Since the 1960s, American artist David Hammons has challenged art world elitism as well as the cultural stereotypes and conservative structures that oppress people of color.
Through installations, found-object sculptures, body prints, and performances, his work is created in long-standing support of the civil rights and Black Power movements.
Hammons, a 1991 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant,” has been described by the New York Times as a star “known for his formal and conceptual brilliance and his unpredictable ways” as well as his ability to redefine “ideas of what art means, and especially what ‘[B]lack art’ means.”
For the past 50 years, contemporary American artist David Hammons has challenged cultural stereotypes from the perspective of an outsider in the contemporary world through installations, found-object sculptures, body prints, and performances. After excelling at drawing and traditional art while attending Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) and the Otis Art Institute, Hammons gravitated towards conceptual art, inspired by the civil rights and Black Power movements, as a form of activism and vehicle for social change. If the art movement Dada was a rejection of war and authoritarian constructs, then the work of David Hammons is a rejection of the art world’s elitism and the conservative structures that privilege white people and oppress people of color.
Hammons first became renowned in the 1960s for creating prints made by greasing his own body, pressing it to paper, then coating the imprint in pigment (creating X-ray-like figures that accentuated details of skin, hair, and clothing) to explore notions of being seen or not seen in modern society. His sculpture “Spade with Chains” depicts an upturned spade made to resemble an African mask, with chains hanging from either side, which was instantly recognized as a symbol upon its debut in 1973. In the early ‘80s, Hammons began creating public and increasingly participatory works that grew beyond the confines of his studio beginning in 1981, when he urinated on a 72-ton steel sculpture by Richard Serra as part of “Pissed Off,” a performance piece where Hammons literally marks his territory in a fast-gentrifying Tribeca. (Later that year, Hammons lobbed 25 pairs of shoes onto the same Serra sculpture as part of another performance piece called “Shoe Tree.”) His affinity for double-edged puns defuses any didacticism; in “What Mike do you want to be like…?” (2001), Hammons presents three vintage microphones—representing Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Mike Tyson—alluding to three options for Black youth: to entertain, box, or play ball. Each microphone stands too high for anyone to actually use; no matter which path is chosen, achievement is elusive.
A 1991 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant,” art is not a way of life or lifestyle choice for Hammons. It’s a tool he wields in support of American civil rights. Despite being influential and highly sought after, Hammons usually refuses interviews, requests for exhibitions, and often doesn’t even appear at his own art openings. It’s a reminder that this artist refuses to play by the rules.