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ART : Rubble-Rouser : New York artist David Hammons has lived and found inspiration in the streets, using discarded objects to capture the black experience in a white world; now he too has been discovered

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This particular corner of Spring Street and Lafayette is strewn with street people sweating soot, conducting intricate investigations into garbage cans, weaving shopping carts between leashed dogs and parked cars, haranguing and entertaining the outdoor diners at a neighborhood restaurant where David Hammons arrives only an hour late.

“Is this who you were waiting for?” asks the waitress brightly. “I thought maybe it was somebody you picked up off the street . . . just joking.”

“They always say ‘just joking,’ ” mutters Hammons, ordering wine.

Not that he’s altogether displeased. Street person is the persona he affects: mumble, sloped shoulders, concave chest, Toscanini flyaway hair squashed beneath a fuchsia-net and white-leather baseball cap of his own devising. The look suggests the lifestyle and fits the art, or helps it happen in a cat’s cradle of cause and effect impossible to untangle.

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The art makes sculptural poetry out of the debris of Manhattan’s Lower East Side--"where I live,” he says--and Harlem, “where I sleep.” It plays riffs on a hank of hair, a block of melting ice, chicken bones, boom boxes, bottle caps and dirty mattresses the way Thelonious Monk riffs “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” In the transformation that happens along the way, those castoffs become indignant, exuberant metaphors for the daily facts of black culture in a white world.

Hammons’ art is smart about European modernism, but down and dirty about the dreams and dangers of the streets. It’s as apt, wickedly funny and crystal clear as the political cartoons he admires, and last fall it made for an utterly brilliant retrospective at P.S. 1--outpost of the international avant-garde in a recycled Queens schoolhouse. The exhibit, “David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble,” opens today at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.

What’s happened in the meantime is that Hammons, at 48, has been discovered by the mainstream. Most of the members of the Museum of Modern Art’s Painting and Sculpture Committee had never even heard of him last fall when they accepted curator Robert Storr’s recommendation to acquire one of Hammons’ doctored basketball hoops for their collection. As one of the joys of black childhood, and one of the avenues out of the ghetto, basketball is a natural for the Hammons treatment. The one the Modern bought is festooned with tin, wire and a dismembered chandelier, and named “High Falutin’ ” for its textured contradictions. (Saturday’s preview opening at the San Diego museum was to include basketball players jamming in the galleries.) Now Storr has invited Hammons to create a gallery-size installation for the Modern’s big fall show, “ Dis locations.”

Last spring, Hammons had the satisfaction of turning down the Whitney Museum’s invitation to participate in its self-consciously multicultural 1991 Biennial--effectively torpedoing the exhibition’s claim to cover the top hits of the past two years. “I couldn’t wait to tell ‘em no,” he says. “Their relationship with black artists has been negative since Day 1.”

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And now he has received the official stamp of a “genius award” from the MacArthur Foundation. The grant, $290,000 over five years, is to enable him to do whatever it is he does however he wants to do it, no strings attached.

None of which changes all that much for Hammons. Oh, he has started shopping for “anti-Western” African clothes at street fairs. He’s thinking maybe he’ll move to Italy (where he’s been pretty much commuting to for the past two years, with the help of an American Academy in Rome prize), or spend quality time in Brazil. “You know, when you get some money, you’re able to go where black people are dominant,” he says.

Meanwhile, he’s bought himself a blender, the better to whip up some carrot juice in the kitchenless apartment (“no kitchen, no bugs”) he’s lived in for seven years, after a decade of sleeping on other people’s couches, on floors, in dives, so as “not to lose the spirit.”

The spirit is that sly, intuitive sense for the dead-on image that will say it all. Like the time, after the 1983 blizzard, when he sold snowballs on a Bowery corner right next to the homeless people selling clothes, as a commentary on the actual value of white values. Or the empty Coke bottle he tied to a blind man’s cane for “Coke Cane,” a wall sculpture that’s an elegant pun on the blind waste and bottomless outrage of the drug epidemic. (Eventually, in the improvisational mode that is at the heart of the art, he renamed the piece “Blind Reality.”) Or the condoms he attached to each spoke of a subway turnstile in Queens last year and named “Four Beats to the Bar,” to make visible the repetitious, revolving underworld of drugs and AIDS that is decimating his neighborhoods.

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His 10-foot-high metal cutout of Jesse Jackson in white face and corny blond wig--titled “How Ya Like Me Now?"--struck a nerve when it was exhibited in Washington last year. Though intended to ridicule racism, it was vandalized with sledgehammers by indignant blacks. Newspapers liked the ensuing brouhaha so much that Hammons read about it in Italy. Now he shows the Jackson piece ringed with a fence of sledgehammers; the handle of one of them is wrapped in a Lucky Strike cigarette wrapper. Hammons says the attack with the sledgehammer was “a lucky strike” because it got him national publicity.

Turning down the Whitney was one way for him to keep the spirit alive: “You have to do these things if you want to stay friends with people in the neighborhoods. These are really big-city tactics,” he says. And so is his carefully honed reputation for hanging out, never being where you expect him to be when he said he’d be there (except when it most matters) and not having a phone.

“This is about art; this ain’t about answering the telephone when it rings,” he murmurs. “This is about having personal opinions about things, anything: concepts, ideas. Fighting for ‘em. Physically if necessary.”

His ex-wife, Rebecca Hammons, who has worked as a market researcher in Los Angeles for the past 18 years, says the stay-loose, semi-street-person life began for Hammons when he moved to New York around 1974.

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“He wanted to be his own person, not be answerable to anyone, live his own experiences without conforming to anyone,” she says. “He has to live it as well as produce it, and he feels most comfortable immersing himself totally. I think he tried it out here in L.A., but it’s difficult with a wife and two children. We had hard times and good times, but he was much too talented to waste it sacrificing his creativity.”

He was 22 when they married in 1965, just two years out of Springfield, Ill., where he had grown up the youngest of 10--three sisters, six brothers--in a house that was too small for them all, and without the father who dropped in “maybe twice a year.” Hammons followed his sisters to Los Angeles in 1963, where they’d gone “because black folks could get a good job in L.A.,” he says. “It was getting away from that cold weather. My sisters went to get out of small towns, and to do menial work.”

He was going to be a commercial artist. He studied at the Los Angeles Trade Technical City College, at Chouinard Art Institute. Learning about advertising, he says, taught him how to zero in on an idea, invent the visual equivalent.

“Actually, when we first married, he was very conservative,” says his former wife. “He was going into commercial art. Still, he was outspoken. After a year he didn’t like the constraints of the system. He wanted to do his own thing.”

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Once the children came--Carmen, now 25, and David, 22--his own thing included transforming an enormous former dance hall on Slauson Avenue into “an incredible place for the kids,” Rebecca remembers. “He put up a basketball court for David Jr., a stage so the kids could put on exhibitions. He re-created that hall into a world most other children didn’t have. In the midst of a ghetto, it was the only safe haven.”

Then they moved to Venice. Hammons made kites with David Jr. He built flutes, he buried bottles at different levels in the sand so the winds would play them. “The Creator would blow them,” he says.

He began making “Spade Prints” by rolling parts of his own inked body on paper in playing card shapes that punned on the derogative term for African-Americans. He picked up an old door off the street, silk-screened a body print against the “Admissions Office” stencil. These spades couldn’t get in that door. The California Afro-American Museum in Exposition Park owns it now.

Early in the ‘70s he started spending more and more time in New York. He left Southern California for good shortly after his 1974 one-man show at Cal State L.A.

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“I don’t go anywhere, I get pushed,” he says. “Don’t fight the feeling, as we say. From L.A. to New York. From mysticism to capitalism. I got tired of looking at the sunset.”

Charlie Mingus was in Los Angeles; also a group of black abstract artists who seldom showed. “But I think he was on the outskirts of all that,” Rebecca says. “He came into it when it was already developed. He enjoys being the center, and that was difficult when it was already established. So being in New York, he was able to be it.”

His reasons are slightly more sour. “I love California. I love its shallowness,” he says. “We’re not afraid of New York. I used to say I’m from Tinseltown. I put tinsel in my work. California, they don’t care about nothing. You can’t hurt their feelings. Their feelings aren’t deep enough to be hurt.”

And, in a variation on the theme: “I loved L.A., where you could work and no one would ever notice you. When I (was) there, it was either Venice or nothing. That’s why I got out. Got tired of being the best of a second-rate city.”

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He came to New York “to run with the big boys,” he says. “If you’re a true pilgrim, go to Mecca,” he tells the young artists he mentored at the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as his kids.

He arrived just in time for an earlier wave of multiculturalism. Time magazine had discovered Afro-American art. So had a gallery or two. Hammons’ brand of art was a natural: out of Duchamp, with the insouciance of Italy’s arte povera, the elegant eliminations of minimalism, the intelligence of conceptualism. And yet it told dark, hilarious tales of a culture unknown and exotic to the art world. It played a clever game of one-upmanship on European modernist forms; its trump card was content.

“This is why they don’t want black people to get educated,” Hammons says. “They know we’ll take their way and go beyond it like we did in sports. Any culture which takes that much time oppressing people is afraid of them, or why spend so much time oppressing? They’re afraid of our becoming dominant. Now what’s happened is that white America is so shallow and weak. That’s why Spike Lee is doing so well. They can’t even take the shallowness of their culture anymore. They’re letting the darker family member expose their culture. It happens every 20 years; we watch this every 20 years.”

A few people who knew found out about Hammons then. They made it possible for him to survive the lean ‘80s, when content went out the door and the world-weary excesses of Post-Modernism stepped in. There was a National Endowment grant in ’82, a Guggenheim grant in ’84, a New York Foundation for the Arts grant in ’87.

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He never made any meaningful money out of sales, until his two exhibitions at the Jack Tilton Gallery last fall, his first commercial gallery shows in New York.

In the meantime he hunkered down, haunted the streets and made things, most of them ephemeral. He surfaced in 1989 at EXIT Art, the alternative SoHo exhibition space, with an installation of toy trains tunneling under sooty little mountains as John Coltrane’s “Blue ‘trane” and James Brown’s “Night Train” played on a boom box. Empty Night Train wine bottles were assembled into minimal sculptures, all in evocation of the tracks that Hammons grew up on the wrong side of, the freedom trains, the trains that carry the rewards of capitalism past the cotton fields where poor blacks labor.

The installation succeeded on every level: as haiku, polemic, formal invention. The music issuing from the boom boxes had much to do with it: It filled the room; it carried its own connotations.

“Art is very new to us; music wasn’t,” he says. A slave singing in the fields could still pick cotton, but writing would get a hand chopped off. He stole the show at a Venice Biennale alternative exhibition in an ancient palazzo last spring, with a boom-box installation. For the “Heimat” show in Berlin this summer, he contributed an old mattress off the Berlin streets, rolled up in a corner, tied with a necktie like sausage and cord, and enclosing a boom box playing recordings of a man snoring. It was brutal, bereft and spoke a universal language of neglect and isolation.

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The ‘80s have ended; the trendy white Turks who dominated it are busy shoring up tattered reputations. “Those SoHo kids don’t know anything. That’s over. I’m here to bury it,” says Hammons.

Content has won the day. At least temporarily. “But I’m here to stay,” declares Hammons. “I know the tricks and I ain’t playing them.”

And he’s off to Second Avenue to hang out with the homeless, see what’s for sale on the sidewalk today.


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