David Hammons - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, November 16, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Held in the same family collection for over three decades, Untitled, 1990, epitomizes David Hammons’ longstanding preoccupation with the intersection of found objects and high art. Rejecting the traditional gallery model and institutional elitism, Hammons has actively refuted art world norms in favor of defining his own path. With this work, Hammons presents us with a found United States one-dollar bill, sandwiched between a cracked glass pane within an oxidized metal frame. With a nod to his ephemeral landmark action Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983, in which the artist sold snowballs of different sizes on the Bowery in New York, Hammons here puts forth a work that offers an incisive commentary on the commodification of art, while simultaneously probing the structural inequalities embedded in the history of the United States. The antidote to Andy Warhol’s famous Dollar Bill series from the 1960s, Untitled offers a more ambivalent vision of the American dream–powerfully exemplifying the formal and conceptual rigor that has made Hammons arguably one of the most important American artists of his generation.

     

    Andy Warhol, Fifteen One Dollar Bills, 1962, woodblock and black ink on paper, © 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

    Hammons’ art eschews easy categorization. While he deftly interweaves high and low in a manner that reflects his deep appreciation for the Arte Povera movement and his fascination with the Duchampian readymade, his practice is resolutely grounded in the realities of his lived experience in the United States–coming to age during the civil rights movement. Having started his artistic career in Los Angeles in the 1960s with his pioneering body prints, in 1974 he relocated to New York where he commenced his lifelong practice of creating sculptures from the urban detritus of African American life dense with the freight of history.

     

    Executed in 1990, the present work was created the same year as African American Flag, one of the most iconic works in Hammons’ oeuvre to date. Hammons disarms and deconstructs the symbol of the American flag, not to empty it of meaning, but to convey its expanded and fluid scope and imbue it with sharp socio-political commentary. Hammons had previously employed the American flag as a motif in his breakthrough series of body print, unflinchingly throwing its virtues of “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” into question and indicting it, “as a symbol of America’s unkept promises to, and violence against African Americans.”i

     

    Untitled reveals the cracks to the American dream, here somewhat ironically distilled to a single dollar bill, enshrined in a fissured glass and metal frame suggestive of a violence inflicted. Paper currency in the United States was born in 1690 as the means to fund military expeditions, quickly spread through its colonies, and since World War II, the US Dollar has held global hegemony. Untitled as such is closely related to Too Obvious, 1996, Collection of The Studio Museum in Harlem, an assemblage featuring white cowrie shells spilling out of a broken piggy bank. Cowrie shells represented Western African currency before colonialist forces replaced it with paper money as carriers of value, and in this work come to stand in for the building of European and American slavery economies. In Untitled, the neat fold in the dollar bill quietly but assuredly obliterates the face of President George Washington–a hereditary slave owner–and truncates the symbols of the pyramid and the eagle’s shield on its reverse.

    "Outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol."
    – David Hammons

    Hammons has further explored this theme in more recent works, prominently featured in his solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles in 2019. A row of framed currency pieces was juxtaposed by wadded-up, crumpled dollar bills seemingly dropped on the floor below. As a form of social experiment exposing primal roots of greed, it also connected to the issues of economic and systematic inequality poignantly epitomized by Hammons’ installation of tents which paralleled a similar encampment of unhoused on LA’s Skid Row. Reviewing the show, Catherine Taft wrote, “More than mere readymades, Hammons’s objects elevate the ordinary and the discarded, creating prisms of reality that whisper or shout at the viewer.”ii

     

    The incisive nature of Untitled is balanced with Hammons’ characteristic wit and irony. Indeed, there is a certain absurdity to elevating a found dollar bill–the lowest paper denomination–to an artwork. Poking fun at the art establishment in this way, Hammons questions the role of the artist and the value of art at large. Converting found objects drawn from everyday American life into materials for art, Hammons subverts the commodification of high art both formally and conceptually. Condensing some of Hammons’ most enduring themes into a potent, compact object, the conceptual rigor and cultural relevance of the present work continues to hold 30 years after its making.

     

    A Noted Provenance

     

    Coming to the market for the first time since its execution thirty years ago, Untitled is notable for its storied provenance, having traveled from Hammons’ studio in Harlem in the early 1990s to Belgium. In 1991, Hammons had formed a close friendship with the reputable Belgian director of the SMAK in Ghent, Jan Hoet—then curator of Documenta IX. Both Hammons and Hoet shared an anti-materialist outlook and a mutual belief in the powerful communicative capabilities of art. Hoet sought to reconfigure the established conventions of the 1992 Documenta; the theme of “displacement” was used as a leitmotif throughout the exhibition, as Hoet put forward his belief in the purpose of contemporary art to provide an authentic, subjective experience. Hoet acquired the work directly from the artist for his personal collection; the work has since remained in the same family collection.

     

    i Kellie Jones, David Hammons Rousing the Rubble, exh. cat., The Institute for Contemporary Art, P.S. 1, New York, 1991, p. 16

    ii Catherine Taft, “David Hammons,” Artforum, September 2019, online

    • Provenance

      Jan Hoet, Ghent (acquired directly from the artist)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      David Hammons

      American • 1943

      David Hammons eschews the spotlight and rebels against the conventions of the art world. Hammons’s diverse body of work, spanning conceptual, performance, and installation art, is so laden with spell-binding metaphor that they have become symbols for movements both in the art world as well as in the public domain. 

      Hammons doesn't work in any consistent medium or using any formal or academic theory—he famously has said, "I can't stand art actually." Still, with his Duchamp-ian readymades re-envisioned for a contemporary political context, Hammons remains one of contemporary art's most watched artists. Untitleda basketball hoop with dangling candelabra, achieved $8 million at Phillips in 2013, the world auction record for the artist. 

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Property from a Private Collection, Belgium

365

Untitled

signed and dated "Hammons 90" on the reverse
United States one-dollar bill, glass and metal frame
7 7/8 x 12 1/4 x 1 3/8 in. (20 x 31.1 x 3.5 cm)
Executed in 1990.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$40,000 - 60,000 

Sold for $69,300

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig
Specialist, Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session
+1 212 940 1279
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 16 November 2022