Strapping on Hybridity: Hammons Puts on His Sunday Best
by Veronica Jackson
In a 1986 interview with the scholar Kellie Jones, David Hammons stated, “It’s putting myself out there on the street to be made fun of. I think it’s important to be laughed at.” (1) Although revealing, I take exception with the last word in the artist’s statement. Even though his work is clever, witty, and oftentimes humorous enough to generate an apologetic guffaw, I never laugh at Hammons. To the contrary, I always laugh because of him. The artist’s creations not only amuse, they provoke, and upon learning the title, my perception, reception, and reading of the work are enhanced. Moreover with each object, installation, or performance, I am encouraged to explore, to research, and to discover the messages delivered by the trickster, the shaman, the Br’er David—as the scholar Robert Storr refers to him. (2)

David Hammons. "Putting on Sunday Manners," 1990. Courtesy of SFMOMA. Photo: Ben Blackwell.
David Hammons. "Putting on Sunday Manners," 1990. Courtesy of SFMOMA. Photo: Ben Blackwell.

Such is the case with Putting on Sunday Manners, 1990. I was immediately attracted to its minimalist form and composition of materials—an inner tube, chair back, flipper, and tennis ball. This arresting sculpture intrigues on its own accord, but after reading the title and contemplating the pun, a raised eyebrow and a nod of the head signify an initial understanding of its meaning. These gestures also indicate one’s willingness to be drawn into Hammons’s magical world of objects and their double entendres. My induction into this realm was enabled by a visit to SFMOMA’s offsite storage facility, where I experienced Putting on Sunday Manners in an intimate setting. Once there, I examined the piece up close. I saw the work in its various postures: disassembled, assembled, and installed at two different heights. In fact it was the latter—these varying positions of placement on the wall—that sparked my alternating visual interpretations of the artwork.

Fang Tribe, Gabon. Fang Ngil Society Mask, unknown date. Private collection.
Fang Tribe, Gabon. Fang Ngil Society Mask, unknown date. Private collection.

Putting on Sunday Manners is a compound sculpture that can be read as either a mask or a codpiece with a protrusion evocative of a nose combined with a mouth or a penis with a vulva. It is reminiscent of the abstracted beauty found in many West African tribal cultural expressions, like the Ngil ceremonial masks of the Fang people of Gabon. Or the protrusion is suggestive of a male phallus clad in a prophylactic; the object is predominantly made from a rubber inner tube. But most significantly, another dimension to the work is its hybridity—the object lives in between the “street” and the “white cube.” Typical of Hammons’s oeuvre and like an excessively oiled and agile wrestler, it is difficult to pin down. One must mentally tussle with it, turn it over, attempt to grab onto some part in order to understand it. This method in which the object’s title and form combine to perform a textual and visual pun generative of multiple meanings is a signature feature of Hammons’s productions. (3) This feature speaks to my overarching attraction to Hammons’s body of work, particularly Putting on Sunday Manners. The title induces thought, contemplation, and dissection of a phrase that can be interpreted as donning one’s Sunday best to attend church or the Sunday-go-to-meeting ritual. However, upon examination of each word in the title, the many layers of Putting on Sunday Manners get peeled back.

When related to the observable characteristics of a person, “manner” is an adherence to the customary rules of behavior and the strict standards of society, as well as according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “A person's social [behavior] or habits, judged according to the degree of politeness or the degree of conformity to accepted standards of [behavior] or propriety.” (4) Arguably, Hammons’s mercurial and elusive art world antics contradict conformity to accepted standards. In fact, his disregard for working within the confines of the “white cube” art establishment is a manner that almost every critical survey cites when commenting on his oeuvre:

"Despite twenty years of activity, David Hammons has been until very recently a virtual stranger to the museum world, and remains indifferent to its house rules. The White Cube holds no magic for him. What is to some the laboratory of art is to Hammons an arbitrary and ominously clinical environment, inhospitable to the lived forms he collects and transfigures. If it signifies anything, it is the challenge to find whatever manifestation of ordinary human vitality that has survived or can survive its antiseptic ambiance. " (5)

The excerpt above alludes to Hammons’s assemblage compositions as well as his flat, framed, two-dimensional body prints, which he moved on from in the mid 1970s in order to explore performance and sculptural work. He began to utilize “lived forms” affiliated with an urban African American vernacular, such as hair from black barbershop floors, chicken bones, and Thunderbird liquor bottles. This move further delineates the artist’s rejection of the status quo found in the art academy as elucidated in his own words: “There are still so many cracks. I’ve got it figured out. They [the art world] don’t know, can’t figure out what I’m doing because they don’t have anything to measure it with.” (6)

With Putting on Sunday Manners, Hammons once again dictates which manner to adopt. The piece marks a shift from tools the artist specifically associated with black culture to more abstracted materials, such as an inner tube, chair back, flipper, and tennis ball. The constellation of elements in Putting on Sunday Manners combines to create an object aligned with an African American identity, even if not as blatant as before. In other words and to be blunt, there is no mistaking that the sculpture is evocative of a big black penis—a stereotype affiliated with African American men. Although more abstract than in previous configurations, the work still incorporates used and discarded found objects. For instance, the tennis ball isn’t the typical pristine, fresh out-of-the-can yellow. It is a gray-brown color seemingly caked with mud. The flipper and the chair back are also worn, no longer having the sheen characteristic of new material. And the inner tube is visibly soiled with dirt, perhaps a byproduct of its past life.

If we examine the words putting on as in applying a particular behavior, then Putting on Sunday Manners can be perceived as Hammons donning the cloak of the trickster: the artist, working outside the rules of the mainstream art world, who decides to present aspects of the black American experience—in a manner not typically shown—via the juxtaposition of ordinary materials in creative ways. Hammons’s prankster-like methods embody “…an innately but nevertheless fully self-conscious spirit of rebellion.” (7) Like the shaman that he is, Hammons’s sculptures conjure multiple meanings and feelings that force the organizing of one’s thoughts, tackling them one at a time in order to understand what one is sensing. Thus in this particular object, Hammons is strapping on a hybridized codpiece with a chair back reminiscent of a superhero’s waistband; all that’s missing are the tights, the cape, and arms outstretched. Additionally, putting on speaks to adopting two diverse entities simultaneously—allowing for an abstracted interpretation of both male and female genitalia. The juxtaposition of the tennis ball and the flipper creates the protrusion, but individually the ball located at the end of the shaft expresses the head of a penis while the flipper creates an opening or vagina. The thick rubber inner tube is a paradox as it sheathes the mechanism that apposes the ball and flipper while concurrently it is cut away to expose the business end of the protrusion. Is this what the artist means by putting on or “putting out for display” one’s Sunday best?

Putting on Sunday Manners is a sculptural, three-dimensional work of art that does more than simply hang on the wall; it interjects itself into space. It commands a presence and makes itself known by virtue of its form and title. Recognized as a codpiece or a mask or something else entirely, Putting on Sunday Manners has also been identified as a portrait, accounting for its contribution as one of the featured artworks in Portraits and Other Likenesses from SFMOMA, an exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora. However, is Putting on Sunday Manners a portrait of the artist, or is it the artist’s portrait of black American mannerisms? Does the title assist in getting us closer to making that determination? These are the type of questions that Hammons conjures and compels us to scuffle with while viewing his work. As such, Putting on Sunday Manners is an example of Br’er David performing his “spirit of rebellion” through the creation of an object that prompts many questions, provides few answers, and makes us privy to the manner in which the trickster constantly amuses, entertains, and mentally keeps us on our toes.

Veronica Jackson is an exhibition designer and independent curator. She recently completed her MA in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts where she focused on identity, agency, and empowerment as performed by African American women in visual culture.

(1) Kellie Jones, “To Criticize or to Intervene: David Hammons in Conversation with Kellie Jones 1986,” in Ethics, ed. Walead Beshty (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2015), 58.

(2) Robert Storr, “Br’er David,” in David Hammons Five: Decades, ed. Robert Mnuchin and Sukanya Rajaratnam (New York: Mnuchin Gallery LLC, 2016), 9.

(3) Mnuchin Gallery, David Hammons: Five Decades, March 15–May 27, 2016 (New York: Mnuchin Gallery LLC, 2016), 2.

(4) “manner, n. (and int.)” OED online, accessed July 21, 2016.

(5) Robert Storr, “David Hammons,” in Dislocations, ed. Robert Storr (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1991), 20.

(6) Robert Sill, “After Words,” in David Hammons in the Hood, ed. Susan Snodgrass (Springfield, IL: Illinois State Museum, 1994), 51.

(7) Robert Storr, “Br’er David,” in David Hammons Five: Decades, ed. Robert Mnuchin and Sukanya Rajaratnam (New York: Mnuchin Gallery LLC, 2016), 9.