Hammons began making art surrounding the racially charged theme of basketball in the early 1980s, beginning with seminal performances such as Human Pegs/Pole Dreams and continuing through to his 1987 Public Art Fund installation Higher Goals in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza. For Hammons, basketball represents not the direct path to enlightenment for young disenfranchised African-American youths as is regularly espoused; rather, Hammons’s sculptures corrupt this ideal, instead revealing an exploitative myth below the surface. In describing Higher Goals, a group of five sculptures composed of bottle cap-studded telephone poles mounted with basketball backboards, hoops, and nets, Hammons noted, “It’s an anti-basketball sculpture. Basketball has become a problem in the black community because kids aren’t getting an education. They’re pawns in someone else’s game. That’s why it’s called Higher Goals. It means you should have higher goals in life than basketball.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, P.S.1 Museum, David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble, 1991, p. 29)
Adopting the iconographic lexicon of formal abstraction in the ethereally beautiful fields of quiet cloud-like gray, Hammons’s Untitled (basketball drawing + stone) transforms the energy of the street into high art. Propping up the drawing with a mount of rubble, Hammons grounds the entire work in the reality of the earth, transporting not only the accumulated dirt into the language of abstraction, but also utilizing a process of application that draws its source from the quotidian urban tradition of the sport. In so doing, he injects the work with an extreme exuberance that reverberates through its elegance, tapping into a tradition of radical art historical critique that exhilaratingly challenges contemporary modes of thought.
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