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Born in Springfield, Illinois, David Hammons moved to Los Angeles in 1962, studying advertising at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College and then fine arts at Chouinard Art Institute (1966–1968) and the Otis Art Institute (1968–1972). At Otis Art Institute, Hammons trained with draughtsman and printmaker Charles White, an African-American artist who had been committed to socially oriented art since the 1930s. His example was especially important to Hammons, who sought to connect his work to the Black Power movements and the black cultural nationalism of the 1960s. Hammons began making prints himself, many of which altered the American flag from red, white, and blue to the red, black, and green of the Pan-African flag. He also began making body prints, using his figure as the printing plate: he would smear his body, clothes, and hair with grease, press himself against a board, and then dust the resulting mark with pigment. He became, as he put it, “both the creator of the object and the object of meaning.”
After he moved to New York in 1974, Hammons grew interested in artist Marcel Duchamp and his art became increasingly conceptual. In the mid-1970s, he began his metaphorical “spade” series, examining a derogatory term for African Americans that he claimed never to have understood. The works in the series often included discarded shovels (literal spades), initiating a practice of using found objects that he subsequently expanded to include chicken bones, bottle caps, and paper bags. Hammons also began making sculptures and installations from human hair, which he collected from African-American barbershops around the country. In one of his best-known performances, Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), he went to Manhattan’s East Village—the heart of the new gallery scene at the time—and stood on street corners selling snowballs, implicitly questioning the value of the art for sale in the neighborhood.
Hammons has also made public works in urban settings. In Higher Goals (1986), created for Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza Park, he and a group of locals installed five 20-30-foot-high telephone poles, topped them with basketball hoops, and covered the installations with thousands of bottle caps in configurations which suggested snakeskin, Islamic design, or African textiles. Hammons has also used video as a medium, collaborating with artist Alex Harsley on works including Phat Free (1995), shown in the 1997 Whitney Biennial exhibition. In the video, Hammons, dressed in a long coat, hat, and sneakers, kicks a metal bucket down a deserted city sidewalk at night. Hammons’s recent work includes a series of paintings in which areas of the canvases are partially concealed by found material such as tarpaulins, towels, and garbage bags.
Millie Heyd, “Working Together, the Civil Rights Movement,” Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 145.