On David Hammons’ work

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David Hammons
Article
July 21, 2021

On David Hammons’ work

“It is a world first, in fact, to have some thirty works by this artist on display in a cultural institution. Hammons’ work has been collected by François Pinault for over twenty years.” Caroline Bourgeois

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By Caroline Bourgeois,
Collection Curator

A leading contemporary artist and yet rarely exhibited, David Hammons is little known to the general public, especially in France. Why is that?

David Hammons is an artist who has invented his own way of being an artist, stemming from his condition as a black man in the United States, and going so far as to perform in the street, selling snowballs, for example. He allowed himself to become what he has become and he changed the rules of what is called art, by refusing to hold exhibitions. No one can claim to know all of his work. He has neither a catalogue raisonné nor an appointed gallery.

 

Why can this exhibition be considered a major event?

It is a world first, in fact, to have some thirty works by this artist on display in a cultural institution. Hammons’ work has been collected by François Pinault for over twenty years. The artist’s work has been a long-standing passion of his.

As I mentioned earlier, David Hammons does not accept to display his work in institutional exhibitions. From this perspective, I think that it is fantastic for visitors to be able to immerse themselves in his oeuvre with such a breadth of proposals that allows an insight into his artistic process. It is extremely moving and rare to see such a selection. There are artists who are recognized as artists, to refer to someone we know well in France, Courbet, for example, who authorized a way of painting; David Hammons on the other hand, authorized a way of being.

“It is a world first, in fact, to have some thirty works by this artist on display in a cultural institution. Hammons’ work has been collected by François Pinault for over twenty years.”

 

Why and how is David Hammons so important on the contemporary art scene?

Firstly, through his way of making something like a piece of an old basketball into a work of art (I mention this one as I can see it in front of me). That’s quite a feat already! Cultural remnants or relics can become works of art, as can offshoots, flawed or erroneous materials. That is a huge authorization. Starting out, he did not recognize the institution as providing art with value and he understood that there was strength in the art market. Like certain other artists, women in particular, Roni Horn for example, there was a political dimension to creating a financial value for his art. Since we are in an era, or rather, we were in an era, where finance took precedence, he completely challenged the rules by not taking a gallery, and by sometimes auctioning works himself, imposing a price that was totally unconnected to the market. Sometimes you wonder where he got the idea for his pieces. Once, when I was in his studio, I asked him: “Where did you get the idea for such a work?” and he replied: “I didn’t get the idea, it found me.” There you have it, this kind of reversal where all of a sudden, we say to ourselves it’s obvious, but ultimately, there aren’t too many who succeed in doing it.

 

How was it possible to gather together such a large number of David Hammons’ works?

What is so remarkable about François Pinault is that he delves deeply into the work of the artists who enter his collection. This is the case for many artists and visitors can see this for themselves when they walk through the Bourse de Commerce. François Pinault first started collecting David Hammons’ work twenty years ago. As I said earlier, this artist is not someone who does a lot of exhibitions, he doesn’t often sell his artwork. Therefore, amassing a collection or corpus of works by the artist was inevitably a slow process, and today, this is the largest collection in the world of his work. This fact bears witness to the commitment and risk that François Pinault takes in his choices.

This committed approach, in a broad sense, is something that is shared with many artists in the collection. David Hammons has no fear. A great artist is someone who is committed and a great oeuvre always has a political dimension. We are delighted by the fact that David Hammons is much more recognized today than he was twenty years ago. The beauty of being who you are, and in his case, a black man, and of inventing his own way of doing things, that is one of his greatest gestures. Stand up. Exist and be born. He allows that.

“A great artist is someone who is committed and a great oeuvre always has a political dimension.”

 

What are the themes or subjects of his art?

Firstly, he’s someone who works across all kinds of media: performance, body print, how does one mark a paper, how does one leave any mark. His work also questions patriotic or nationalist ideas too, he explores American identity, in particular blackness in American identity. The flag runs through all of his work.

We also have his basketball drawings. A basketball is dribbled, to use the correct term, in graphite, and then it is dribbled on a white sheet and what appears is the work. This is where we can clearly see the process of a work becoming because he stops it at a given moment. And the work is there. 

His work makes another impression, in every sense of the word, since it can conjure up dreams. We have a beaten-up bicycle, reminiscent of the homeless that you can obviously see here in France, but also in Central Park and everywhere else, along with a ghetto blaster. Music is always present. He also produces video works. In one, he pushes a trash can in the street, evoking Jean-Luc Godard’s famous phrase: “I don’t know what to do”.

 

What about the sleeping cats on drums?

First of all, the drums are very high, evoking that kind of athletic grandeur that you only see in African Americans. The cats are strays, homeless. The type of cats that sleep anywhere and everywhere. It’s also a provocative reference to the fact that African Americans were only allowed to play music or sport. Yet, here we have a primitive type of drum, compared to the fantastic creativity of jazz. This is the artist’s way of talking about fate.

David Hammons speaks little, but when he does speak, he’s rather emphatic. He once declared: “I am an artist, but I am not on the side of the art world. I decided a long time ago that the less I did, the more I would be an artist.”