The Mirror and the Lens: David Hammons's Basketball Hoops
by Kim Anno
Growing up, David Hammons recognized, like many of us, the avalanche of fascination, money, and influence that basketball provokes in America. Unfettered joy surrounds sports, no matter whether games result in defeat or in victory. Legends are held in the hearts of elders and recounted to friends and family members in extreme detail. The National Basketball Association is in its own way a royal court, complete with the tallest people in the world at the center. The rags-to-riches stories of NBA players inspire generations of young boys who will most likely never enter the royal halls of elite athletes. Nevertheless, sports are the biggest leveler in a class-based society, an arena where privileged training resources cannot always triumph over impoverished full-hearted athletes. These are important dreams in this country, dreams that informed Higher Goals, Hammons’s first basketball work, which was erected as a temporary public artwork in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza Park over a period of eight weeks in 1986.

David Hammons. "Higher Goals," 1986. Courtesy of the Public Art Fund, New York. Photo: Pinkney Herbert/Jennifer Secor.
David Hammons. "Higher Goals," 1986. Courtesy of the Public Art Fund, New York. Photo: Pinkney Herbert/Jennifer Secor.

It takes five to play on a team, but there are thousands who want to play—not everyone will make it, but even if they don’t at least they tried. (David Hammons)

The installation of Higher Goals was a performance and ritual that recalled a tribal ceremony. Hammons and his collaborators came to the site with their faces painted and bodies adorned with feathers as they ceremoniously carried and then erected huge poles with basketball hoops attached. These actions recall the Native American Sundance, where participants cut a tall thin tree down from the forest, carry it ritualistically, and reinstall it at the dance site. Hammons pointedly paints high-contrast patterning on the poles—sometimes identified as Islamic patterning, but also akin to Australian aboriginal painting, famous for the abstract depiction of Dreamtime, a concept of reality formed in one’s nighttime dreams. Hammons is quite aware of the potency and realities formed in Aboriginal Dreamtime. These basketball hoops and poles rise 30 feet high in their elegance. They are completely unattainable: not even the tallest player can make this basket—such is a metaphor for a knife that cuts both ways on the spectrum of dreams.

The sites of the Brooklyn park and later a Harlem location where the piece was reinstalled gave Hammons a diverse audience as far from the center of the art world as possible. Harlem is the rich cultural center influenced by the Studio Museum, but also it is home to the famous Rucker’s Park basketball tournament, where street athletes with legendary skills can compete with NBA players, who arrive unannounced. The Rucker’s tournament gives star athletes who did not follow the traditional route to the NBA a second chance. The poles in a sense came “home.”

These hand-painted poles display empathy, in direct contrast to Hammons’s seamless ironic pieces. He toggles back and forth between dynamics of sincerity and biting social commentary, providing a lens for one audience and a mirror for another. These two are interchangeable, depending on the time and place for Hammons’s work. In a 1995 Frieze article, Coco Fusco and Christian Hayes wrote:

No account of Hammons’ art is entirely devoid of references to his streetwise, resolutely anti-elitist persona. He has become infamous for his acerbic appraisals of high art, and his willed cultivation of a split between a black interpretative community to which he directs his messages, and a now admiring (once indifferent) white art world he loves to snub, tease and confuse.

The mirror and the lens are two of the most potent tools used by David Hammons, and are most effectively employed in his basketball hoop works.

In 2002, Hammons made a glass crystal basketball hoop, which David Zwirner purchased at auction for $8 million in 2013. This piece is as elegant as it is baroque. The domesticated hoop glows with a pink light and is deliberately fanciful. The elaborately detailed handiwork of the piece contrasts with Hammons’s more minimal works. Who is the audience for this hoop? An aspiring middle class or an already established, moneyed household?

David Hammons. "Untitled," 2000. Courtesy of Phillips Auctions.
David Hammons. "Untitled," 2000. Courtesy of Phillips Auctions.

Hammons was well aware of the market value of his work, and this rarefied sculpture is both ironic and lovely. Basketball has certainly gained in its own disparate economic stratosphere since Hammons’s production of Higher Goals. Is Hammons thinking about this? As its sale price indicates, only the 1% can afford to own the work. Does Hammons consider the sale gesture itself a work of art? Would Hammons have preferred to sell the work to an affluent basketball star like Shaquille O’Neal? Would the identities of either man send different signals to the efficacy of this work of art? We do not see evidence of wholesale mass reaction to this work, as it is mute, quite unlike the voice in How Ya Like Me Now?, a portrait of Jesse Jackson as a white man.

The Mnuchin Gallery in New York recently exhibited Hammons’s 1997 basketball hoop alongside a photograph of an all-white men’s basketball team in 1936, the same year African American track star Jesse Owens represented the United States in the Olympics. Again, Hammons provides viewers with the lens and the mirror, showing Americans both how much and how little the conversations around race have changed. Hammons understands that sport and art are dual entities occupying the soul of America.

Kim Anno is a painter, photographer, and video artist. She is a professor of painting at CCA.