Although Hammons exhibited his early wall pieces, such as the Body Prints, within the context of traditional gallery spaces, in the mid-1970s, he left this sanitized environment in favor of more direct engagement with his audiences. Hammons integrated the notion of the street into his work in a radical way, not only showing his work there, but also producing his sculptures, installations, and performances with found materials in their environment. This shift from traditional art space was a means for Hammons to establish a counterpoint to the slick, white-cube gallery aesthetic that had come to the fore in the 1980s.
Hammons’ work seeks to engage in larger conceptual notions of what constitutes art and why. The artist has been compared to Marcel Duchamp for his irreverent conceptualism and unconventional use of readymade objects as proxies to interrogate meaning. As curator Kellie Jones has explained, “As an artist, David Hammons expands our definition of the term with his varied and evolving practice. He is a ‘hip junk dealer’, sculptor, performer, conceptual artist, environmental sculptor, magician, philosopher, social commentator…who positions himself somewhere between Marcel Duchamp, outsider art and Arte Povera” (Kellie Jones, David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble, New York 1991, pp. 15-16).
A readily available marker of desperation, the discarded wine bottle is a particularly potent symbol in Hammons’ oeuvre. Hammons primarily sourced these bottles from the Night Train brand, which with an alcohol content of 18%, were inexpensive and potent. Aside from their appearance in many of his installations, these bottles are found in a number of sculptural objects, of which Untitled is an outstanding example. Referencing the age-old tradition of “impossible bottles,” meaning glasses filled with objects that don’t appear to fit through the bottleneck, the work presents an abstract composition of found objects including pearls, feathers, leaves and threads. As Hammons explains: “The thing about these bottles I love is that people have to ask how you got those things in there…visually it’s hard to mess with people, because everybody is so hip on what’s happening. I like when people ask how I do these things, because that means they don’t know” (David Hammons cited in: ibid., p. 34).
Visually intriguing and materially referential, Untitled offers insight into the development of Hammons’ iconic career through its nuanced art historical allusion to the work of Duchamp and the members of Arte Povera, as well as the Surrealists and others. Additionally, the work acts as evidence of the innate beauty, as well as the wealth of political and social references, that lay in everyday objects. As Kellie Jones concludes: “By making art from detritus and found materials, Hammons attempts to put himself on the same plane as the historically marginal and opens himself up to their canons of beauty and perseverance that sometimes translates as transformational magic” (Kellie Jones, ibid., p. 29).
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