David Hammons’ work “The Holy Bible, Old Testament” is part of the museum’s presentation of “30 Americans,” an exhibition featuring works by 30 contemporary artists connected through their African-American cultural history. “30 Americans” is organized by the Rubell Museum.
David Hammons’ artistic practice has influenced many younger artists. His expansive body of work comments on race and economic inequality and draws from a wide range of influences, including politics and social justice; art history, especially African and Western; and contemporary popular culture.
Born in 1943 in Springfield, Illinois, Hammons moved to Los Angeles in 1962, where he studied art at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), and the Otis College of Art and Design. In the 1960s, process-oriented and performance art were growing in popularity on the West Coast. In Los Angeles, Hammons produced pieces that relied heavily on the presence of the body. This included “body prints,” in which he would cover his skin in cooking fat or margarine, and press himself against a sheet of paper which was then dusted with pigment. Many of these prints incorporated sections of the American flag, a symbol that Hammons has used repeatedly in his work, and one that summons the ideals of freedom, as well as the fraught history of the United States’ treatment of people of African descent. Hammons grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, a time when figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. fought to end segregation, voter suppression, and discriminatory employment and housing practices. Los Angeles was also an epicenter of racial unrest and protest, with the outbreak of the Watts Rebellion in 1965. Artists like Hammons used their artwork to protest against prejudice and injustice, and such works reflected on African-American identities as well as the struggle for equality in the United States.
From the mid 1970s, Hammons split time between the East and West Coasts. In 1980 he moved permanently to New York. His practice continues to involve process-driven works and installations that prioritize the body, critique power systems, reflect on the crisis of homelessness, and poke fun at the professional art market. Performative works such as 1983’s Bliz-aard Ball Sale, where he made and sold snowballs on a street corner, interrogate ideas of capitalism, consumption, and economic inequality.
In the 2000s, Hammons began producing a number of sculptural pieces which include African-American hair scavenged from barber shops. In these works he attaches the hair to the tops of rocks that are roughly the size of a human head, and mounts these to pedestals. The resulting pieces, although faceless, evoke the strength and determination of the individual. These pieces utilize found materials, but Hammons alters them, juxtaposing items to create new meaning. He has stated that he feels the cast-off object has a history and power derived from its previous life, or incarnation. Using common, easily accessible materials underscores his interest in working outside the vein of capitalism, and of prioritizing a work of art’s meaning and intention over its monetary value.
Marcel Duchamp (French-American, 1887–1968) is one of the foremost figures in the history of modern art. He began as a painter and is associated with Dada, the “anti-art” movement that began in Switzerland during World War I. Dada artists used a variety of media including collage and sculpture in ways that were intentionally nonsensical, to comment on the horrors of the war, and the necessity of breaking with tradition to create a completely new art. Dada artists looked for new methods and materials with which to create their art, and one way Duchamp found to investigate the meaning of art was through the use of the “readymade”—any found object that an artist designates as a work of art. One of Duchamp’s early readymades, Bicycle Wheel (1913), consists of a bicycle wheel mounted upside down on a wooden stool.
Duchamp was a precursor to the conceptual, process-oriented, and performance art of the 1960s and 1970s, and like Hammons, was notable for his sense of humor and irreverence regarding fine art market traditions. Duchamp was receiving renewed attention in the early 1960s when Hammons was a young art student in Los Angeles, and in 1963, the Pasadena Art Museum organized the first retrospective of his work. Hammons is well aware that his and others’ conceptually-based work is vastly indebted to Duchamp, and he has made direct reference to the iconic artist in other pieces, such as an outdoor installation in Belgium, where Hammons mounted porcelain urinals on trees in the woods.
David Hammons (b. 1943). The Holy Bible, Old Testament, 2002. 1,002-page artist’s book, 225 color plates, leather-bound, soft cover, gilt edged, gold tooling, and slipcase. Courtesy Rubell Museum, Miami. © David Hammons.
For The Holy Bible, Old Testament, Hammons repurposes a copy of The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp by Arturo Schwarz, and binds it to resemble a Bible. The book, containing multiple reproductions of Duchamp’s work, is displayed in HoMA’s installation of 30 Americans open to Fountain (1917). Duchamp entered Fountain, a urinal placed on its side on a pedestal, into the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, a group that Duchamp himself had helped found. He selected a urinal, one of the least precious objects imaginable, in order to make a powerful statement that anything may become a work of art, if the artist intends it to be one. Fountain was rejected from the show, proving to Duchamp that his fellow organizers were not as ready to accept new ways of thinking about art as he had hoped. With The Holy Bible, Old Testament, Hammons equates the impact of the Bible on world history, to that of Marcel Duchamp’s oeuvre. In this way he pays tribute to an artist whose influence opened the door to alternate ways of thinking about what art is and how it can function. Duchamp’s influence on modern art history is unparalleled, or perhaps “holy,” as Hammons seems to suggest. However, by titling the piece Old Testament, he points to the fact that Duchamp’s work is part of the past, and implies that the “old” will be followed by new, as yet unimagined, interpretations of art.
-Katherine Love, Assistant Curator Contemporary Art