Stop And Piss: David Hammons’ Pissed Off

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T.W.U., 1980-81, photo by Donna Svennevik, via publicartfund.org
Richard Serra was on a roll in NYC in 1980. In the run-up to the debut of Tilted Arc, he had two Cor-Ten sculptures installed in Tribeca: St John’s Rotary Arc was in the exit plaza of the Holland Tunnel, and T.W.U. (above) was in front of the Franklin St. entrance for the IND subway. It was named for the Transport Workers Union, which had just gone on an 11-day strike as the sculpture was being installed.
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By 1981, T.W.U. was looking a little beat, strewn with empties, and covered with wheatpasted flyers and graffiti. That’s when Dawoud Bey shot a series of photos, posted recently on Black Contemporary Art’s tumblr, of David Hammons pissing on the sculpture.
The sequence apparently begins with Hammons in khakis, Pumas, and a dashiki, with a matching shoulder bag, just standing there in the south-facing space of Serra’s sculpture. In the next photo, he’s turned away from the camera, doing his business.
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Then we see Hammons, talking with an NYPD officer, presenting papers, maybe a passport? The caption reads, “David Hammons receiving a citation from a police officer.” Which might have happened! But really, we don’t know.
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These photos are not journalism; they’re documentation of a performance Hammons titled Pissed Off. I don’t know when or how the title emerged; it’s hard to trace the historic trajectory of Hammons’ practice apart from the art world’s later embrace/interpretation of it.
But considering that other tellings of the story say that Hammons was “arrested” or “almost arrested,” I feel more comfortable in just saying we don’t know.
What happened, and what’s in the photos, are not the same thing. There were actions and interactions here beyond the frames and before, after, and in between the clicks of the shutter. Like, where’d the white shopping bag and folder Hammons is holding in the first photo go? Is Bey holding them? It makes me think of one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on Hammons’ work, by Christian Haye and Coco Fusco, from Frieze, May 1995:

[Hammons] is, in actuality, a masterful investigator of how an oppositional black cultural identity can be generated through a dialogue with ‘high’ culture, particularly as it is articulated through standard English. His method relies on punning and other kinds of word games that short-circuit the dominant cultural interpretation of any given object or term to be redirected for his own purpose.

This practice, which Haye discusses using Henry Louis Gates’ concept of signifyin’, applies as much to Bey’s photos as to Serra’s sculpture. The art world can think it’s funny and transgressive to see Hammons pissing on Serra, but do they even notice that he’s splashing onto their shoes, too? That everyone assumes or accepts the retributive outcome of Hammons’ encounter with the cop may just be the most critically damning aspect of Pissed Off.
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David Hammons, Shoe Tree, 1981, on Richard Serra’s T.W.U., 1980, image via grupa ok, (who rightly call it an assemblage)
Speaking of shoes, Hammons did another performance at T.W.U.. For Shoe Tree (1981), Hammons threw 25 pairs of sneakers over the top of Serra’s 36-foot tall steel plates. Some call it a performance, but unlike his documentation for Pissed Off, Bey’s photo shows no artist, no action, no street, no building, even, just the stark angles of the top of Serra’s paint-splattered sculpture against an empty afternoon sky.

How Ya Like How Ya Like Me Now?

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How Ya Like Me Now?, a large painting of a white Jesse Jackson by David Hammons, was one of seven outdoor works in “The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism,” an ambitious exhibition organized in the Fall of 1989 by Richard Powell at the Washington Project for the Arts.
The other six outdoor artworks were installed without a hitch, but approval for Hammons’ painting to be erected on a DC city-owned parking lot dragged on for six months, three months after the show opened. When the OK was suddenly given [with no explanation of either the delay or the decision], WPA staffers hurriedly erected How Ya Like Me Now? on the lot at 7th & G Streets [where the Verizon Center currently sits], across the street from one of the intended target audiences for its questioning title, the National Portrait Gallery.
The NPG had no portraits of blacks on display at the time. And Hammons suggested that a portrait of Jackson, arguably the most prominent African American in the US in 1988, would already be in the museum if he’d been white. Jackson had lost the Democratic Party’s nomination for president to Michael Dukakis after hitting a wall of white voter resistance in Wisconsin, a phenomenon of racist reluctance pundits called “the Bradley Effect.”
But a billboard-size portrait of a pink-cheeked Jackson suddenly appearing on the streets of DC with no explanation and a Kool Mo Dee lyric for a title was bound to arouse controversy. And when WPA curator Powell, who is black, left three white staffers to finish installing the piece, a crowd of young black men formed, voiced their protest against the artwork–and then took a sledgehammer to it and tore it down.
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The Washington Post showed a photo of the only piece left standing on 7th Street, Jackson’s blonde afro and part of his blue eyes. After some back and forth in which Hammons kind of complained that the WPA did not install the work as high off the ground as had originally been called for, and the WPA complained about the city’s footdragging delays and said it was going to send the scalped Jackson back to Hammons for repair, the damaged tin painting went back on view, encircled by hammers, for the remainder of the exhibition.
All of which makes me very interested to know when and how How Ya Like Me Know? ended up in its current home in a private DC collection.
The most complete account of this story I can find online is this 1998 Duke Alumni Magazine article on RIchard Powell, who went on to become a very prominent art historian and author [duke.edu]

David Hammons On Not Liking To Show In Gallery Spaces That Much

On a visit to Alexandria, Egypt, artist David Hammons asked a curator to ask a local non-profit, Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, if he could do a project with them:

I had to explain that it wasn’t going to be in their gallery. They had hoped it would be–it’s a very nice space, a marvelous, beautiful restoration of an apartment. As beautiful as the space was, that was too easy to do. I don’t particularly care for galleries. I’d rather walk through the city and find my own spaces.
I do that a lot in New York. I’ll find something and call people up with the address and tell people to go look at it. It could be a stack of wood in the subway or something that looks like a Joseph Beuys or something lying around. [emphasis added]

Then there’s this. about works where he predicted rainbows over Paris and rain in Munster:

was watching a video on YouTube in which Ornette Coleman presents a tune called “Spring” in Germany; he tells the audience, “Follow the idea of the song, not the song itself.” He also said, “Follow the idea, not the sound.” I was impressed with that. Follow how my ideas are put together, as opposed to whether the rainbow appears or the rain comes. I use this logic a lot. It moves in the realm of poetry as opposed to the actuality that people are used to or expect.

[via artforum]