PRINT Summer 2018



David Hammons, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983. Performance view, Cooper Square, New York, 1983. Photo: Dawoud Bey.

David Hammons: Bliz-aard Ball Sale, by Elena Filipovic. London: Afterall Books, 2017. 160 pages.

IN 1983, David Hammons held his Bliz-aard Ball Sale, which “probably didn’t bear that title, or any title at all,” as Elena Filipovic discloses in her amazing exposition on the artist’s chill maneuvers. Meanwhile, six months or so later, at a coven sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Rosalind Krauss informed the assembled that she—and here Filipovic quotes Adrian Piper’s writing on Krauss’s decree—“doubts there is any unrecognized African-American art of quality because if it didn’t bring itself to her attention it probably didn’t exist.”

Let that cold open thaw for a minute.

Filipovic uses this anecdote to spell out Hammons’s methods, his modes and haunts. Krauss, she writes, “clearly wasn’t looking among the street sellers on the south-east corner of Cooper Square and Astor Place (or, for that matter, taking the ‘funk lessons’ [Piper] was offering that same year). And in light of that startlingly myopic statement by one of the period’s preeminent art historians, one understands better why Hammons felt the need to place himself outside on the street,” where, within spitting distance of Cooper Union, he was teaching advanced lessons on material specificity and conceptual reverb.

The bliz-aard ball was an objet-d’aard moved on the “so-called black market.”

Or was it?

David Hammons, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983. Performance views, Cooper Square, New York, 1983. Photos: Dawoud Bey.

Despite the work’s iconic status and indelible image—Hammons, dressed with savoir flair, hawks his wares, one in his mittened left hand, various icy others carefully arranged according to size on a striped “North African rug” on the sidewalk in front of him—what exactly was going on in the streetwise sale of these objets d’aart, if that’s what they were, has long remained “fuzzy.” Bliz-aard Ball Sale, like so many of the artist’s pursuits, defies easy reckoning, requiring more than even double consciousness. With the frostbitten persistence of an arctic explorer, Filipovic “stalks” the various sites and syncopations that make up the work, providing new interviews with Hammons and his collaborators; firsthand accounts of the sale; lively analysis of the photographic and archival record, much of it never previously brought to light; as well as tales of the snowballs’ elusive afterlives. Still, she begins her gumshoeing with caution: “Some of what you will read here might . . . be apocryphal,” she writes, warning that “to attempt to take Bliz-aard Ball Sale seriously is to admit that it was conceived precisely to slip between our fingers—to trouble the grasp of the market, as much as of history and knowability.” Or, as Hammons put it to her: “Don’t you know, chasing these stories is what it is?”

“Don’t you know, chasing these stories is what it is?” —David Hammons

“‘Blizzard Sale!’ ads abound[ing] in the local papers,” Hammons pulled off his snow job—unannounced, no press release or forewarning—on Sunday, February 13, 1983, New York City having just been loosed from the frigid grip of a major nor’easter. It was the day after Abraham Lincoln’s 174th birthday, in the year the artist would turn forty, the age at which John Coltrane, one of his idols, died. The artist shaped the globes—balls (as in, he sure had a pair) as much as ballistics (in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s dart-objects)—with the readymade assist of graduated molds he found at Canal Plastics. Tossing into conceptual free fall wisecracks about selling ice to Eskimos or what a snowball in hell has a chance to do, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, Filipovic discerns, “was thus not only a decidedly ephemeral counterproposal to the art world and material lust of the ’80s. It must also be recognized in the context of an era when countless black men and women were pushed even further into the margins of society.”

With his takeover of the whiteout, Hammons rewrote the rules of recognition, exposing them to the elements, and also gave a withering side-eye to values championed by the art world.

David Hammons, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983. Performance views, Cooper Square, New York, 1983. Photos: Dawoud Bey.

The man had been honing his routine for some time. One night in 1981, he urinated on Richard Serra’s T.W.U., 1980, stealing the thunder from theoretically ballasted massiveness via a lightning stream of spritz-atura, in an action now known as Pissed Off. Continuing the acid arc of his thinking on Serra’s sculpture, he created Shoe Tree, 1981,by throwing pairs of shoes tied together over the top edge of the artist’s ponderous Transport Workers Union homage. However much these acts “unseat and disrupt the formidable (white) art world” while taking the piss out of it, they also turn—with élan vital—lumbering sculpture into a readymade base highlighting street choreography (public urination, flinging shoes) as biting critique: Piss as diss-ertation, and soles on ice. In 1986, three years after his bliz-aard sale, when Hammons displayed a saved snowball in “Icestallation” at Just Above Midtown gallery, he made sure an invitation to the show, glittering with a frosty silver ball print, was posted to Serra.

Filipovic brilliantly describes these fleeting, argumentative moves and their dependence on photography as “Hammons’s seemingly irreconcilable strategies of cultivating evasion and regularly commissioning an evidential record.” She is quick to emphasize how explicit the artist has been about race not being Bliz-aard Ball Sale’s subject, but also fixes on the complexity of his political framing by vividly comparing his reception to Mike Kelley’s. (I once attended a talk on Kelley in which someone claimed that he never addressed race in his work. You don’t need Uncle Friedrich to assure you that, really, Kelley only ever addressed race, specifically whiteness, through the dialectical lens of class.) Filipovic disturbs the quietude about whiteness, the unspoken foil blanketing discussions around Hammons’s (and other artists’) art in relation to race, by allowing his winter’s tale and the actions that precede it to resound:

You cannot think of these works or of Hammons’s street actions in general without reckoning with what blackness meant (and means still) in public space. Or without acknowledging that by putting himself out on a street corner with his wares, 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. The adage “the white man’s ice is colder” speaks for the sort of internalized racism that causes black Americans to believe that businesses, products and services offered by whites are better, more reliable. Turning the expression on its head, Hammons’s act implicitly suggested that although you could easily make your own snowball, this black man’s ice was worthy of purchase; it was perhaps colder, even.

Soon after, in 1983, Hammons would fill honey jars with black jelly beans and label them marcus garvey vitamins, a product of the enterprise that he billed as the “David Hammons Traveling Medicine Show.” Emblazoned on the label immediately beneath a portrait of Garvey in a tie and three-piece suit are the words HIGH POTENCY // STRESS FORMULA. Garvey “designed the African-American flag which looked like the Italian flag except that it is red, black, and green,” Hammons once reminded curator Louise Neri. “But it is so abstract, so pure, that the masses were frightened by it.” Little has been written about where the vitamins were first shown or how they were distributed, or about any specific benefits taking them might produce. Perhaps this lack of information too was about confecting more stories, a rendezvous of questions and question marks? Peddling neither kitsch nor snake oil, the Marcus Garvey Vitamins would seem to say something about metabolizing daily abstraction and the ameliorative sweetness of pride, despite American racist ideology. Hammons’s dark, bittersweet comedy—jelly beans as time-release capsules, placebos to help the medicine, and life, go down—anticipates Kara Walker’s insurgent bonbon of 2014, A Subtlety.

David Hammons, Pissed Off, 1981. Performance views, Richard Serra’s T.W.U., 1980, Franklin Street and West Broadway, New York, 1981. Photos: Dawoud Bey

The thirtieth anniversary of Invisible Man occurred a year before Bliz-aard Ball Sale. Ralph Ellison used the occasion to write a sly, daunting rumination on the condition of black Americans, retrospective as much as proleptic, aesthetic investment for future combat. He nodded to his work’s “pied rind and surreal heart,” and distinguished the voice taunting him as a “blues-toned laugher-at-wounds who included himself in his indictment of the human condition.” The writing it compelled was, in his words, “science fiction.”

A genealogy of delay, from Duchamp to now, includes artful dodges and strategic interference, hiding in plain sight and playing to different scenes. Ellison’s protagonist, from the beginning, asks to be called “Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation.” Jack wouldn’t have to explain the reasons for his passing dormancy to Hammons: “A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.” Filipovic points out that Dawoud Bey’s photographs of Pissed Off, Shoe Tree, and Bliz-aard Ball Sale waited for almost a decade, image-repertoire as sleeper cell, until they infiltrated the catalogue for “David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble,” his 1991 exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art in New York, their abeyance no small part of his making an “art of resistance, disruption and obfuscation, sometimes literally so.” Warping temporality by syncopating the untimely with the temporary, Hammons uses “evasion” as an “artistic practice (even a medium).” Nevertheless, Hammons has found Duchamp and his influence a mixed blessing: The artist, in a backhanded compliment, has repeatedly tried to have art institutions close on July 28 in honor of Duchamp’s birthday. With its shades of work stoppage, dropping out, and rêlache, the self-appointed “C.E.O. of the D.O.C.—the Duchamp Outpatient Clinic” proposes a strike for the question of where and what art might be, forced out onto the streets, his elected turf.

One morning in early 1937, a chance meeting of Duchamp and Walter Benjamin on the boulevards of Paris (where Rrose Sélavy’s avatar showed the philosophical pearl diver a proof of the pochoir reproduction of Nude Descending the Staircase) led to Benjamin’s lighting out for new aesthetic territories. Filipovic has translated his note (written in French), taken after this encounter, about Duchamp’s theory of the value/work of art: “Once an object is looked at by us as a work of art, it absolutely ceases to function as such.”

Has anyone since the old dust collector himself appreciated this paradox better than Hammons? He freezes such looking, warding off that ceasing-to-function for as long as possible via the sangfroid of désœuvrement. His economy of refuse trades in refusal. “To be invisible is more powerful than being visible,” he tells Filipovic. “Rumours live a very long time.”

Of course, by privileging a certain “not knowing,” returning to where knowledge always isn’t, at the core of history, all the while relentlessly pursuing rare pearls of what remains of the verifiable, Filipovic produces her own paradox: With her scintillant endeavor, she puts to rest some of the rumors swirling around the artist and his work, trusting others will remain and accrue. Instead of hagiographic autopsy, she provides a vital flowchart. With aspects of Hammons’s moves clarified, perhaps it’s time to consider whether or how they could be inherited, or if the possibility of something like his principles of evasion have been changed forevermore.

David Hammons, Pissed Off, 1981. Performance views, Richard Serra’s T.W.U., 1980, Franklin Street and West Broadway, New York, 1981. Photos: Dawoud Bey

For example: the Hammons-like pedagogy of Donald Glover.

Perhaps you heard there was to be a long tracking shot in a scene of Atlanta’s “Robbin’ Season” that would include a man selling snowballs on a cold street?

Regardless. In the gloom of an antebellum mansion, Teddy Perkins, a sinister, timeless dandy, and Darius (the winsome Lakeith Stanfield) discuss the supposed “insufficiencies” of certain art forms; questions of “masterpieces” and whether they come from sacrifice, great pain, or love; shitty dads; and, because of Stevie Wonder (songs—counterproposals?—from Wonder’s 1972 Music of My Mind frame the episode), the difference between being born blind (but still “seeing”) and being blinded. Much of their increasingly tense or haunted conversation plays out in front of metaphorically charged objects: an unseemly soft-boiled ostrich egg; a piano with “colored keys”; a faceless, besuited mannequin, stand-in for a patriarch, made of light-colored fabric. With the sudden murder-suicide that ends the episode, Glover, a gifted comic, is “killing” in more ways than one. He wrote and produced the episode, and plays Teddy—in grisly whiteface.

At some point, after Teddy dismisses rap as adolescent, Darius replies that sometimes people just want to have a good time. It’s a phrase Glover-as-Teddy repeats, good time, as if he himself were asking how good a time or great an art would have to be to receive recognition—symbolic as well as actual capital—that would somehow perform reparation.

In the conundrum of that “good time,” hear the echo of Ellison’s summa, “Black will make you . . . or black will un-make you”—a sentence that wasn’t written only for black America.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum and associate chair of graduate art at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA.