Introduction
by Anthony Huberman
Spirits aren’t something you see or even understand. That’s just not how they work. They are too abstract, too invisible, and move too quickly. They don’t live anywhere, but only run by and pass through, and no matter how old they are, they are always light years ahead. They do what they want, whenever they want. And under specific circumstances, at specific times, in specific places, to specific people, for specific reasons, they make their presence known.

In the Congo Basin in Central Africa, they are called minkisi. They are the hiding place for people’s souls.

David Hammons is a spirit catcher. He walks the streets the way an improviser searches for notes, looking for those places and objects where dormant spirits go to hide, and empowers them again. He knows about the streetlamps and the mailboxes where the winos hide their bottles in shame. Hammons calls it tragic magic—the art of converting pain into poetry.

David Hammons. "Spade With Chains," 1973.
David Hammons. "Spade With Chains," 1973.


Much has been said about the materials Hammons uses in his work. Most are taken from the street and cost very little—greasy paper bags, shovels, ice, cigarettes, rubber tubes, hair, rocks, basketballs, fried food, bikes, torn plastic tarps, Kool-Aid. Some of them are (knowingly) borrowed from the vocabulary of other artists, while others are closely tied to his own life and chosen surroundings in Harlem. Much has also been said about the meaning of his work—its arguments, its politics, what it’s “about.” And while much of what has been said has been useful, it has also been partly beside the point.

Materials are something one can see, and arguments are something one can understand, and that’s just not what Hammons is after. He’s interested in how much those wine bottles still somehow contain the lips that once drank from them. He’s after the pun on spirit—as in the drink, but also as in the presence of something far more abstract.

Black hair is the oldest hair in the world. You’ve got tons of people’s spirits in your hands when you work with that stuff.

David Hammons. "Wine Leading the Wine," 1969.  Courtesy of Hudgins Family Collection, New York. Photo: Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART.
David Hammons. "Wine Leading the Wine," 1969. Courtesy of Hudgins Family Collection, New York. Photo: Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART.


If Hammons is suspicious of all that is visible, it might be because the visible, in America, is all that is white. It’s all those Oscar winners, all those museum trustees, and all those faces on all those dollar bills. Some artists work to denounce, reveal, or illustrate racial injustice, and to make visible those who are not. Hammons, on the other hand, prefers invisibility—or placing the visible out of reach. He doesn’t have a lesson to teach or a point to prove, and his act of protest is simply to abstract, because that’s what will make the visible harder to recognize and the intelligible harder to understand.

If Duchamp was uninterested in what the eye can see, Hammons is oppressed by it—it’s not the same thing.

David Hammons. "In the Hood," 1993. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.
David Hammons. "In the Hood," 1993. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.


I’m trying to make abstract art out of my experience, just like Thelonius Monk.

For Hammons, musicians have always been both the model and the front line. When George Lewis says that “the truth of improvisation involves survival,” it’s because improv musicians look for a way forward, one note at a time, with no map to guide them and with no rules or languages to follow other than ones they invent and determine themselves. It forces them to analyze where they are and forces them to do something about it, on their own terms. Doesn’t get much more political than that.

Or, as Miles Davis once put it, “I do not play jazz.” He plays something that invents its own vocabulary—a vocabulary that is shared only by those who don’t need to know what to call it or how to contain it. And just as Miles Davis doesn’t play jazz, David Hammons doesn’t make art.

David Hammons. "Blue Rooms," 2000 (installation view, The Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowkski Castle, Warsaw).<br />
David Hammons. "Blue Rooms," 2000 (installation view, The Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowkski Castle, Warsaw).


I’m trying to create a hieroglyphics that was definitely black.

Hammons goes looking for spirits in music, poetry, and dirt. He knows they like to hide inside of sounds, lodge themselves between words or within puns, and linger around the used-up and the seemingly worthless. He knows he’s caught some when he succeeds in rousing the rubble and gets it to make its presence felt. Like Noah Purifoy, he ignores the new and the expensive in favor of the available. Like Federico Fellini, he spends his time in the bowels of culture and makes them sing.

David Hammons. "(Untitled) Basketball Drawing," 2006.
David Hammons. "(Untitled) Basketball Drawing," 2006.


There are the materials that make the art—those are the foot soldiers—but there is also the attitude that makes the artist. Hammons has his way of thinking and his way of behaving, which is once again not something one sees or necessarily understands, but is something that makes its presence known, the way spirits make their presence felt. There will be some who won’t recognize it and others who do—and his work is meant only for those who see themselves in it.

Did you ever see Elvis Presley’s resume? Or John Lennon’s resume? Fuck that resume shit.

Ornette was Ornette because of what he could blow, but also because he never gave into other people’s agendas or expectations.

What matters even more than having your own agenda is letting others know that it doesn’t fit theirs. “To keep my rhythm,” as Hammons puts it, “there’s always a fight, with any structure.” The stakes are real because should you let your guard down, “they got rhythms for you,” and you’ll soon be thinking just like they do. And in a white and racist America, in a white and racist art world, Hammons doesn’t want to be thinking just like most people do. His is a recalcitrant politics of presence: where he doesn’t seem to belong, he appears; where he does belong, he vanishes.

In short: don’t play a game whose management you don’t control.

David Hammons. "Higher Goals," 1987. Photo: Matt Weber.
David Hammons. "Higher Goals," 1987. Photo: Matt Weber.


That’s the only way you have to treat people with money—you have to let these people know that your agenda is light years beyond their thinking patterns.

The Whitney Biennial? I don’t like the job description. A major museum retrospective? Get back to me with something I can’t understand.

Exhibitions are too clean and make too much sense—plus the very authority of many mainstream museums is premised on values that Hammons doesn’t consider legitimate or at least does not share. He is far more interested in walking and talking with Jr., a man living on the streets of the East Village, who taught him about how the homeless divide up their use of space according to lines marked by the positioning of bricks on a wall. Those lines have teeth. In a museum, art is stripped of all its menace.

David Hammons. "Bliz-aard Ball Sale," 1983. Photo: Dawoud Bey.
David Hammons. "Bliz-aard Ball Sale," 1983. Photo: Dawoud Bey.


The painter Jack Whitten once explained of how music became so central to black American life with this allegory:

When my white slave masters discovered that my drum was a subversive instrument they took it from me…. The only instrument available was my body, so I used my skin: I clapped my hands, slapped my thighs, and stomped my feet in dynamic rhythms.

David Hammons began with his skin. He pressed his skin onto paper to make prints. Over the subsequent five decades, he has found his drum.

David Hammons. "Phat Free," 1995-99 (video still). Courtesy of Zwirner & Wirth, New York.
David Hammons. "Phat Free," 1995-99 (video still). Courtesy of Zwirner & Wirth, New York.



Anthony Huberman is the Director and Chief Curator of CCA Wattis Institute and was the Founding Director of The Artist's Institute.