David Hammons, born in 1943 in Illinois, is a prominent American artist known for his innovative and socially charged works. Embracing a wide range of mediums—from sculpture to installation—he challenges conventions and engages with themes of race, identity, politics, and culture. Hammons’ art often involves repurposing found objects to create thought-provoking pieces that reflect on the complexities of the African American experience. His ability to fuse conceptual depth with artistic craftsmanship has made him a significant figure in contemporary art, inspiring critical conversations about power, history, and the human condition.
David Hammons’ Early Work: The Body Prints
In 1963 Hammons moved to LA to study art. For a while, he studied at the Otis Art Institute, under the guidance of artist and activist Charles White. Speaking of White, Hammons stated: I never knew there were ‘Black’ painters, or artists, or anything until I found out about him. During his time in Los Angeles, he was part of a group of young Black avant-garde artists who were associated with the Black Arts Movement.
It was also in LA that he created his Body Prints works, which were the spark that started his career. The Body Prints were created by smearing bodies with margarine or cooking oil, and then pressing the form into paper, creating a print. This was then dusted with powdered pigment, bringing the image to life. Many prints were then elaborated further with collage, drawing, or silkscreening. Inspiration for these works came in part from Yves Klein’s works in which he used naked female models as paintbrushes.
These works foreground Black people and both the joys and oppressions experienced by African Americans. In much of Hammons’ work objects touched or created by Black bodies are considered sacred, and take on an almost mythical importance. The title of this work Black First, America Second raises questions of identity and the place of Black people in American culture.
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In the mid 197os Hammons moved across the country to New York. There was a shift in his practice. He went from making two-dimensional works to making three-dimensional sculptural pieces that explored language and popular symbols. In his Spade series, Hammons interrogates the power of racial slurs. He stated: I was trying to figure out why Black people were called spades…I remember being called a spade once, and I didn’t know what it meant so I just took the shape and started painting it…Then I started getting shovels (spades); I got all of these shovels and made masks out of them. It was like a chain reaction.
Using objects found and scavenged, Hammons created elegant sculptures using rusted garden shovels. Spade with Chains is a work that recalls traditional African masks, but also the chains of slavery and the labor of generations of slaves. By making the racial slur into a literal object, Hammons mocks the racists and their language. The artist spoke of the power of symbolism, stating that outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.
One of Hammons’ most famous works is his 1983 performance Bliz-aard Ball Sale, in which he stood on the sidewalk in Cooper Square, selling snowballs. Each snowball cost $1 and they were arranged neatly according to size. The piece was documented by friend and photographer Dawoud Bey, but it was not advertised in advance. Most of the people who experienced the work firsthand were ordinary people going about their days, unaware that they were interacting with a work of art. One woman assumed that Hammons was a homeless man, and bought a snowball from him just to help him out.
The fact that this performance was unadvertised is typical of Hammons’ wider artistic and professional concerns. Throughout his career, he has been largely distrusting of the art market and has refused many exhibitions in large institutions. For Hammons, his art is more effective and meaningful outside of the closed circles of the art world. This work is a direct commentary on the fickle nature of value. By selling something as commonplace as snowballs, Hammons challenges the very notion of value in art. He prompts viewers to question how value is assigned to objects and how the perception of worth can shift based on context and presentation.
Hammons has created a number of important public art installations throughout his career, including Higher Goals, How Do Ya Like Me Now?, and Day’s End.
Higher Goals was created in 1986, and installed in Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn.
The work consists of five larger-than-life basketball hoops standing between twenty and thirty feet tall. They were created from telephone poles and repurposed basketball hoops and adorned with 10,000 bottle caps. The caps were collected over many months from various bars around New York. These were carefully arranged by hand onto the poles over the course of 8 weeks. The bottle caps were arranged in diamond, spiral, and mesh patterns, drawing inspiration from African and Islamic art. Speaking about the meaning of the work, Hammons stated that this was an anti-basketball sculpture. Hammons further explained: Basketball has become a problem in the Black community because the kids aren’t getting an education. They’re pawns in someone else’s game. That’s why it’s called ‘Higher Goals.’ It means you should have higher goals in life than basketball.
In the Hood
Created in 1993, In the Hood provides a striking commentary on the Black experience in America. Consisting of nothing more than the hood of a sweater with a length of wire worked into the fabric to keep it open, this work is deceptively simple. The lone hood questions how a diverse group of people can be reduced to a single stereotype and draws attention to the life-threatening racial profiling faced by Black Americans every day.
Mounted like a mask on the wall, the hood holds layers of critique, exploring the stereotype of the hooded figure and the racial bias ingrained in police profiling. By isolating the hood from its context as a piece of clothing and presenting it as art, Hammons prompts reflection on the experiences of Black individuals subjected to prejudiced assumptions solely based on appearance. The artwork engages viewers in a powerful dialogue about identity, perception, and systemic discrimination, encapsulating the complex reality of racial profiling within an understated yet resonant visual metaphor.
The empty hoodie also suggests the absence of a person, invoking feelings of loss and grief. It serves as a poignant tribute to the countless victims of violence in the Black community, particularly at the hands of law enforcement. In Hammons’ art, a simple hoodie can speak volumes about the complex experience of African Americans.
David Hammons’ Flags
Hammons created his first flag for the exhibition Black USA at Amsterdam’s Museum Overholland in 1990. African American Flag reimagines the traditional American flag with the colors of the Black Liberation flag, originally created in 1920 by the leader of the Pan-Africanist movement Marcus Garvey. The Black Liberation flag was created as a symbol to unite people of the African diaspora across the world. The colors of the flag are highly symbolic. Red is for the African blood that was shed throughout history. Black stands for the people whom the flag represents. Green stands for the abundant natural wealth of the African continent.
Hammons takes all of this loaded symbolism and injects it into the American flag, and in turn, highlights the foundational role that African Americans have in America’s history. African American labor built modern America, and this flag asserts that Black identity is part of the American story.
In 2017 Hammons created another flag, but this time its edges were torn and frayed, and it was marked with countless small holes. This work explores the continued fragmentation and discord in American society and the continued abusive oppression of Black Americans. The title Oh Say Can You See invites contemplation about visibility and awareness. It prompts viewers to reflect on who is seen, whose struggles are acknowledged, and whose stories are heard in the American narrative.
Hammons’ art is transformative. It confronts social and racial issues with profound insight and a canny eye. Throughout his long career, he has created powerfully symbolic works using unusual materials such as bottle caps, trash, hair, clothing, and found objects. His works have ranged from print to sculpture, performance to public art. Through unconventional mediums and approaches, he challenges norms, exposing systemic inequalities and asking viewers to interrogate the way they think.