David Hammons: Basketball and Kool Aid
May 1 to June 25, 2021
By ZOË HOPKINS, June 2021
Last year, New York City was inundated with the work of David Hammons. February opened a widely celebrated exhibition of his body prints at the reTreatment center, where visitors have had the privilege of enjoying more than a decade of these resplendent visualizations of life embodied. And last month the Gansevoort Peninsula opposite the Whitney Museum was named with End of the day, Hammons’ new permanent public sculpture installation that resurrects a work by Gordon Matta-Clark of the same title. Further into the city, Contemporary Nahmad completes a sort of winning trifecta, dazzling visitors with an exhibition of two of Hammons’ lesser-known series: his collection of basketball prints and kool aid paintings.
With more than ten works, David Hammons: Basketball and Kool Aid is an ode to Hammons’ unique mastery of everyday materials and social criticism. The exhibit showcases Hammons’ experiments with titular sport and drink, stereotypical motifs of darkness that Hammons uses to articulate a celebration of black culture alongside a critique of stereotypes, monetization and the fetishization of America. The show spans an impressive span of years, with basketball works dating from 1995 to 2012 and kool aid’s works dating from 2003-2007. To this end, the exhibition is also an invitation to explore the works in the exhibition and the themes on which they are based – commercialism, mass production and how these structures inform stereotypes of black life – in the wider arc of Hammons quarry.
Basketball works are the product of chance encounters between ball and paper: Hammons created the series by coating balls with charcoal and dirt, typically salvaged from the streets of Harlem, and bouncing them off the paper from random angles. These interactions give birth to nebulous dances of shadow and light. Under and within the charcoal haze, we can barely discern any arching lines, bold logos, and other markings that a basketball conventionally carries on its surface. Although basketball is the primary symbol of concern, its meanings are enriched by an elaborate and extremely surprising network of materials, including rock, asphalt, alarm clocks and suitcases. These material interventions cleverly place basketball within the larger scheme of American racial capitalism. For example, in Untitled (Basketball Drawing) (2006-2007), a monumental diptych rests precariously on top of a jagged asphalt of an outdoor terrain, inclined at a slope that suggests the possibility of tipping on the ground, thus prompting a comparison with the precarious security that the professional sports guarantee black youth.
Tucked away in one of the gallery’s smaller rooms is the Basketball setup (1998), a three-part inner joke. A vase invites us to look inside, where we discover a basketball mercilessly trapped inside, only having been inflated after being placed in the vase. Offering cruel bait, a basketball hoop proudly juts out from a half-painted log resting on the ground, a few meters away but totally inaccessible. The sculptural component of the work is discreetly minimalist compared to the prints that dot the walls: earthy brown basketball prints, strikingly bold against the white walls. Finally, the Hammons touch infiltrates the room via a set of instructions accompanying the installation. “No more than ten prints on a wall,” Hammons teaches with rigid specificity. And then, in a few lines that resonate with something akin to bathos, Hammons leaves it all to our discretion: “The ball jug can be placed anywhere in the room. The tree can be placed anywhere in the room. In this subtle comedy, Hammons challenges us to keep pace with this zigzag between the particular and the open, the determined and the undecided.
In the works of kool aid, the thrill of chance meets again the threat of order and education. Whimsical abstractions that evoke the works of Helen Frankenthaller and Frank Bowling, the works of kool aid swirl in light pastels and saturated hues. A variety of thrilling textures emerge from the interactions between the powdered drink and the paper. Sometimes the kool aid ripples across the paper, blurring the canvas into blown curvilinear shapes. Then it explodes in scattered and agitated points, a mottled milk which evokes the cosmos. Teasing the banality of the instructions listed for making drinks like Kool aid – “empty the large pitcher of powder, add 1 cup of sugar, add water” – Hammons inscribes these guidelines on a number of works in Japanese calligraphy beautifully rendered. In doing so, he obscures and reconfigures the elementary language in forms which are at first sight the height of elegance, deceiving the sensitivity of the esthete.
Like the basketball works, Kool’s aid works are adorned with improbable material fabrics: showcasing an irreverent juxtaposition of textures, Hammons frames the work in raw Dollar Store-quality terrycloth, which he sometimes drapes in luxurious silk veils. Hanging at different stages of revelation and revelation, the veils situate the paintings attracted me to WEB DuBois’ Souls of black folk, in which the inimitable thinker uses the veil as a metaphor to describe the epistemic point of view of black Americans as split in two: “the black is a kind of seventh son, born with a veil, and endowed with a second sight in this American world. “
Hammons is famous for saying that “the worst thing in the world is to say, ‘Well, I’m going to see this exhibit.’ Rather, the artwork should be somewhere between your house and where you are going to view it, it should not be in the gallery. In closing, I would like to leave readers with a lingering question: How could these works function outside of a gallery of white cubes? One might call this exaggerated meditation, but after the installation of End of the day, who sits in the water on the shores of Manhattan, divorced even from the street itself, he feels charged again. Hammons’ kool aid and basketball works also seem to breathe with the pull of the public commons, the shared spaces like basketball courts that black life has so carefully touched and brought to life. MW