Swirling with tactile clouds of textural, elegant chiaroscuro, David Hammons’ Throwing up a Brick towers at the height of a regulation basketball hoop. The intensely marked sheet of crisp, white paper roils with the drama of ferocious impact, while dusty-red found Duchampian bricks positioned deliberately at the lower corner and bottom edge form a cheeky, literal nod to its titling. To “throw up a brick”, in popular basketball terms, is to take a doomed shallow or forceful shot that collides brick-like into the backboard; here, Hammons is also imputing what he believes to be the futility of sports-star dreams for urban black youth. Throwing up a Brick forms part of a long-running series in which the artist makes violent impressions on paper by repeatedly dribbling a basketball--caked in what Hammons describes as detritus from the Harlem sidewalks-- against the surface. Inherently infused with the throbbing energy of the urban street, Putting up a Brick pulsates with ghostly abstract patterns that engulf and recede, rife with the mysterious traces of their making, yet occasionally revealing the logo of the National Basketball Association.
The traceable gesture has long been a subject of fascination for Hammons--some of his earliest mature works, the Body Prints, are impressions made by pressing his margarine-slicked body against paper. Throwing up a Brick directly references the grand gestural traditions of abstraction, from the expressive, active splatters of Jackson Pollock’s flung paint, to the visibly smeared and scraped fleshy forms of Willem de Kooning, to Yves Klein’s Anthropométries, made by nude paint-coated models pressing themselves against the canvas per the artist’s direction. With its nontraditional, humble medium and highly dramatic creation, Throwing up a Brick also evokes the dirt, twigs and rags of arte povera, which considered the body and behavior to be art; Giuseppe Penone even created a series of artworks in the early 1970s by drawing images from the surface of his skin and projecting them onto plaster casts of his face. As Art Historian Suzaan Boettger described of later povera iterations, “.... the current ‘povera’ impulse reflects....excesses and disdain for art glitz. In the past few years artist have increasingly worked with detritus….Like the now omnipresent homeless scavengers, they look down for aesthetic sustenance, into the garbage can, onto the imperiled earth.” (S. Boettger, “Dirt Works”, Sculpture Magazine, November- December 1982). As Tom Finkelpearl explains, “Hammons’s use of dirty materials relates directly to the social and economic status of dirt, a cheap substance, and to his own ability to control his means of production, like the dirt farmer.” (“On the Ideology of Dirt,” David Hammons, Rousing the Rubble, exh. cat., New York P.S. 1 Museum, 1991, pp. 74 and 78.) Hammons filthy materials, inherently at odds with the pristine sterility of the institutional spaces in which they are shown, establish his status as the ultimate insider-outsider.
Transforming a universally known and culturally loaded symbol-- the basketball—into a concept also places Hammons in dialogue with his contemporaries. Richard Prince’s forlorn, surrealist bronze basketball hoops use the sport’s neighborhood connotation to explore the lonely decay of the dwindling rural population near the artist’s home in upstate New York, while finding a peculiar peace in the manmade’ s silent absorption by natural landscape. Jeff Koons’ equilibrium tanks present basketballs suspended precisely in tanks of water as precious, minimal specimens, the myriad cultural associations of the ball reduced to the pleasure and splendor form, color and illusion. In Hammons’ hands, the simple action of dribbling a basketball is transmuted into both an uncommonly beautiful abstraction, a comment on traditional methods of art-making and an astute questioning of societal norms.
Hammons began exploring the racially charged, challenging role of basketball in urban communities beginning in the early 1980s, revealing its exploitive myths in performance pieces such as Human Pegs/Pole Dreams (1982), in which seven masked performers ritually placed a feather-festooned bicycle wheel resembling a Native American shield on top of a highly decorated pole, in reference to the sport’s urban reverence and proliferation of makeshift hoops in Harlem. High Falutin’ (1990), a basketball hoop constructed from found oil-rubbed metal, glass, rubber and plastic, functions as a surrealist hoop-Cadavre Exquis and Duchampian ode. Festooned with lights and crowned with fragments of rubber, it evokes folk construction, outsider art, totems, and the artistic, improvisational style that African-Americans have brought to the sport of basketball. Hammons’ Basketball Chandelier works are full sized hoops and backboards decorated with a slew of gaudy blazing crystal chandeliers, exploring and exposing the mythic glamor associated with the game. Hammons’ 1987 Public Art Fund installation Higher Goals in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza consisted of five bottle-cap coated telephone poles, mounted with studded basketball backboards and hoops. The sky-scraping poles render a slam-dunk impossible; their decorative surfaces—reminiscent of an Islamic mosaic—exemplify hero-worship of the hoop and pro-sports culture. Here, Hammons protests that despite the admiration of basketball in the urban community, promising young black men should have higher aspirations than the possibility of sports stardom: “The issue, is I was deprived of a basketball career by being too short. (Higher Goals) is an anti-basketball sculpture. Basketball has become a problem in the black community because 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.” (David Hammons quoted in David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble, exh. cat., New York, P.S.1, 1991, p. 29). For Hammons, basketball is a highly personal tome in which he finds countless inspiration and artistic fluency: “As a former high school basketball player, Hammons brings his own love and devotion to the theme of sport, regardless of the prime social, cultural, and economic metaphors that play out in his works on that theme…basketball remains a favored target, foil, and object of devotion” (F. Sirmans, “Searching for Mr. Hammons”, David Hammons: Selected Works, New York, 2006, n.p.)
Since the 1960s, postmodern hero David Hammons has used his razor-sharp wit and poignant sarcasm to comment on the ironies of racial stereotyping in the United States, explaining “I feel it is my moral obligation to try to graphically document what I feel socially” (David Hammons quoted in MoMA Highlights, New York, 1999, p. 333.) The recipient of both a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and a Prix de Rome, Hammons works within the inherited practices of white Western fine art to question its institutional boundaries, from the inside out. His prodigious intuition and vast political understanding are steeped within the complexities of being black in contemporary America. Hammons’ diverse oeuvre represents a singular practice encompassing sculpture, performance, installation and conceptual art, often incorporating unconventional ephemeral materials that eschew commerciality such as grease, chicken wings, cheap wine bottles, dung, broken glass and dirt. His myriad influences include jazz music, Bruce Nauman, the culture of the streets and Marcel Duchamp. Equal parts harsh and elegant, Hammons often creates in makeshift outdoor studios, located in vacant lots or the city streets, stating “….I like doing stuff better on the street, because the art becomes just one of the objects that’s in the path of your everyday existence. It’s what you move through, and it doesn’t have any seniority of anything else” (D. Hammons quoted in an interview with Brown University, 1986). In a 1983 performance, Hammons offered snowballs for sale according to size; he has crafted sculptures made of hair swept from Harlem barber shops, and infamously urinated on a Richard Serra sculpture at Franklin and Broadway. Mythically elusive and distinctly anti-art establishment, he keeps much of his output a secret, exhibits only selectively, and rarely discusses the meaning of his work publicly. Indeed, the eternally irreverent Hammons has stated “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience? That’s like going into a lion’s den. So I refuse to deal with that audience, and I’ll play with the street audience. That audience is much more human, and their opinion is from the heart. They don’t have any reason to play games; there’s nothing gained or lost” (K. Jones, ed., EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, Durham and London, 2011, p. 150).