PRINT May 1998


DAVID HAMMONS’ ART PROVOKES EXTREME REACTIONS. Some consider him a genius, a high priest of postmodernism; others dismiss him as arrogant and overrated, even a charlatan. Hammons himself is notorious for trapping people into hating him. He doesn’t hide his contempt for the art market, often making objects that disappear as quickly as they are completed, like snowballs, or working with items that are unsuitable for the museum environment, like chicken wings and barbecued ribs. He frequently keeps his work secret, rejects most invitations to exhibit, and generally won’t discuss its meaning (his motto is, “Those who know, don’t show”). He likes to choose his audiences spontaneously and let them spread the word between Harlem and SoHo. Like the work of his heroes Sun Ra and Thelonious Monk, Hammons’ art is decidedly anti-art.

The use of art against art is, of course, a familiar strategy by now, but what remains interesting is what becomes of the artist in his rebellion against convention. Such a strategy entails that the performative persona be as vital to the artist’s production as the work itself. Hammons’ persona locates him somewhere between, say, West African priest and James Brown—half master of magical, fetishized objects, half huckster-showman reveling in high kitsch. Mass-produced African masks and statuettes are a staple of Hammons’ installations.

In one sense, aura is everything in Hammons’ art. He cultivates his personal aura by popping up unexpectedly and unannounced in a shapeless gray designer suit while looking as though he forgot to shave for a couple of days. His preference for African shirts, pants, and scarves sets him even further apart from a New York art scene that has settled on black and white as the hues of style. Above all, what one remembers most vividly about his appearance are his extravagant hats (which reveal his affinity with African secret societies, jazz musicians, and hip-hop artists), his copper ring, and his shoes, which are often red, yellow, or pink. The Hammonsian myth draws equally on the legends of Africa and the urbanity of New York.

Like a West African priest undergoing purification, Hammons often goes days without food, as if he were taking steps to ensure ritual efficacy. He often works with relics thought to be ritually dangerous and contaminating, like human hair. He maintains a notorious secrecy about the details of his work, particularly when it comes to dealing with art critics. By the time Phat Free was shown at last year’s Whitney Biennial, it seemed the whole city had heard about the video, but only a handful had seen it.

I was one of the lucky few. I happened to run into Hammons and his photographer friend Jules Allen one day, and after talking on the corner for more than an hour about music, Hammons asked if we wanted to see something. He asked Allen if he had a VCR. I suggested we could go to my office, but Hammons insisted on going to Allen’s apartment. He refused to tell us any details about the video and said we had to see it for ourselves. So we went to Allen’s, popped a bottle of champagne, and put on the VCR.

The video began simply with a loud, metallic noise. About a minute passed, and still there were no images. When Allen and I looked at Hammons for some explanation, he gestured for us to keep watching. I imagined that maybe the noise was a solo drummer in a jam session that would soon appear on the screen. The video went on for another couple of minutes, and I was just getting used to the musical pattern when images suddenly began to appear. A man dressed in a long coat and a felt hat was kicking a bucket down a windy, deserted street. I waited for something else to happen, but the man kept walking behind the bucket, giving it a kick when he reached it. I realized the noise I had heard before was the bucketrolling across the concrete. At the end of the block, the man booted the bucket across the street and went after it like a soccer player. Finally, he turned around and kicked it toward the camera that had been tracking him all this time. That was it.

Phat Free is only seven minutes long, but it works on the mind like a musical composition that takes days to digest. Once I’d realized that the video wasn’t about a band playing, I began searching for other clues. “Kicking the bucket” is a euphemism for dying; so I started looking for other metaphors of morbidity in the video. It was late and the streets were foggy and deserted, other than the protagonist. He looked ghostly in the blue light of the morning; perhaps he was the figure of death visiting the neighborhood. But the video was simply too playful to support that reading.

Clearly the man was kicking the bucket the way a drummer plays a drum. The bucket rolling on the concrete established a steady rhythm, and the man—Hammons himself—repeated the same steps to reach and kick it again. And like a jam session (Phat Free, refers at once to hip-hop and to jazz improvisation), it was performed late at night, when everyone else had gone home and the man had the city to himself. I thought of the Surrealist creed that adventure is on the corner of the street—the man could be a homless person who had found his adventure in the game and was enjoying it to no end.

By the time the video was over, I was finally getting it. Or was I? Had Hammons planted recognizable narrative motifs like “kicking the bucket,” as well as allusions to jazz and homelessness, just to keep us working endlessly in pursuit of meaning? That may be the case, since what seemed to count most was the energy of the piece. The narrative motifs were mobilized to contribute to this energy, and when the video ended, it was like putting an end to all these stories and letting the playful rhythm and movement take over as an abstract sign of the black good life. Clearly, for Hammons, there is no good life without a measure of absurdity.

After the video, Hammons told us he felt that younger black artists lacked the “black confidence” of jazz musicians. They have no control over the definition of the art they’re making. For him, black artistic confidence means a willingness to transform blackness into a higher level of abstraction, to push it into silence, until the silence becomes as loud as the metallic bucket rolling across the concrete. Black art should be black only in the thrust of the idea; blackness should be decentered as completely as possible without losing its edge. Confidence comes with the creative ability to make one’s culture “abstract.” It is a gift that can be seen in the outer appearance of the work. In other words, it is an aura.

Identity issues are never absent from Hammons’ work, but the foundations of his art, the objects with which he works, and even his appeal to unconscious associations are different from those of other contemporary black installation artists. In contrast to work in which what seems to be at stake is the literal deployment of the black body, Hammons’ aesthetic frequently turns on the play with literal meanings. In this way, his work always takes a more circuitous approach to the politics of representation and, even in its anti-essentialist and hybrid versions, the often literalist impulse. The relation of Hammons’ conceptualism to both black culture and art history never seems overdetermined, and the elementary facture and directness of the work has as much to do with the primitivism and automatism of Surrealism as with identity politics. Hammons makes art by rearranging the order of familiar objects, by changing the rhythm or temporal sequence and speed of movement, or by coupling things with a common meaning. His work is so simple, delicate, yet precise that if you remove a hair from an arrangement, the magic that makes it art is undone and the objects return to their banal, nonart existences. Phat Free isn’t Phat Free without the disturbing sound track and dark screen that serve as the point of entry into the mysterious world of the video.

There is an element of uncanniness in Hammons’ art that is constituted by this simultaneous mastery of and irreverence for history. In See Sharp, 1997, smashed jelly rolls are scattered across a piano keyboard. The messy coupling of the sticky, confiture-filled rolls and the clean, elegant classical instrument is a blow against bienséance and decorum. By piling the crushed rolls on the white piano keys, Hammons not only pays tribute to jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton; he gives the installation an orgiastic quality. The gesture takes black-cultural references as a medium to create a version of “ugly” beauty. Hammons dances on the ruins of elegance and order the way Jelly Roll Morton once danced on the ivories.

Hammons’ work is so close to reality that it frequently elicits the old “anybody could do that” refrain from viewers. In Era of Corn, 1997, a fresh ear of corn is coupled with a pair of boxing gloves. The corncob seems to be emerging from the husks, which are spread over the gloves like a bouquet of flowers. A bite has been taken out of the ear, near its tapered end. The piece puns, of course, on Mike Tyson’s biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear, and on boxing’s transformation in general into a “corny” sport, an occasion for tuxedoed pomp and pay-per-view shell-outs. Beyond that, the piece is a metaphor for the decline of the sweet science, a sport that from Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali has been the arena for black heroism and masculinity. Tyson’s bite relegates boxing to the realm of staged spectacle, like a World Wrestling Federation match. In this sense the dried husks sagging over the old gloves are like wilted flowers after a party.

Formally, Era of Corn mobilizes another linked set of associations. The phallic shape of the cob is emphasized with the corn coming out of the husks, which are spread over the gloves like hair over testicles. This sexual motif is a theme in much of Hammons’ recent work, but one could already see it in his “Spade” series in the ’70s, which explored stereotypes of black masculinity by placing the figure of the spade in relation to various objects (the saxophone, chains, neckties, African fabrics). In the “Higher Goals” series of the ’80s, Hammons slyly referenced black masculinity and the myth of supersexuality by placing basketball hoops atop high telephone poles. Champ, 1985, Air Jordan, 1989, and the “Fly in a Jar” series, 1994, however, make the subtlest and most elegant statements about sports, sexuality, and black masculinity. In Champ, as in Era of Corn, a pair of red boxing gloves serves as an extension of the pugilist’s arms and phallus. The piece too partakes of an erotic humor by coupling the gloves and a deflated black inner tube. So while the red gloves symbolize virility, vitality, desire, and excess, the limp tube indicates deflation, defeat, and even the castration of the black man. In Air Jordan (consisting of an inner tube encrusted with burned bottle caps), the bent caps take on the vulval appearance of cowrie shells and contrast with the minuscule valve tied to the tube like an umbilical cord.

Champ is striking in its simplicity. There are only two colors (red and black) and three objects (a pair of gloves and an inner tube). The quiet seamlessness of the work makes it appear as if the objects are natural extensions of each other. In fact, the piece succeeds because of Hammons’ skill at making the inner tube and the gloves stand in for the black male body rather than ornaments of that body. The objects become fetishized as the body in toto and socialized as the identity of the champ. The disappearance of the black body in Hammons’ work leaves a vacuum to be filled by identities, images, and stereotypes. In this sense Hammons is a moralist, not because of any didacticism but because he provides us with new ways of seeing our times—that is, ways of seeing the world that we consume and that consumes us as images and stereotypes.

At times Hammons refers to his work as “dumbing down” and celebrates the “brilliance in dumbing down.” What attracts me most to his art is its sense of play and the little pleasures it gives. I say “little” because Hammons’ art never takes itself as seriously as that usually produced under the sign of identity politics. His talent for titles that enact comically and literally what they designate rivals that of Bruce Nauman in his early photographs: Hammons’ Cold Shoulder, 1990, consists literally of coats hanging on blocks of ice; Fly in the Sugar Bowl, 1993, is a zipper inside a bowl of granulated sugar. Some works even make a bad joke out of the literalization of a stereotype. How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988, is a portrait of Jesse Jackson with blond hair and blue eyes.

By making a stereotype literal, Hammons’ work takes a perverse pleasure in showing things in their nakedness and producing the quick disavowal that follows the recognition of a stereotype. He “dumbs down” the cliché until it loses its immanence and becomes transtextual, moving from text to text, idea to idea. In fact, Hammons’ work teases us because it is what it is: just an image with a floating irony. It is Pop art par excellence, because it advertises its own past, present, and future, all at once, and lets us consider the object both as fetish (transformative) and kitsch (the banalized mass-produced thing).

Two Obvious, 1996—cowrie shells spilling out of a broken piggy bank—is Hammons’ artistic kitsch par excellence, his answer to James Brown’s “Shake Your Money Maker” riff and to the singer’s onstage persona as the redcaped Godfather of Soul. If kitsch indicates the arrival of the new that banalizes the old both in its production and distribution, James Brown is the avatar of Afro-kitsch, bringing to the stage the black pastor, juju priest, and circus magician. Much of Hammons’ work relies on a similar banalization, taking the African beads, cowrie shells, masks, and statues that are tourist items and engaging them in New World rituals. In Two Obvious, the joke’s on art, like a billboard ad making fun of consumers.

As a Hammonsian oracular sign, Two Obvious is at once beautiful and grotesque, familiar and strange. It’s a sign of good fortune in West African cultures when cowrie shells lie face up, as is mostly the case here. The piggy bank as a Western trope signifies both childhood innocence and a lesson in capitalist upbringing. The smashed clay figurine, however, exposes the cowrie shells as excrement coming out of the pig’s belly; the broken bank represents danger and the violation of innocence. And the way Hammons isolates five cowrie shells from the rest is also a reference to exile in West African traditions. The laughter of the cowrie shells indicates the revenge of the grotesque returning in the form of a childhood nightmare.

Hammons assures us that the only trick in his book “is to ignore all the tricks.” I recently attended a performance in which he had everyone sit in chairs in the middle of the gallery. There weren’t enough to go around, so half the crowd had to stand. When we were all inside the circle, the door was closed, and except for a small spotlight on a figure, John Farris, reciting a kind of oracular poetry, the gallery was pitch-dark. About ten minutes later, Hammons pedaled in through a back door on his black bike, adorned with chains, gris-gris, and bags. He began riding around us, guiding himself by the bicycle’s dim headlight. The room was utterly silent except for Farris’ voice and the screeching sound made by the bike.

I guess the crowd was waiting for something else to happen as Hammons continued to ride around us for more than thirty minutes. From time to time he slowed down, as if ready for another act, but then picked up speed again. I gave up trying to second-guess him and began to free-associate. The strangest thing was that the image of the man dressed in long clothes and riding a bicycle in the dark didn’t make me think of West Africa, where I was used to seeing such occurrences in a rural setting. In my reverie I thought of Russian landscapes as I used to imagine them in the novels of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. I saw people coming in from the snow to wash their feet in warm water and to drink samovar tea. I wondered what others were thinking and seeing.

Hammons ended the show as he had started it, riding out the door. The lights came back on, and I heard people gasp. Months later, when I began work on this essay, it occurred to me that I had gathered every Hammons catalogue except for one book that he had once shown me with a picture of Tupac Shakur, the gangsta rapper who was killed in a drive-by shooting, and of Christo, the artist known for wrapping landscapes and rivers. I looked everywhere and could not locate it. Finally, I called Hammons in Japan, where he is living while preparing a show, to ask him where I could find the book. He told me there was no such book; that he had actually put two books together to show the relationship between the two artists, which consisted in wrapping things with words or with sheets. Only then did it occur to me that Hammons had been wrapping us when he circled the perimeter of the gallery.