"Old dirty bags, grease, bones, hair...it's about us, it's about me. It isn't negative. We should look at these images and see how positive they are, how strong, how powerful. Our hair is positive, it's powerful, look what it can do. There's nothing negative about our images, it all depends on who is seeing it and we've been depending on someone else's sight....We need to look again and decide." - David Hammons
"The thing he disliked most about it was he never remembered where it was...not just how to get there, but knowing how to get to the entrance...," (J. Farris, "Getting There," in David Hammons: Blues and the Abstract Truth, Kunsthalle Bern, 1997, n.p). The how of "getting there" and the "where" of arrival could signal the deeply fraught questions that have inhabited David Hammons' work over five decades. An artist of prodigious intuition and vast, knowing political understanding, the critique Hammons posits as an artist is steeped in the political complexities of being black in America and enmeshed in the network of societal signs whose referents are as varied--their meanings as multivalent--as they are hermetic and contingent on one's position in the societal order. Working at the center of the militant Black Power movement at the height of civil rights agitation in America, Hammons nonetheless also works within the inherited practices of the white Western fine art tradition, querying its visual and institutional boundaries as he subverts both from inside and out. Hammons contributions to American art from the 1960s to the present are as dynamic as they are significant.
Like a starburst erupting from the traditional position of the easel picture, Untitled, 1978, releases a fusillade of "spear heads" from its central crown, wittily, yet mordantly, surging outward into the space of the viewer with all the energy and force of a threatened adversary. That the "spears" are poised in a liminal space, yet restrained by their support, in no way diminishes the impact of their directional force. Related to a series of works from the 1970s, such as Flight Fantasy, 1978, employing wire and hair, Untitled, 1978, also incorporates vinyl shards and bamboo to address the African American body, identity, and its relation to the Western art canon. Challenging white modernist notions of the separation of art from its social and political contexts, Hammons appropriates artifacts associated both with pop culture and African traditions, manipulating - in the manner of Marcel Duchamp's readymades and the Italian Arte Povera artists - his materials in an effort to break down the traditional opposition between art and life. Hammons' appropriations, unlike these artists, are filled with ironical symbolic meanings that are meant to push definitions of art making and metaphor within a specific racial context. In the manner of African warrior spears and the elaborate headdresses or helmets and face masks "danced" in African tribal spiritual rituals, Untitled confronts the viewer with shards of contemporary life - broken vinyl records, a visual pun that might refer to the ongoing "record" of racial violence in a America--and fragments of his own hair mounted on "colored," string--again a pun on the derogatory term "colored," used by prejudiced whites in America to isolate African Americans until recent times. Further, in conflating the detritus of Western pop culture with African American hair and weapons, Hammons confronts the viewer's biased or nave notions of African Americans in order to challenge received notions of ethnic identity and to emphasize the signifiers of racial terror, exploitation, and marginalization inhering in the experience of the legacy of the African Diaspora.
The list of materials here signals Hammons shift from the frame format to found materials, incorporating hair, for example, in Hammons' oeuvre that radiates what Tobias Wolford calls "the indexical imprint of the body," (T. Wolford, "Signifying Race in David Hammons' Spade Series,'" exh. cat. L.A. & David Hammons Body Prints, New York, 2011, p. 124). Turning from Yves Klein style imprints of his body in easel formats to the creation of sculpture with hair on wire, Hammons increasingly drew on such racial indicators as the distinctive hair types of African Americans. Examples with a kinship to Untitled, include Indoor Hair Garden, 1977, a network of wires sprouting coarse bits of hair, in which, "Like constellations of little afros, [Hammons] transforms the highly contested and highly codified realm of black hair and black beauty into an abstracted and specialized art installation" (Ibid., p. 124). Based on African art made with hair, Hammons signaled his African patrimony no less in the present work. The elements incorporated in the present dazzlingly powerful assemblage come not from the detritus of the abject life, but from the affirming representation of the black body, a proud proclamation of origins and presence. For several years during the 1970s, Hammons used African-American hair to investigate the robust symbolism of its fiber both as a trace of and emblem for black experience. Hammons aestheticizes found objects in the manner of Duchamp's readymades, using hair to critique the place of African-Americans in the art historical legacy of European white hegemony of the 1970s. Untitled reveals Hammons trenchant humor and knowing political intelligence.
Both self-reflective and reflecting, Hammons marshals his caustic wit to comment on the ironies of racial stereotyping and the interpretive dualities that arise from such cultural juxtaposition loaded into a single viewing frame. While engaging definitions of blackness in America, Hammons also foregrounds specific ethnic characteristics and more generalized African tribal culture. In doing so, Untitled imbricates the white perspective with racial signifiers, rearranging familiar elements into threatening projectiles. Such dissonance between the artifacts of African American identity and what may have been perceived as the common culture confronts head on issues of an exotic "otherness." Such a powerful confrontation also addresses issues of the exclusion of minorities from the canon of the Western art tradition. Displacing nontraditional materials from their original context and inserting them into an institutional art setting loads Untitled in much the same way that Duchamp loaded his urinals and bottle racks, using irony and satire, while subverting traditions of art making.
Exploiting this conceit to its fullest in Untitled, Hammons re-envisions Duchamp's functionless objects. Both are displacements; yet Hammons' work carries a more powerful associative and emotional charge: by suspending before the beholder acts of oppression, aggression, and destruction--all in the guise of manipulated, specifically coded cultural artifacts--Hammons legitimates such materials even as he opposes them to the traditional materials of canonical fine art. Hammons' work is quintessentially a hybrid practice, folding performance, sculpture, Conceptual art, and installation into a five-decade career of provocation. Critiquing institutional exclusion and racial stereotyping as well as the historical art practices of the Western canon, Hammons not only "got there," but also found a compelling, provoking "way to the entrance." Through strategies of subversion, he complicates the practice of art per se, exploding the definition of what art and the experience of art should be in contemporary practice.