David Hammons is a conceptual artist working in a variety of media including performance, installation, sculpture, printmaking, among other modes of production and is a contemporary American artist whose sculptural, print-based, video, and painted work offers a crucial interpretation of African American art history. By bridging the societal lines between the predominantly white sphere of fine art and the history of oppression, degradation, and cultural slavery of people of color, he critiques and exposes stereotypes within the art world with razor-sharp precision.
Although he developed an interest in visual arts in his adolescent years, he became increasingly aware of the lack of diversity within the predominantly upper-class, Caucasian market the American gallery system had produced. Upon graduating from high school and moving to California, he attended Los Angeles City College. After a year he transferred to Los Angeles Trade Technical College to study advertising and began taking night classes at Otis Art Institute, where he worked with renowned artist Charles White. In 1966 Hammons enrolled full-time at Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts), graduating in 1968, and, later, the Otis Art Institute, where he remained until 1972. It was there that he first encountered the work of contemporary practitioners such as Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari, though his involvement with a ground-breaking group of African American jazz musicians, video and filmmakers and painters made more of an impact upon his aesthetic sense. After completing his formal training in the early 1970s, he settled in New York and began work on his “Spade” series.
A wry sense of humor emerges from most of Hammons’s work and his early compositions are no exception. At the time, the Black Power movement and civil rights were prominent in the national discourse and the artist was dedicated to the social, political and economic advancement of African American lives. His first major series, “Spade,” employed the use of a word regarded derogatory and offensive by most, and used it to confront prevalent prejudices and hypocrisy. For instance, the installation “Spade with Chains,” presented in 1973, made a visual connection between the gardening instrument and traditional African masks while engaging in linguistic punning as well. Similarly, “Bird” depicts a spade budding from a saxophone, evoking the achievements of musician Charlie Bird. The series was well-received by critics as Hammons had already developed a following among collectors when “Injustice Case” was acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art while he was still in student.
Over the next two decades, Hammons developed an oeuvre based entirely on the experiences of black Americans, creating installations made from the shattered glass of Night Train wine bottles, alluding to the basketball as one of the few (and often impossible) ways for young men to break out of the ghetto, constantly bringing focus back to the a demographic ignored by mainstream media. Though some saw his use of chicken parts, cheap liquor and kinky hair as symbolic of the poverty and desperation of the subjugated, the artist himself viewed the materials as sacrosanct, evocative of the ritualistic strength. In 1991, he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship.
Hammons has never shied away from controversy, vandalizing the work of Richard Serra and speaking candidly about his apathy towards the gallery system and the commodification of art. Nevertheless his work is part of the permanent collections of several major museums including the MoMa and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Since the new millennium, he has collaborated with Alex Harsley on numerous videos including “Phat Free.”
The Hammons exhibition, featuring new work, will take up two of the gallery spaces in Hauser & Wirth’s location in Downtown Los Angeles. One of the most influential and in-demand artists of the past half century, this will be Hammons’s first solo show in Los Angeles in 45 years.