David Hammons: Art is Personal is Political

During a visit to a large retrospective of Hammons’ work, we discover an oeuvre that reflects not just one artist’s 45-year singular experience but uncovers a collective American consciousness grappling with racial injustice.

05.20.2019

“Photograph of David Hammons” by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 1980. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

They call my art what it is. A lot of times I don't know what it is because I'm so close to it. I'm just in the process of trying to complete it. I think someone said all work is political the moment that last brushstroke is put on it. Then it's political, but before that it's alive and it's being made.” An excerpt from an interview with David Hammons on the politicization of his artwork in “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art” by Kellie Jones & Imamu Amiri Baraka, 2011.

After a recent visit to a large retrospective of David Hammons’ work, we find out the exhibition marks his first here in over 45 years. It’s wild to learn this, because the work speaks of this place and time as if it were made for it. Perhaps that’s what makes Hammons work as profound as it is; the deeply rooted messages within each piece sustain themselves across decades and across cities. They reflect a collective American consciousness as much as they are the products of an artist’s 45-year singular experience.

It’s tricky to sit down and summarize Hammons work because of this. Moreover, he creates across just about every medium, and teases what we might lay inside the bounds of ‘art’. Tarps cover canvasses, frames are formed of malleable cloth, he collects and documents everyday objects. He’s from Illinois, was educated in Los Angeles and now lives and works in New York. So, he’s geographically and experientially covered the ground of this country and from this his art exudes. Each piece is a reaction to his lived experience. As he says, “it's alive and it's being made,”... and then it’s meaning is born. He forges political statements on the traumas of the racial injustice he encountered. His work questions bigotry and classism and privilege. And yet, just as easily, he makes us laugh. His works exposes the falseness of the artworld and yet, he’s one of the most celebrated figures in modern American art. We’re excited to put a spotlight on him this week because we’re deeply inspired by these dichotomies, and the provocation of thought he’s unleashed on this city. We admire his experimentation, his unabashed artistic speech and ultimately his ability to create something beautiful in the face of it all.

“Photograph of David Hammons” by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 1980. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
David Hammons making a body print in his Slauson Avenue studio, Los Angeles, 1974. Photo by Bruce W. Talamon; Artforum
David Hammons, Slauson Studio, gelatin silver print, 1974. Photo by Bruce W. Talamon; Phillips Auction House
Untitled (Body Print) by David Hammons, 1974. Phillips Auction House
Untitled (Body Print) by David Hammons, 1975. Museum of Modern Art
“Bliz-aard Ball Sale 1” (1983), Photo by Dawoud Bey courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery and Rena Bransten Gallery via the New York Times
“Bilz-aard Sale, 1983” Performance view, Cooper Square, New York 1983. Photo by Daqoud Bey; Art Forum
Untitled by David Hammons, 1987; Glenstone
Untitled by David Hammons, 2010. Art Basel Catalog; Mnuchin Gallery
Untitled by David Hammons, 2013. Courtesy of David Hammons and Mnuchin Gallery; Photography by Tom Powel Imaging via The New Yorker
Untitled by David Hammons, 2008-14. Courtesy of David Hammons and Mnuchin Gallery; Photograph by Tom Powel Imaging via The New Yorker
The New Black by David Hammons, 2015. Art Basel via Levy Gorvy Gallery
Untitled by David Hammons, 2017. Hauser & Wirth (Photo by Genevieve Hanson)
Orange is the new black by David Hammons, 2017. Hauser & Wirth (Photo by Genevieve Hanson)
Untitled by David Hammons, 2018. Hauser and Wirth (Photo by Genevieve Hammons)
Installation View of ‘David Hammons - Five Decades’. Mnuchin Gallery by Tom Powel Imaging via The New Yorker
Fur Coat by David Hammons (Photo by Jake Naughton for the New York Times)
Installation View of 'David Hammons’ Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019 (Photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio)
Views of Hammons’s 'A Movable Object/A Japanese Garden,’ 'In the Hood’, and 'Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like…?’ by Raymond Meier for The New Yorker