Most of David Hammons work is aligned with assemblage (the practice of incorporating found materials in art), so this particular piece departs from his traditional aesthetic. Despite this, the work remains contextually rooted in some of his earlier themes. In the 1980s Hammons created the “Basketball Hoops Series” to address the myth of sport as an attainable, aspirational path to success for black youth. In this piece created in 2000 he abandons his assemblage practice and replaces it with luxe embellishments. The crystal laced hoop is flanked by 4 opulent candelabra chandeliers mounted on a pearlesent glass backboard that’s draped in strands and iron branches adorned with crystals. The juxtoposition of sport and luxury speak to the pedestal upon which society places athletics over academics. The grandeur of this ornate piece supports the concept of basketball sitting at the pinnacle of success.
Looking at this piece I immediately imagine someone dunking on this basket or breaking the metaphorical glass ceiling. Ironically this piece did crack auction house glass ceilings for black artists when Phillips sold the work in 2013 for over $8 million. The sale shattered Hammons’ personal record at auction and placed Hammons on ArtNews’ top 10 “Most Expensive Living Artist” list (Hammons is the only African American artist on the list).
There’s another side to this crystal hoop, a fragility that belies the trappings of success and suggests that the “pinnacle” may not be what it’s cracked up to be. The candelabras are not candles, instead they are electric bulbs and the crystals are not rare, instead they are made of glass. Success is temporal and the odds are not in your favor. The variables influencing one’s chances for success have changed in the 30 years since Hammons originally created the Basketball Hoops Series. Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley was one of my favorite teachers in college. During his career as a scholar/activist he studied the changing social and cultural dynamics that influence sports and how those influences impact athletes. This excerpt from a 2000 interview with Colorlines demonstrate that the outlook for athletes remain unchanged today. The chances for success are sobering and speak to the fragility of hoop dreams.
“By the time we finish looking at the last thirty years, through societal processes, through institutional erosion, through the degradation of the black athletic pool, through disqualification, judicial procedures and deaths, we have so emaciated the talent pool, that we are beginning to see a dropoff in performance at every level, in all sports where blacks participate in numbers. We are simply disqualifying, jailing, burying, and leaving behind our black athletes, right along with our potential black doctors, black lawyers, and so forth.”
When Dr. Edwards was inducted into the African American Sports Hall of Fame in 2008, he used his acceptance speech to ask a very important question about the role of sports in society, particularly for African Americans. I think it’s a question that Hammons artistically explores in this body of work.
“Developments at the interface of race, sport and society are dynamic, the struggle is therefore perpetual and there are no final victories. The question is, who is going to stand up and analyze and project a vision of those challenges today?”
The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.