david hammons

‘Anti-Art Star’ David Hammons Has Made a Monumental Mark

Photo: Timothy Schenck

David Hammons’s new Day’s End is a mystic gift to New York and a permanent recognition of his artistic importance. Jutting into the waters off Gansevoort Street, it is a memory urn, an ark of civic possibility, and a statue of artistic liberty that honors the epic creativity that has taken place in this city over centuries.

More than any other artist, Hammons, 77, a MacArthur winner, took post-Minimalism — with its heavy use of ephemeral, discardable, often found materials — and added to it racial politics and social and art-world critique. He is formally and conceptually radical, and his career almost screams, “I won’t be a pawn in their game!” Hammons has never had a gallery, exhibits where and when he pleases, is famously diffident to the marketplace, and is hard to reach (critics often talk about waiting on street corners to meet him). At the same time, his work commands enormous prices, and every museum in the world courts him—making Hammons both the ultimate insider and the ultimate outsider, as though Dave Chappelle or Terrence Malick had remained, even while running away from Hollywood, among the most in-demand figures there. But his work speaks with such art-world formalism and conceptualism, and involves such a high degree of interpretive energy, that I imagine few outside the art world will have known who Hammons is before seeing this public sculpture.

Kara Walker has written about the “Anti-Art Star who finds more promise in the dark gravitational forces of the Black Hole.” That feels like Hammons, who has compared the white-cube spaces of galleries and museums to hospitals and said that Black people see such spaces as places “for mad people, they put them in there.” He has said that “showing has never been that important to me” and calls himself an “art gangster.” In bars, vacant lots, galleries and museums, Hammons has worked with elephant dung, voodoo dolls, hair gathered from Black barber shops, basketballs, and bone. In 1983, he sold snowballs outside Cooper Union, not 100 feet from where, in 1854, Lincoln declared slavery should not expand in the United States. Here was a dapper black man in hat and overcoat selling goods laid out on a blanket like any homeless person. The snowballs were rolled in a graduating succession of bigger to smaller and echoed all sorts of squirrely post-Minimalist geometric-sculptural discourse. It was mind-fuck and fuck-you. In 1983, his visage might have struck fear into this white neighborhood or seemed that of just another crazy crackhead. Hammons was making art dangerous just as the art world was launching itself into hyper-marketability. He was playing with fire, playing Russian roulette with his career. He fired the bullet — and won. I loved but didn’t know what to make of this one-man cartel and new conquistador for decades.

In 1981, wearing a dashiki, he urinated on a 110-ton Richard Serra sculpture in Tribeca. That same year he threw 25 pairs of sneakers over the top of those 36-foot-tall steel plates. (Both works were documented by Dawoud Bey, himself now the subject of a Whitney Museum retrospective.) Hammons has said he wanted to “get away from the redundancy of … making African American art,” to get “beyond Blackness … beyond Whiteness,” to get to “destinations unknown.” His largest public sculpture does that. At first, however, Day’s End looks like nothing — the stainless-steel skeleton armature of Pier 52, it’s something you could pass by and think to be just what was left behind as that pier degraded and collapsed over decades of disuse. Even longtime Hammons fans have expressed doubts on social media about this being a bland waste of $17 million and an amazing location. When I first saw the 2014 drawing for it, I wrote a one-word email to a Whitney curator: “Meh.” I was wrong. I now see Day’s End as an apparitional New York version of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, a procreant piece of impractical, imaginary, almost cosmological architecture that signals incantational things. I envision it as some four-dimensional hypercube tesseract or stereoscopic time machine. Give this work time in the flesh, let yourself unspool, and Day’s End can transcendentalize and put a spell on you. It did me.

Before the original pier was torn down by the city in 1979, it was used by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company and, after that, as a marine transfer station, for salt storage, and for sanitation-truck parking, among other things. Nearby, there were cattle tunnels underneath 11th and 12th Avenues. The spot is filled with ghosts. Famously, the piers along this stretch of the river were cruising places for the gay and trans communities who took them over in the late 1960s and early ’70s as sanctuaries of desire beyond the law. In the early ’80s, escaping one relationship, I used to meet a lover here and have sex in her car along the dilapidated West Side. Back then, newspapers posted daily schedules of ships coming into and out of the ports along the shore. I’d go and dream of places I’d never go and adventures I’d never have. I think that some negative ozone charge of the water had me under its sway. It still draws me there.

But the hyperlocal history goes much deeper than that. About 100 yards north of here is where, in 1914, the Carpathia docked and delivered the survivors of the Titanic. The ill-fated Lusitania (torpedoed by a German U-boat) embarked from here in 1915. In World War II, the piers were used to deploy troops. A nearby one, made into a temporary prison to house those protesting George W. Bush’s 2004 Republican National Convention, was called “Guantanamo on the Hudson.” The site is filled with spirits and messengers, castaways, mob politics, murder, and pathos. Day’s End rises on what, at the time of first contact, was Lenape ground, then called Turtle Island. Here was a great center of commerce on the river called the Muhheakantuck, where Mohawks, Seneca, Delaware, Iroquois, and other nations came for trade, oysters, and eel. Indigenous tribes from up and down the Eastern Seaboard and further inland came seasonally to barter goods and exchange cultures, before being driven from their lands and massacred. Then demons descended into the area. By 1741, New York City had the second largest population of slaves of any city in the country, second only to Charleston, South Carolina. Hammons reminds us that all ground is sacred ground.

The work was brought to fruition by the Whitney Museum with the Hudson River Park Trust. On the south side, it hovers over the river on cement pilings. On the north, it is anchored to a peninsula of land that is soon to be a park. Fifty-two feet high, it extends 325 feet toward New Jersey. You can see the New York Harbor through its frame. This makes Day’s End more aurora than monument. Give it time, and you will glean such rhetorical, obsessively quiet material and metaphysical intelligence that it resounds with monumentality and almost alien otherness. While looking at it, I see the New York that called all of us here to make our names and our fortunes, find our own tribes, create communities, hate, love, and be loved by strangers.

Day’s End shows Hammons, as he once said, “trying to find a new fucking vocabulary that I’m not really used to, that frightens me.” Here, these are the vocabularies of panoramic landscape, waterfront, deep history, the architecture of sublimity, weather, and an attempt to evoke past, present, and future. These are shamanic vocabularies. Tellingly, the 2014 drawing had the words “Monument to Gordon Matta-Clark” written on it. The “monument” that resulted calls forth layered histories and a rattle of shadows past. The title, Day’s End, is taken from Matta-Clark’s lodestone 1975 urban installation in Pier 52. That year, Matta-Clark, who would die at 35 three years later and was the son of the great Chilean artist Roberto Matta, illegally padlocked the doors and cut out huge sections of the floor, walls, and roof, transforming this decrepit relic of another era into a temple to the sun and an abstract sundial or Stonehenge observatory. He described it as “anarchitecture” and said it was “a special stage in perpetual metamorphosis,” adding that he didn’t want to “create a totally new supportive field of vision, of cognition” (artists used to talk this way), but wanted to “reuse the old one, the existing framework of thought and sight.”

Erecting his own work in the same spot, naming it for and suffusing it with the memory of Matta-Clark’s, is a piece of alchemical magic that transforms Day’s End into a statue of artistic liberty, a giant monument to the proposition that New York is made of monuments and statues to those creative souls who came before: Billie Holiday, Sun Ra, Walt Whitman, Lucille Ball, Ornette Coleman, Scott Joplin, Edward Hopper, Quintan Crisp, Bill Cunningham, Agnes DeMille, Louis Armstrong, Frida Kahlo, Henry James, P.T. Barnum, Hélio Oiticica, Ai Wei-Wei, Herman Melville, Marcel Duchamp, Steve Martin, and a thousand others, a million others, many millions of others. Fancy not only seeing where John Wilkes Booth, Boris Johnson, Garibaldi, Trotsky, Harvey Milk, Malcolm X, Billy the Kid, Mohammad Ali, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, and Che Guevara lived, but also artists like Vito Acconci, Florine Stettheimer, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Matthew Brady, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cher, Madonna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Beyoncé, George Gershwin, Alfred Hitchcock, Chuck Berry, Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Nathanael West, Edith Wharton, Stanley Kubrick, Notorious B.I.G., Barbra Streisand, Lou Reed, Groucho Marx, John Lennon, George Carlin, Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol, Liza, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Grandmaster Flash. Think of plaques telling you that Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Langston Huges, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Joan Rivers, Sarah Vaughn, Busby Berkeley, and Toni Morrison lived here. In terms of creativity, New York has been the Florence of the Renaissance, the Rome of the Baroque. Day’s End tells us we have to recognize this. When I found out Jackson Pollock, Alice Neel, and Beuford Delauny lived a stone’s throw from where I write, I felt their otherworldly energies enter me. When I moved to NYC, I lived a block from where Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Robert Fulton lived. For a while, I lived a door down from where Charlie Parker lived! This mattered. We should get fever dreams and feel the holy spirit of creativity when we walk our streets. We shouldn’t be able to move through New York without feeling this strange world of desire and beholding our city of dreams.

‘Anti-Art Star’ David Hammons Has Made a Monumental Mark