Update: The untitled David Hammons work sold for $137,000.
What you see: An untitled David Hammons paper collage and tempera on board from 1965. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $120,000 to $180,000.
The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.
Who is David Hammons? He’s a very interesting artist, a contemporary artist, still living and working. He’s an interesting artist because he uses many different media and makes them his own. And there is socio-political commentary in his work, about the African-American experience or something larger than the object itself. He’s an artist who’s seen a meteoric rise in his value in the last ten years. Some of his most famous works are performance pieces. He once set up a blanket on the streets of New York and sold snowballs. He’s had a long career, and he’s part of a group of contemporary artists who are highly prized by collectors.
Where was David Hammons in his career in 1965? He was a young artist then, in Los Angeles, working with other artists in starting to explore non-traditional art mediums.
But this untitled David Hammons work is a more traditional work–paper collage and tempera on masonite board… That speaks to its early beginnings as a student living in Los Angeles, starting his odyssey. He didn’t settle into the work we know today until the late 1960s. It’s exciting because it’s an early work, but with a quality that’s very much his own.
What was the state of the black power movement in Los Angeles in 1965, in the wake of the Watts riots? Do we know if and how aware Hammons was of such things? I’m no social historian, but it was a politically active time. I think it would have been impossible for someone of his position not to be affected by the political and social climate of the time. 1965 was definitely an important time in the civil rights movement. Black power was more of a recognized movement in the later 1960s. To relate it to another piece, Elizabeth Catlett did a piece with raised fists after the 1968 Olympic [athlete protest] in Mexico City. This raised fist is about struggle and a symbol of freedom. I don’t know if it was a political symbol then as it would be later.
Could you discuss the significance of this raised fist image? It’s not one raised fist. It’s two raised fists, bound by shackles. It’s hard to see–the shackles are disappearing. You can just make it out in the paper collage. The moment [portrayed] is just as the fists are freed. It’s obviously a powerful symbol as we look at it now.
Do we know anything about why David Hammons might have made this particular image in 1965? It’s hard to know the artist’s intent without speaking to him, but 1965 was a turbulent time. In that period, everything had a political meaning, especially for African-American students. It’s something you can’t separate from the political and social meaning. This is about breaking free, and freedom and liberty. It’s very much a product of its time.
David Hammons was a student when he made this untitled work. Might he have done it for a class assignment? That I don’t know. I think he was very much an independent-thinking person. He gave this as a wedding present to a friend who was his roommate at the time.
It was a wedding present? An image of shackled fists being freed is kind of a weird choice when you’re celebrating people binding themselves to one another. [Laughs] I didn’t think about that aspect. Maybe there’s a joke there. Maybe it’s not meant to relate to the wedding. Who knows? This person lived with the artist, and they shared a lot. I don’t think Hammons was making a comment on his friend’s ceremony. The owner and the artist kept in touch. There’s only been one owner [of this work]. It was a personal gift at an early point in Hammons’s career. It speaks to their relationship, and their time together.
Is this untitled 1965 David Hammons work the first instance of him portraying a raised fist? I haven’t seen anything like this from this period, so it could be.
How does the raised fist show up in his work in later years? It does show up, but what’s interesting about this artwork is not just the subject, but the medium. David Hammons developed a body of work based on the body. He made body prints where the face, the hands, part of the body would be covered with what almost looked like margarine, pressed against pigment and pressed on paper. Yves Klein and Robert Rauschenberg have done similar works. It’s printmaking, with your body as the block. The prints hold up well. In the early to mid-1970s, Hammons added collage. This piece is a window into what would become his first major body of work.
Are the hands and arms in this untitled David Hammons work life-size, as they are in his body prints? They’re pretty close, yeah. They might be a bit bigger.
So you can draw a direct line between this untitled David Hammons work and his series of body prints? That’s what’s exciting about this piece. Collage is part of it, and the painting is a very direct, simple representation of the body and disappearing shackles.
Could you discuss how David Hammons chose to portray and compose the hands and shackles in this untitled work? The hands are direct and outlined in black. They’re the only part that got a heavy outline. There’s no outline for the shackles. They kind of disappear. The heavy black outline is what makes a statement. It has a bold quality to it.
Could you also talk about the colors David Hammons chose? The brown of the arms seems to blend in with the frame… [Laughs] We included the frame because it set off the work really nicely. It’s hard to talk about the colors without having another work to compare it to. In the body prints, there are very few colors. He’s trying to be very direct. Not until the 70s does he use more colors and become more painterly. It’s all about the image, I think.
What is this untitled David Hammons piece like in person? Are there aspects of it that don’t show up on camera? I do think in person the collage is more apparent. It’s made of see-through pieces of paper, almost tissue paper, and the paper is glued down. The tactile quality of the paper and how it’s made is more apparent in person.
Is the effect of the disappearing shackles more obvious in person? It still is kind of subtle in person. It takes a moment to make out where the links of the chain are. You can make out the shapes because the shapes are there in the paper. If it was on flat white paper, the shapes may have been raised. Here, he’s able to suggest shapes, though there’s no outline.
What condition is the untitled David Hammons piece in? It’s in very good condition. There appears to be no significant defects or damage. It’s had one owner and it’s held up very well. It looks good.
David Hammons is notoriously private. How has that affected the secondary market for his work? He has not followed the traditional path of being associated with one gallery or dealer. He has worked with galleries to mount exhibits, but he has no direct representation. He’s charted his own course. He has a mystique about being an outlier, an independent person, a mystery. He’s had a fascinating career, doing it his way, and now his work is among the most sought-after contemporary works today.
What’s the world auction record for a piece by David Hammons? The current sales record was set at Phillips in November 2013 by an untitled piece, a basketball backboard chandelier from 2000. It sold for $8.5 million.
How might this early David Hammons untitled piece do? His works sell for millions of dollars on the primary market today. If something like that [his world auction record] came back to the market today, it would be [sell for] considerably higher. We’ve had body prints of his. Typically, they sell for six figures or up to a million for complex or large ones. This is such an early work and a different work, not a body print. It’s something else. That’s where my estimate is.
What’s the world auction record for a David Hammons body print? Was it set at Swann? No, it was another auction house. It was an untitled mixed media collage from 1975 that sold at Sotheby’s in November 2017 for $1.6 million.
So the world auction record David Hammons piece is untitled, and the record for a David Hammons body print is untitled, and this piece is untitled, too. Does David Hammons usually decline to title his works? Rarely is there a title. Most body prints are untitled, and I think with early works, there are few if any titles.
Why will this untitled David Hammons piece stick in your memory? Because it’s a really strong image by David Hammons. It’s unusual, it’s strong, and it’s an early work that gives us a window into the development of a young artist who would go on to do incredible work. It’s very interesting, very exciting.
How to bid: The 1965 untitled David Hammons piece is lot 69 in the African-American Fine Art sale scheduled for June 4, 2020 at Swann Galleries. (The original auction date was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.)
Nigel Freeman spoke to The Hot Bid previously about an Irene V. Clark painting from the Johnson Publishing Company collection, an Elizabeth Catlett sculpture that went on to set a new world auction record for the artist; an Emma Amos mixed-media work that ultimately sold for an auction record for the artist; a set of Emperor Jones prints by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, a story quilt that Oprah Winfrey commissioned Faith Ringgold to make about Dr. Maya Angelou, an Elizabeth Catlett painting, and a Sargent Johnson copper mask.
Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
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