Stone Head sees David Hammons’s transformative power at its most poetic. A stone becomes a “head” with the application of hair trimmings from a Black barbershop in Harlem: the direct physical trace of a Black body, and also of an important social and economic space within the community. This association is wittily underlined with the addition of a shaved tramline, alluding to a distinctive adornment of Black male hairstyles. Hammons has made acute artistic use of the ephemera of Black life for nearly half a century. Here we see the concerns of his work distilled to a quiet lyricism: perched at a slight angle upon its pedestal and protected within a vitrine, the stone—for all its durability—appears precious, vulnerable and uncannily human. The artist imbues his simple found materials with a reliquary aura, creating a profound contemporary idol of African-American experience.
Hammons recalls arriving at hair as a refined vehicle for his ideas: a material that allowed a form of culturally-infused minimalism. “I got to a visual object and medium that was pure, nonsexual, which spoke everything I wanted to say…Black hair was the only thing then that was not of the oppressors” culture. And when it is removed from the head, it’s even more alien, as if it’s been dropped from another planet. It’s the oldest hair in the world…no one guessed that it was hair. They all called it ‘steel wool,’ even in writing about it’” (D. Hammons, quoted in D. Hammons and L. Neri, “No Wonder,” Parkett 31, 1992, p. 53). Hair is a potent element in Hammons’s hands, emphatically and unmistakably African. Apart from crowning his stone heads, over the years he has piled hair into pyramids, woven dreadlock tapestries, and strung clumps of afro along wire. His artistic use of the substance echoes its incorporation into many traditional forms of African craft, sculpture and masks: Stone Head is compounded with deep socio-historical associations as well as the personal histories of those the hair was taken from. “You’ve got tons of people’s spirits when you handle that stuff,” Hammons has said; “you have to be very, very careful” (D. Hammons, quoted in K. Jones, “David Hammons,” Real Life 16, Autumn 1986, p. 4).
Indeed, it is through the care and wit with which Hammons deploys his materials that his art gains its remarkable, finely-tuned concentration. His meticulous use of everyday objects retools some of the dually social and poetic impulses of Arte Povera. As Manthia Diawara has written, “The relation of Hammons’s conceptualism to both Black culture and art history never seems over-determined, and the elementary facture and directness of the work has as much to do with the primitivism and automatism of Surrealism as with identity politics. Hammons makes art by rearranging the order of familiar objects, by changing the rhythm or temporal sequence and speed of movement, or by coupling things with a common meaning. His work is so simple, delicate, yet precise that if you remove a hair from an arrangement, the magic that makes it art is undone and the objects return to their banal, nonart existences” (M. Diawara, “Make It Funky: The Art of David Hammons,” Artforum, Vol. 36, No. 9, May 1998, p. 125). Hammons plays with the spaces between reality and representation, sensitive to the slippage between literalism and metaphor, and conjures both politics and poetry at once. No brash spectacle, Stone Head is emblematic of one of American art’s most vital and enigmatic figures: hushed, subtle and resonant with almost supernatural power.