessible to any and all.
But fifteen years later, in the creation of the present lot, Hammons has chosen to investigate the traces of the sinister within the seemingly sublime, turning his attention toward the ingrained discrimination within elitism. As he creates the basketball hoop as a material object, resplendent with priviledged decoration, Hammons has recentered the sport of basketball within the frame of consumerism. No longer does his simple visual rhetoric of 1986 apply—where ambition alone was the driving force in the broken dreams of young African-Americans, for here it is something far more dangerous: the promise of material wealth resulting from success.
The present lot builds upon Hammons work that predates Higher Goals, 1986—back, in fact, to his earliest work in combining texts and visuals in order to ignite a racial commentary. While the Spades series drew attention to race issues by way of a linguistic jumping off point (an intellectual mode of provocation) the present lot attacks elitism through its materiality and decadence instead: “He is, in actuality, a masterful investigator of how an oppositional black cultural identity can be generated through a dialogue with ‘high’ culture, particularly as it is articulated through standard English.” (C. Haye, Freize, Issue 22, [May, 1995])
The black cultural identity that Hammons summons in both his pieces is one of the few constants within his body of work, namely that of the spiritual. Though he may pursue work in alternative mediums or with different qualities of materials, Hammons manages, ingeniously, to highlight associated threats to the African-American community. And, as a concept, “community” is one of the key energies for the success of Hammons’ work, be it African-American, artistic, or hip-hop: “His work has been about hip-hop even before the term was ever coined…as if it could really be coined by one single solitary person, and everyone knows that, because hip-hop says community the way that Hammons’ work says community—both would be impossible to imagine without community.”(F. Sirmans, “Searching for Mr. Hammons”, David Hammons: Selected Works, New York, 2006, np.)
But in the years between Higher Goals, 1986 and Untitled, 2000, the appropriation of hip-hop culture by corporative interests and the entertainment complex has rendered it nearly empty of its once vital and immediate power. Subsumed by the economic concerns of business, hip-hop has evolved into a lifestyle that is desired as opposed to a lifestyle that is actualized. From the viewpoint of the celebrity lifestyle that has appropriated hip-hop in the past thirty years, Hammons work is beautifully scathing. In this biting parody of the current landscape of aspirations, Hammons’ piece seems to be more cynical than its counterpart from 1986. But, if we are to put aside the wealth of interpretive possibilities with which Hammons provides us, we can acknowledge that Hammons still presents us with a marvelous glorification of the game that he has loved for his entire life. One of the factors in Hammons’ work that continues to contribute to his world-wide fame is his adherence to an open-ended conversation: the basketball hoop shrouded in crystal could be a cynical interpretation of the current state of sports fantasies, or, rather, it could be a loving testament to basketball’s power as a spiritual force in and of itself. Hammons opts not to proselytize to any one audience in his work, preferring instead to ignite a conversation with near-infinite means of provocation.
As Hammons himself has attested, catering to a specific observer is an exercise in futility. “It’s a big game, and it’s serious too. But you just play with all the silly sides of it. It’s like, ‘Is this for real or is this cat completely out to left field?’ And you’re never supposed to know what is going on. Our position is to keep the shit completely confused. It’s in a lot of people’s work- Duchamp, Beuys.” -2003 (David Hammons from an interview with D. M. Rothschild, “Reflections of a Long Distance Runner”, David Hammons; the unauthorized retrospective, New York, 2006, n.p.). In recognizing his forebears, Hammons testifies as to his willingness to be a source of ideas rather than to represent a vessel for a single thought, for if he were to boil down any one piece to a single concept, it would negate the mystery of his many works.But while Duchamp and Beuys may represent the sculptural precedents to Hammons’ work, his kindred nature with a variety of contemporary artists shows his vein of expression to be both influential to and receptive of the work of others.
And, of course, Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work found the national spotlight almost simultaneously with David Hammons’, finds a similar exploration of racial politics in a style similar to that of Hammons’ sculptural collage. Both Basquiat and Hammons, in their experiences as African-Americans, chose to employ found materials in their work. While Basquiat traditionally preferred urban mediums (such as wood and spray paint) as opposed to actual detritus from the street, both artists share an inclination for the real—a disposition towards making art from materials as organic as they. Presenting his figures in two dimensions, Basquiat creates Famous Negro Athletes, 1981 from only oilstick and paper, crafting a nostalgic cultural commentary on African-American sports ritual similar to Hammons’ own. But Hammons piece is far more immediate in its purpose and utility; for, while Basquiat’s Famous Negro Atheletes, 1981 is a look back at what was, Hammons chooses to engage with what is, and, in doing so, Untitled, 2000 achieves a sense of meaning unlike any work from any other contemporary artist—a sculpture as rich in cultural allusions as it is vast in its chronological meaning.
In his work, Hammons has always been, first and foremost, a formidable mind. Even, in the present lot, as a masterpiece of aesthetic design and dynamism in light, Hammons’ richest elements are present in what is incorporeal. His ongoing philosophy of what is worth making is dictated only by the whims of his own creation, and thus far, he has not had a single misstep. Untitled , 2000 is representative of a generation of art and artists: a daring piece from a free mind.
“Like Bacon he has mastered his craft and like Duchamp he has mastered the art of the game and the hustle of being a philosopher-artist. All of these artists created an aura to go along with the work, one that is wrenchingly self-confident and driven by an intellect that demands silence, cunning, and often exile. “(F. Sirmans, “Searching for Mr. Hammons”, David Hammons: Selected Works, New York, 2006, np.)