David Hammons (B. 1943)
Property from the Collection of Melva Bucksbaum
David Hammons (B. 1943)

Untitled (Basketball Drawing)

David Hammons (B. 1943)
Untitled (Basketball Drawing)
signed 'Hammons' (on the reverse)
graphite and dirt on paper in wooden frame, with suitcase
framed drawing: 117 x 49 in. (297.1 x 124.4 cm.)
suitcase: 13 3/8 x 18 x 6 1/2 in. (34 x 45.7 x 16.5 cm.)
Executed in 2003.
L & M Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2008
New York, L & M Arts, The Complexity of the Simple, December 2007-January 2008.

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

A legendary figure both irascible and ingenious, David Hammons continues to push artistic boundaries in groundbreaking work that references his unique position as a maverick black artist working within the upper echelons of the art world. In Untitled (Basketball Drawing), an ethereal, cloud-like nebula of smoky grey graphite on paper towers over the viewer at nearly ten-feet tall. Made by repeatedly bouncing a regulation NBA basketball coated in graphite and dirt against a sheet of paper, Untitled (Basketball Drawing) is all-encompassing in its atmospheric lushness and monumental scale. This early, iconic example displays the subtle imprints that result from Hammons’s technique. The ball’s pebbled surface, grooved lines, and NBA logo are impressed onto its surface, leaving ghosted imprints that convey the physical weight and feel of the ball, yet impart an evocative display of ephemeral, atmospheric forms. Hammons himself was obsessed with basketball in his youth, practicing up to seven hours a day only to be stymied by his own height, which topped out under six feet.

In Untitled (Basketball Drawing) and others in this highlycoveted series, Hammons’s decades-long fascination with the sport takes on an almost spiritual quality, in which the essence of the ball and its transcendent power has been distilled, refined, and turned loose onto the paper sheet, creating a sublime evocation of “hoop dreams.” In Untitled (Basketball Drawing), Hammons deftly attacks the sheet in short rhythmic bursts, pausing only periodically to rub more graphite onto the basketball before bouncing it onto the paper again and again. The immeasurable hours necessary to its making come together in the seemingly infinite number of ghosted impressions that bears witness to Hammons’s process. Heavier areas of darker graphite result from more accumulated bounces while softer, more delicate passages reveal a lighter touch. There is a poetic quality to Hammons’s basketball drawings akin to the physical process of looking at them: the eye roams freely throughout the disorienting yet mesmerizing network of graphite and impressed dirt, unable to grasp a foothold in its allover network, only to become delightfully lost in its strange and smoky aura. In some areas, the graphite and dirt that has become imprinted is soft and diffused, taking on an almost meteorological quality of atmospheric suspension while elsewhere heavier areas of dirt and grit create a layered effect reminiscent of Arte Povera or Yves Klein’s Cosmogenies. Evidence suggests that Hammons suspended the paper sheet from the wall and then bounced the ball from a standing position. Not unlike Jackson Pollock, who wielded considerable control over his drip paintings despite their seemingly accidental or haphazard appearance, Hammons uses the ball as easily as a traditional artist uses the brush, with repetitive gestures that involve the muscles of his entire body.

For Hammons, basketball proved to be a rich and evocative motif that referenced the seductive power of the sport so pervasive among young black men coming of age in his New York neighborhood. In 1986, Hammons created Higher Goals, a series of basketball hoops that soared twenty and thirty feet high. Intricately adorned with bottlecaps and other ephemera in dizzying patterns reminiscent of African tribal art, Higher Goals alludes to the physical impossibility of “making it” in the NBA. His 2001 sculpture Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like, consisted of three different types of standing microphones, offering up the symbolic choice between the three famous black “Mikes”— Jackson, Jordan, or Tyson. In the last two decades, he has created a series of ornate basketball hoops with a deliberately Baroque appearance: illogically constructed of glass; bedecked with beads; offset with chandeliers and decorative candelabras. Hammons has explained, “The issue, is I was deprived of a basketball career by being too short. … [and] [b]asketball 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” (D. Hammons quoted in David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble, exh. cat., MoMA P.S.1, New York, 1991, p. 29).

Hammons’s basketball drawings are often peppered with symbolic objects that reference the overarching theme of spiritual, physical, and monetary transcendence that the sport of basketball offers to impoverished youth. In the present work, Hammons includes a second-hand suitcase that adds an unexpected layer of meaning. Similar works, one of which is located in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, another titled Traveling, help elucidate the suitcase’s underlying significance. In common basketball terminology, traveling is a foul wherein the player takes more steps than is permissible while failing to dribble the ball. It might also relate to the transcendent power of the sport to transport its players— in mind, body, and spirit—into another realm. Whether literal or figurative, the suitcase may symbolize the rags to riches dreams that can be found on every basketball court throughout New York City.

The significance of Hammons’s series undoubtedly lies in its ability to straddle so many seemingly incongruous genres, incorporating aspects of performance art, action painting, Arte Povera, Conceptual art, Dada, and art brut while seizing upon highly-charged objects imbued with deep cultural and societal significance. In Untitled (Basketball Drawing), Hammons deliberately selects a real-life basketball that has seen much use on the streets and basketball courts of his own neighborhood rather than select a pristine ball in the manner of Jeff Koons’s Equilibrium series (1985). In doing so, Hammons knowingly brings the grit and grime of the city streets into the otherwise pristine atmosphere of the gallery space, while allowing his spirit of improvisation and chance to play a fundamental role in his work. From his formative years at the Chouinard Art Institute (later CalArts) and his reverence for Bruce Nauman and Marcel Duchamp, Hammons intuited a deeply personal style that embraced chance, spontaneity and performance, famously distancing himself from the art world. His friends are jazz musicians and vagrants rather than collectors and curators. In a rare interview the artist granted to New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, Hammons said, “I decided a long time ago that the less I do the more of an artist I am” (D. Hammons, quoted in P. Schjeldahl, “The Walker,” New Yorker, December 23, 2002).

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