Zwirner & Wirth will present a selection of works from the last three decades by the influential and enigmatic artist David Hammons.
By working in a variety of different media and with an utterly unique choice of materials, Hammons creates art that defies easy categorization. In his own words, the artist has aptly positioned his work "somewhere between Marcel Duchamp, outsider art, and Arte Povera." In his sculptures and installations, Hammons typically makes use of found materials, bringing everyday objects culled from "street" culture into the pristine space of art galleries and museums. Hammons transforms discarded remnants such as chicken bones, liquor bottles, and barbershop hair into delicate, beautiful assemblages that open themselves to multiple readings. Through the contextual shifts that take place with his minimal gestures and sly sense of humor, Hammons' artwork functions to reveal and undermine racial and societal stereotypes. By introducing elements of urban culture into his sculptures and installations, he refers his viewers to obscured histories and discourses not normally presented in "high" culture. Hammons has described his own practice as "tragic magic," in which he takes "the discarded vestiges of black life and transforms them, restoring to them a lost potency reinvested with the power of the fetish."¹
The totemic, large-scale basketball nets he created out of bottle caps, tin foil, and other scraps taken from the streets attest to this act of re-inscription. Zwirner & Wirth will present two Untitled basketball hoop sculptures from 1987 and1989, both of which were originally installed at Hammons' 1990-91 retrospective at PS1. In these works, the street game of basketball is brought into the gallery/museum context to address larger cultural issues, such as the creative, improvisational nature of basketball. Hammons continues to expand upon this theme in a number of ethereal, enigmatic works that call forth a broad range of references from street culture to art history. The gallery will present his large-scale Basketball Installation, 1995, which juxtaposes an African urn within which a basketball has mysteriously been embedded; a tree trunk which has a basketball hoop attached to it; and marks on the wall made with a basketball that was covered with dirt taken from the streets of Harlem. This work relates to an earlier seminal installation by the artist titled Tree of Hope, 1986 (which alludes to the famous Harlem "tree of hope," superstitiously rubbed by performers at the Apollo Theater on 125th Street for good luck). Also in the exhibition is an Untitled (Basketball Drawing), 2004, in which a dirty basketball again functions as a drawing tool as it is bounced on a sheet of paper. The resulting drawing, which Hammons has surrounded by a gilded frame, brings dirt into the pristine gallery setting while simultaneously evoking high-art abstraction. Tucked between the back of this work and the gallery wall is a found suitcase, which can be read as a reference to the basketball term "traveling," or to the distance between Harlem street life and the gallery context, or perhaps to the "baggage" associated with the art world.
With his interest in the shifting of meaning and multi-layered references, much of Hammons' work makes use of plays on language. Expanding upon Marcel Duchamp, Hammons explores the transformative possibilities of punning and naming. Flies in a Jar, 1994 humorously represents "flies" with clothing zippers attached to branches and kept in a glass jar, evoking different associative meanings at once with the gesture of re-inscription. The gallery will also present the work Which Mike Would You Like to be Like, 2003, made up of three vintage microphones that function as stand-ins for three pop-cultural figures, namely Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, and Michael Jordan. The title, which plays with the instability of language, can be read as an ironic commentary on the limited role models put forth to young African American men. However, the microphones seem to invite new voices to be heard.
Often, Hammons' work makes reference to the body and its functions and gestures. Works such as Cigarette Holder, 1990, a makeshift candelabrum of Lucky Strike cigarettes, conjure forth a bodily materiality. Other works similarly function as figurative surrogates, such as Rubber Dread, 1989, made of rubber bicycle tire inner-tubes woven together to evoke dreadlocks and Untitled, 2004, which is one of Hammons' series of "heads", made of stone covered in hair that has been taken from a Harlem barbershop.
The exhibition will also present one of Hammons' signature works, the U.N.I.A. Flag, 1990. Here, the artist re-inscribes a potent symbol with the simple gesture of changing the colors of the American flag to those associated with Africa and the American Black Power movement. Phat Free, 1995/1999 will also be made available for viewing at the gallery. This DVD installation, which was included in the 1997 Whitney Biennial, shows a man kicking a metal bucket through a nocturnal urban landscape, creating a dissonant percussive noise. Like all of Hammons' art, the simple gesture presented in this work allows for multiple interpretations, referring, for example, to the game "kick the can," or to the phrase "kicking the bucket."
As Kellie Jones has written, the work of David Hammons points to "an aesthetic, a way of using and doing things, of creating something beautiful from the nothing that is given, from the leftovers. By making art from detritus and found materials, Hammons attempts to put himself on the same plane as the historically marginal and opens himself up to their canons of beauty and perseverance that sometimes translates as transformational magic."
David Hammons was born in 1943 in Springfield, Illinois. His work has been exhibited widely in the United Sates and Europe since the late 1970s. Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at such institutions as the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland (1998); the Salzburger Kunstverein, Austria (1995); Illinois Sate Museum, Springfield (1993); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1993); the American Academy of Rome (with Janis Kounellis, 1992); PS1 Museum of Contemporary Art (1990; traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Pennsylvania and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art). Hammons is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Prix de Rome. He currently lives and works in New York City.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue, which includes new scholarship on the artist by the critic and curator Franklin Sirmans.
¹ David L. Smith, "David Hammons: Spade Worker," inYardbird Suite (Williamstown: Williams College Museum of Art, 1994)
² Kellie Jones, "The Structure of Myth and the Potency of Magic" in David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble (New York: PS1, 1991), p29.