David Hammons

David Hammons is a dedicated poacher. Whether taking snow from the streets of Harlem to make and sell snowballs, hair from the floors of barber shops, chicken wings from take-out restaurants, or Night Train bottles tossed into vacant lots to create sculpture, drawings, quilts, and other objects, he bestows a sense of esthetic order on these ordinary, often gritty souvenirs of urban life and black culture. The artist’s provocative use of stereotypes unifies the generous range of props and settings.

For Rock Fan, 1993, Hammons placed an enormous boulder in front of Chapin Hall, a prominent campus building. Like a flock of crows that had just alighted, old, electrical rotary fans decorated the top and sides of the rock, their useless cords hanging limply. The blades of the fans were still except when the wind caused them to move in slow, listless circles making it seem that they might actually take flight.

Initially the piece created confusion and irritation among the Williams students, though ultimately they became the artist’s silent partners as they began to amend Rock Fan. First the rock was painted purple (a college color). Later two upright vacuum cleaners mysteriously appeared. These abandoned appliances flanked the piece like sentries. Rock Fan became both a collaborative work and a record of the students’ skepticism.

Hammons is an improvisational interloper. He arrived on site without a precise plan but ready to work within the college’s institutions and natural surroundings. Installed in the museum, Yardbird Suite, 1993, consisted of saplings and young trees, formerly piled by the side of a road, that Hammons replanted in cement. Sitting in compound containers, rusty pails, and cardboard cartons, they formed a leafless, wintery grove. Five boom boxes suspended high in the branches played the music of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk. The trees and the music reminded us that the roots of black culture are both rural and urban.

As with jazz, process and happenstance play a large role in Hammons’ work. For instance, the plastic sheets that covered the floor and the wooden supports nailed between the trees that Hammons used while the cement dried became part of Yardbird Suite. In the same space, Hammons created a large wall drawing. He repeatedly bounced a ball dusted with dirt collected on the museum grounds. The shadowy impressions spiralled out from a picture of the Virgin Mary (acquired from a local second-hand shop), losing their clarity and precision. This work poignantly addressed the ambivalent feelings about a sport that has become the centerpiece of urban black culture.

Hammons walks easily between cultural institutions and public spaces, observing and scavenging to make art. A profoundly independent artist, he makes connections between his own history and other communities, exhuming a complex, historical basis for cultural stereotypes and addressing their power to identify as well as demean.

Patricia C. Phillips