In 2002, David Hammons invited people to come to a New York gallery and admire a whole lot of nothing. For a now-famous piece called Concerto in Black and Blue (2002), visitors to Ace Gallery were given tiny flashlights that, when turned on, emitted a blue light. They journeyed into the pitch-black gallery and explored 20,000 square feet of space. What visitors slowly realized, moving through the show, was that there was not a single art object on view. There was, in other words, not much to see.
As Concerto in Black and Blue goes to show, Hammons’s art aspires toward unknowability. It is elusive, tricky, and often downright confounding—something akin to a puzzle without any edge pieces, or a riddle that has no answer. But that hasn’t kept viewers of all stripes—from members of the art-world elite to laypeople encountering his art in public spaces—from trying to decode these works’ concealed meanings. This quest has left so many people are allured (and stumped) by Hammons’s art.
This summer, there comes a rare convergence of Hammons shows in New York. In the month of May alone, the Drawing Center closed an acclaimed survey of Hammons’s body prints for the ’70s, Nahmad Contemporary opened a rare show of the artist’s works made using Kool-Aid and basketballs, and the Whitney Museum unveiled Day’s End (2014–21), a long-awaited outdoor installation on the Hudson River. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a new private museum in Paris called the Bourse de Commerce opened with the most comprehensive French presentation ever of Hammons’s art. All the works on view evade easy interpretation, no doubt in part because Hammons won’t be there to explain them—he doesn’t often give interviews to journalists. The artist has also been known to control how his work is presented, sometimes even altering it after it goes on view.
When he has gone on the record to speak about his art, Hammons has often skirted chances to explain it. In 1986, the art historian Kellie Jones asked Hammons whether he thought his work was political. To what extent, she wondered, did it refer to the day’s issues? He gave her a non-response: “I don’t know. I don’t know what my work is. I have to wait and hear that from someone.”
Places and their histories are key to Hammons’s art.
Day’s End is big, polished, and made of materials meant to endure. In this sense, it’s unlike much of Hammons’s art. Still, it’s a typical work for the artist in that its site is important. The sculpture resembles the metal skeleton of a pier, and it alludes to Pier 52, a no-longer-extant structure that Gordon Matta-Clark once sliced segments out of in 1975, for a process that he called “anarchitecture.” Throughout the 1970s, Pier 52 was also cruising site for gay men. (Because of Pier 52’s ties to the queer community, critics such as Peter L’Official and Holland Cotter have tied Day’s End to the photographs of Alvin Baltrop, which document men fornicating by the Hudson River during the era.) Although Pier 52 can’t be seen anymore, its ghost lingers on in Hammons’s sculpture.
In Hammons’s art, sites are informed by the things strewn around them. His focus has often been Harlem, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Manhattan where the threat of gentrification by white-owned businesses is ongoing. Hammons has previously been a resident of the area, and owns property in Harlem, according to a 2019 profile in the New Yorker by critic Calvin Tomkins. (Hammons also owns land in Upstate New York, where a refurbished building in Yonkers is his main place of residence.) In tribute to his legacy in the neighborhood, the Studio Museum in Harlem has long hung his African American Flag (1990)—which replaces the red, white, and blue of the U.S. flag with the red, green, and black used in the Pan-African flag—outside its entrance.
At times, Harlem has had a material presence in Hammons’s work. For the video Phat Free (1995/99), Hammons kicks a bucket around Harlem streets at night. For the “Basketball” works, Hammons bounced basketballs lined with dirt from the neighborhood against paper, producing Abstract Expressionist–like forms in the process. Hammons has culled hair from Harlem barbershops for use in a number of works, and for one of his most famous pieces, Higher Goals (1986), he nailed bottle caps to Harlem basketball hoops too tall for any human to ever reach. (Parts of the Public Art Fund–organized project were also shown in Brooklyn parks.)
From the start, Hammons exhibited his work outside the confines of art institutions. His 1983 performance Bliz-aard Ball Sale, for example, involved selling arbitrarily priced snowballs near Cooper Union, a famed New York art school. In a 2017 book about that work, curator Elena Filipovic wrote that Hammons “may well have been playing with racist stereotypes associated with blacks (homeless vagrant, street hustler, drug pusher) and at the same time undercutting them through his calm, serious stance and willfully elegant style.” Such a resonance would likely not have been possible if the work was shown in a gallery.
Art historian Robert Storr has written that Hammons shows at “venues so far from the main thoroughfares of the art crowd—but so close to his communities of choice—that one can only say that Hammons is a conjuror of contradictory artistic stances, among them the sincere populist and the big league but hard-to-get provocateur.”
Hammons subverts how artworks are shown and sold.
In 1988, working on commission for the Washington Project for the Arts, Hammons created a piece called How Ya Like Me Now? The work was controversial: it pictured the Black politician Jesse Jackson as a white man. Sure enough, when it went on view, viewers took sledgehammers to it. Once it was repaired, Hammons added to it another element: the very weapons used to deface it, which have since been presented as part of the artwork itself.
Traditionally, artworks are assumed to be fixed—unchangeable once they are completed and exhibited. Hammons’s work short circuits that notion because it is often in flux. So too are his exhibitions. In 2016, when New York’s Mnuchin Gallery mounted a full-career survey without the artist’s participation, Hammons got involved at the last minute, and decided to cancel certain museum loans and add in new works. Hammons’s switch-up came so late that the exhibition’s catalogue contained an inaccurate checklist once the show went on view.
In some instances, Hammons’s art is also a commentary on the work of other artists. The 1981 performance Pissed Off, documented via photography by Dawoud Bey, involved urinating on Richard Serra’s Minimalist sculpture T.W.U.
Hammons got his start in relatively small spaces on the fringes of the mainstream art world, among them Los Angeles’s Brockman Gallery and New York’s Just Above Midtown. These days, however, Hammons often presents his art at blue-chip galleries, even if he has resisted being formally represented by them. These spaces tend to be home to slick, big-budget presentations, but in Hammons’s hands, their perfect aura gets deflated.
In 2014, Hammons had a show at London’s White Cube gallery, and he made the space appear as though it were mid-installation, with the lights dimmed and a security gate partially lowered. Then, in 2019, at Hauser & Wirth’s Los Angeles location, Hammons exhibited a series of tents in the gallery’s courtyard, likely a reference to the city’s nearby Skid Row neighborhood, where the houseless have often gathered in structures such as these. On each was a message to gallery visitors: “This could be u.”
Dada influences and African traditions combine in Hammons’s work.
Among Hammons’s most acclaimed works—and his earliest critical and market successes—are his body prints, made between 1968 and 1979. (In 2021, when the Drawing Center mounted a survey of these works, he unexpectedly added to the show a new body print in which he wears a face mask.) To make them, Hammons lathered his body in margarine and other oily substances, and pressed it against paper, leaving behind ghostly images.
They range in tone from the mysterious to the downright horrifying: some are plays on Gustav Klimt’s paintings featuring couples kissing, while others refer to well-known instances of racism. Injustice Case (1970), the most famous work in the series, features a seated man with a gagged mouth and bound hands, a reference to when the Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale was restrained during a prominent 1968 trial after a judge held him in contempt of court for continued outbursts. (He and seven white men were accused of inciting a riot during the Democratic National Convention; his case was later detached from theirs.) Many critics have noted the the influence of Yves Klein’s “Anthropométries,” which feature smears of blue paint made by using women’s nude bodies as paintbrushes, on Hammons’s body prints.
Klein is but one of Hammons’s influences. The one he returns to the most is Marcel Duchamp. Like Duchamp, Hammons makes use of readymade objects constantly. Also like Duchamp, Hammons has a penchant for puns, making use of titles and materials that have two or more meanings. (Spades, for example, occur frequently in Hammons’s early work as a reference to a racist epithet and to a Jim Dine painting featuring a shovel.) Hammons idolizes Duchamp so much that, for a 2002 book called The Holy Bible: Old Testament, Hammons rebound an Arthur Schwartz volume about the Dadaist and rechristened it a holy text. “I am the C.E.O. of the D.O.C.—the Duchamp Outpatient Clinic,” Hammons once said.
Yet Hammons’s art often makes use of African aesthetic traditions, too. Cowrie shells, beads, masks, and more have often appeared in his sculptures, though they are often made to seem ordinary through a process that critic and filmmaker Manthia Diawara has called “banalization.” They appear so typical, in fact, that, when Kellie Jones wrote about a sculpture featuring a stack of masks that appeared to be from West and Central Africa in a 2016 catalogue essay, she suspected they may have been from a flea shop, or simply purchased somewhere in New York. In that essay, Jones writes: “What do these apparently disparate materials of our environment have to say about our lives on this planet?”
Correction 5/27/21, 4:20 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that David Hammons’s performance Pissed Off involved urinating on Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. That performance was staged at Serra’s sculpture T.W.U., not Tilted Arc.