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Dawoud Bey on David Hammons
David Hammons in his Harlem Studio, 1984. Gelatin silver photograph (24”x20”)Courtesy Dawoud Bey, Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco

Photographer Dawoud Bey on the brilliant art and mind of David Hammons

Dawoud Bey documented the iconoclast’s work at a time when the institutionalised art world refused to look – here he talks about their time together

The New York art world has long operated on heavily stratified lines, placing white men at the centre of commercial representation and institutional investment. For the better part of the 20th century, it marginalised or erased the work of anyone else, forcing artists outside those narrow demographic to fend for themselves – or infiltrate from within.

Linda Goode Bryant decided to do just that when she opened Just Above Midtown (JAM) in the sweet centre of the city’s gallery district in 1974. Located at 50 West 57 Street, JAM was unlike anything that had come before – or since.

JAM was dedicated to black artists exclusively when no one else was. Goode Bryant elevated black arts at the pinnacle of power and prestige by presenting the most innovative and unconventional conceptual work of the time. By showcasing the work of artists such as Dawoud Bey, David Hammons, Lorraine O’Grady, Howardena Pindell, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, and Ming Smith, Goode Bryant created a space where a new generation of black artists could connect, commune, and collaborate.

JAM exhibitions sharpened the cutting edge, pushing possibilities of art. For Greasy Bags and Barbecue Bones, his first solo show in 1975, David Hammons glued black hair to fat-drenched brown paper bags from a fried chicken spot, embracing the materials of black culture while simultaneously subverting the soulless commodification of art.

It was everything for which JAM stood for. Liberated from the restraints of content and form, black artists could soar into the stratosphere, creating work that now, 45 years later, is being recognised in a special tribute Linda Goode Bryant’s JAM Gallery at Frieze New York, curated by Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

“JAM was significant because it was not in Harlem, but initially on 57th Street, and later downtown in Tribeca,” says Dawoud Bey, whose photographs of David Hammons were presented by Rena Bransten Gallery and Stephen Daiter Gallery as part of the JAM tribute.

“JAM brought something to the ecology of black arts institutions that reshaped the conversation by foregrounding those artists and works that had not been a part of the New York conversation up to that moment. It brought those black artists from LA – with their shared history – to New York, which had a very different history. JAM created a kind of cross-pollination of those histories.”

Bey first met Linda Goode Bryant, before she opened JAM, when she was working as the Director of Education at the Studio Museum of Harlem, an important centre for the community. At that time, Bey was in his early 20s and had begun working on Harlem, USA, a series of street photographs made between 1975 and 1979, then shown that same year at Studio Museum in his first solo exhibition.

While working on this series, Bey met David Hammons, one of the greatest iconoclasts of our times. In 1974, Hammons moved from Los Angeles to New York, set up a studio in Harlem, and began creating public artworks like his very first “Higher Goals” sculpture – a basketball backboard mounted on top of a series of telephone poles.

Bey’s photograph of the sculpture surrounded by a small group people gathered in an empty lot evokes the essence of life in old New York. Harlem, once the site of a fabled renaissance, has been rendered a barren landscape in the wake of federal policies like “benign neglect”, which denied basic services to black and Latinx communities across the United States.

In the absence of government services, a new freedom emerged and the streets became a playground where anything was possible. Harvesting telephone poles to create his work, Hammons shows how the known can be taken and remixed – much like the then-emerging sound of hip hop – to create art. And, much like the early days of hip hop, it was a deeply ephemeral experience.

Without Bey’s photograph, we could not imagine the sight of such a monumental scene of subtle poignancy. “I thought it was important to document our collective presence, even though I wasn’t sure what I would do with those photographs in the immediate sense,” Bey says. “But I somehow took on the responsibility for our collective documentation; making sure that’s our presence and our work were accounted for. It was kind of like ‘my other job.’”

But don’t get it twisted: it wasn’t a side hustle. Bey never sold, and rarely showed the works. Rather, he preserved them for posterity – and that moment is now. At 65, Bey returned to his archive in remembrance of things past, of moments that have become the stuff of myth and legend.

“I wasn’t sure what I would do with those photographs in the immediate sense. But I somehow took on the responsibility for our collective documentation; making sure that our presence and our work were accounted for. It was kind of like ‘my other job’” – Dawoud Bey

In 1981, Bey and Hammons were at Franklin Street, where Richard Serra’s “T.W.U.” (1979) loomed monstrously over the 1 Train entrance. The work, sponsored by the Public Art Fund, was named to honour the Transport Workers Union. The real T.W.U., on the other hand, went on a massive strike for 11 days, shutting New York down.

The timing was telling. The T.W.U. Union was negotiating with the government for fair wages at the same time that – not one, but two! – Serra sculptures were being installed. It appeared the Serra sculptures were a clear boost to help real estate developers elevate the value of a neighbourhood they had recently dubbed “TriBeCa,” the capital letters a nod to gentrification-speak that still goes on today.

When Bey and Hammons arrived, Serra’s sculpture was street worn, treated with the disrespect it had properly earned. Graffiti, wheatpaste flyers, and empty beer cans suggested the only people in the neighbourhood were probably on their way to or from the Mudd Club.

In Bey’s photographs, we see Hammons perfectly dressed for the scene, donning a dashiki, khakis, and Pumas, before he strategically takes aim and urinates on the sculpture. But – it’s not over yet. A moustachioed cop arrives and they share a moment as Hammons shows his I.D. while the police officer hands him a citation.

“‘Pissed Off’ was a completely spontaneous moment,” Bey says. “Without me having a camera and making the pictures, it would have been just one more undocumented moment in New York that day between a black man and a police officer. I’m just glad I had the presence of mind to make the pictures.”

As an epilogue to this glorious moment in New York art history, Bey and Hammons returned to “T.W.U.” a second time, to transform Serra’s sculpture into something of meaning and purpose. Taking the practice of throwing sneakers over a telephone line to honour the dead, Hammons tossed 25 pairs atop the 36-foot tall steel sculpture. Hammons returned the work of public art to the people – a poignant act of resistance against the coming tide of gentrification.

Some have described Hammons’ work as “performance,” but it’s much more grounded than that. It is a series of actions that defy and resist the narrow hegemony of thought that surrounds our ideas of art. Consider “Bliz-aard Ball Sale”, which occurred during February 1983, after a storm dropped 18-22 inches on New York City. Bey and Hammons headed over to Cooper Square, where Hammons set up shop among local street vendors hawking his own wares: a custom line of snowballs in an array of sizes perfectly laid out on a striped mat.

Looking casually raffish in a hat and overcoat with the collar popped, Hammons chats up a couple of shoppers weighing out their options while Bey captured the moment for posterity. “People passing by were quite tickled to find a man standing amidst the other vendors selling snowballs,” Bey says. “They had no idea who he was or that he was an artist; it appeared on the face of it to be the most natural thing... but then who sells snowballs!?”

It’s a natural question to ask yourself – if you lived anywhere but New York in 1983. Here, Hammons was perfectly attuned to the spirit of the times, when street peddlers were as common as streetwalkers and nickel bags. To say you could buy anything on the street is no hyperbole – as Bey’s photos of Hammons illustrate.

“It was an act of creative brilliance that suggested that everyday people were as valued an audience as the presumably educated art world, who sometimes take things so seriously that the joke is completely lost” – Dawoud Bey

The resonance of this moment has only deepened with the passing of time, as the bohemian spirit of New York has all but faded away. “Part of what I believe gives it its enduring power was that it was an act that existed completely outside the art world,” Bey says. “And yet, it was an act of creative brilliance that suggested that everyday people were as valued an audience as the presumably educated art world, who sometimes takes things so seriously that the joke is completely lost.”

The other part is the air of mystery that surrounds Hammons, created by his exquisite inaccessibility. He allows the art, and only the art, to speak for itself. His willful refusal to partake in the art world machinery has liberated himself and the work from the formal frippery that is the bread and butter of the industry. Brand identity or social media? None. Public statements or interviews? Think again. You won’t see Hammons at an opening, and it makes perfect sense.

In a world where overexposure and oversharing, going viral and gaining clout, silence is a work of pure genius. What is known, does not need to be spoken. Or better still – the game is to be sold, not told. That’s one thing David Hammons has always made clear.