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David Hammons performing “Bliz-aard Ball Sale”, 1983

Radical Presence: David Hammons performing Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983, Cooper Square, New York. Photo by Dawoud Bey, courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York.

[UPDATE–May 1, 2019] Max Lakin wrote a piece about David Hammons and Dawoud Bey for The New York Times that links back here: see “When Dawoud Bey Met David Hammons” May 1st, 2019.

In the winter of 1983, American photograph Dawoud Bey took a series of 20 portraits of David Hammons selling snow balls of various size on the corner of a New York street, at Cooper Square, in Lower Manhatthan. On some of the slides a vendor selling jackets can be seen on the right, with two jackets displayed on a nearby fence. One version of the image is hosted at MIT digital Libraries, but the access is restricted. Below is yet another version:

Lady looking at David Hammons selling snow balls in New York, 1983. Photo by Dawoud Bey. Image retrieved from Shadow Vue.
Lady looking at David Hammons selling snow balls in New York, 1983. Photo by Dawoud Bey. Image retrieved from Shadow Vue.

Hammons’s snow balls are produced in different but consistant size and presented in a neatly arranged fashion, on a colorful rug.

The first image featured above was part of the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art which claimed to be “first exhibition to survey over fifty years of performance art by visual artists of African descent from the United States and the Caribbean” (read more). The travelling exhibition was presented in various museums and art centers, in New York and Minneapolis, between 2013 and 2015. For the occasion, a 144-page catalogue was produced by the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (it is now sold out). One can still watch a 3-minute introduction on YouTube: the exhibition is presented by its Senior Curator, Valerie Cassel Oliver.

Dawoud Bey’s photographs plays an important part in Hammons’s performance as they document an ephemeral event of which there are no other trace today. In this sense, Bliz-aard Ball Sale is reminiscent of an earlier performance by Hammons, Pissed Off, which took place in 1981 when he urinated on Michael Serra’s installation T.W.U. (see “Stop And Piss: David Hammons’ Pissed Off” by Greg Allen).

For an excellent introduction to David Hammons’s art, one can read Steven Stern’s essay “A Fraction of the Whole” (Frieze, Issue 121, March 2009). Here’s how he discusses the Bliz-aard Ball Sale performance:

This seems to be what’s going on in the famous street piece Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983). The photos portraying Hammons with his neatly arranged rows of snowballs for sale are probably the most frequently reproduced images in the artist’s oeuvre. The piece has become iconic, the single ephemeral work – a work that is essentially about ephemerality – that has come to stand for his entire practice. As it comes down to us in documentation, it is a portrait of the artist as an anonymous and disreputable pedlar, an absurdist street hustler. Hammons’ notion of an artist includes a constant flirtation with notions of the illicit and the fraudulent – the ever-present suggestion that the whole business might be a scam. What, after all, could be more of a scam than selling snowballs in winter? (read more)

In his piece, Stern remarks how it has become common to write about Hammons’s “elusive” character. This is in part due to the way Hammon manages his interaction –or the lack thereof– with media:

“He speaks to the press rarely – which means, among other things, that his few public utterances participate in an economy of scarcity, recycled in article after article.

One of the most often quoted interview with David Hammons is the one he did with Kellie Jones in 1986. It was published in Issue 16 of REALLIFE Magazine (pp. 2-9). While the interview was not available online in full at the time of writing, it can be found in Jones’s book EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Duke University Press, 2011: 247-262). Large portion of it can be accessed through Google Books preview.

In 2002, Hammons agreed to walk the streets of New York with The New Yorker contributor Peter Schjeldahl. The piece appeared in the issue of December 23 of the same year:

Hammons’s brand of Dada isn’t substantially original. Yves Klein exhibited a vacant gallery, entitled “The Void,” in 1958. Innumerable artists have exploited the poignance of shabby materials. Hammons freely admits to having been influenced by Arte Povera. (He told me that he was thrilled when that movement’s master, Jannis Kounellis, agreed to a dual show with him in Rome in 1993.) But nothing in contemporary art matches his poetic compound of modesty, truculence, and wit. His radical independence stands out, to say the least, in today’s scrabbling art world. It also distinguishes him from the itinerant artist-shamans who pop up regularly at international festivals. He regards that circuit as a trap. “The way I see it,” he said, “the Whitney Biennial and Documenta need me, but I don’t need them.” (“The Walker. Rediscovering New York with David Hammons”, by Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, Dec. 23, 2002).

Frieze has an older piece on Hammons’s work worth reading: “Wreaking Havoc on the Signified” by Coco Fusco and Christian Haye (Issue 22, May 1995). For a more recent take, see “Looking at Seeing: David Hammons and the Politics of Visibility” by Andrew Russeth (ARTNews, Feb. 2, 2015).

Portrait of David Hammons by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, September 2, 1980, in New York City. © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Image retrived from ARTNews.
Portrait of David Hammons by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, September 2, 1980, in New York City. © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Image retrieved from ARTNews.
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