David Hammons, The Man Nobody Killed screened spray paint on corrugated cardboard, 8.5"X11", 1986


By Paul H-O

How was I to know David Hammons would become huge? I did not. I never thought about it. I'd met Mr. Hammons at the Horseshoe Bar (or Vazacs) at 7th St. and Ave. B in 1984 or '85 through artist Cynthia Kuebel when she was living on Clinton St. near Delancey. I'd only moved to New York in September of '84 because I'd curated a traveling group multi-media exhibition I named SF/SF (San Francisco Science Fiction) and it was the the season opener at PS 1's Clocktower after being at the S.F. Arts Commission Gallery.   It was a post-art-punk installation of metal mechanical sculpture, some paintings, and some photographs my partner and 2nd co-curator Jo Babcock and I had driven in a rented U-Haul 24 foot truck. Once I got to NY after that trip from San Francisco, I had just enough personal belongings in that truck to live in New York.

The timing was good and SF/SF got enough traffic and word of mouth to get booked at Otis/Parsons Gallery in L.A. when Al Nodal was running it. SF/SF traveled back to the West Coast in the Black Truck, the first coast to coast art moving 18 wheeler. I stayed in New York, camped out and sublet at photographer Dona Ann McAdams' studio in the East Village, went to LA to install SF/SF and came back to New York, and after that it cold and reality was only checked because I was a young artist.

Hammons was a regular at the bar at 7th and B, back then people called it the Horseshoe Bar because the place was long and the bar itself is a long looped barge in the center with tables and booths docking the variegated windows. Cynthia worked at PS 1 and had known David for some time, and he usually had a corner booth and we would sit with him and they would talk and I soaked it up. David liked to stay late. I did get to know Mark Boone Jr., who was a bartender and I met Steve Buscemi there. I had no idea what Steve did but he was low key and was very New York, so I liked that.  Steve was a performance artist/actor with the Wooster Group and one of Boone's best friends. Years later I saw a revival play by the Wooster Group with Willem Defoe and had no idea what that play was about except there was a video of Will Defoe naked, and I had to admit the man was quite a specimen, and by then a major movie star.. So, in '84 and '85, the Alphabet City part of the E.V. was still very sketchy and that bar was a cheap haven for the artists that lived even deeper in, but Ave. B was the edge, and almost everyone got mugged at least once. I only got mugged once I moved to Brooklyn in 1985, and it took a while before I got nailed. That was after my first job as a bike messenger. Hardcore white artists will live in crazy bad places for cheap studio spaces, and the next thing you know Daniel Liebeskind just redesigned the old crack house two doors down. Hello Bushwick.

I remember the first time I met David, he had about a dozen pairs of tiny white high-heeled plastic doll shoes he was selling at something like a two dollars a pair and they didn't sell fast. He was wry, and he would size you up fast, and had a studio nearby but it was said he lived with a woman in Harlem. He also sold snowballs on the street along with the street people, by Tompkins Square, but his merchanising thing was a cutting statement on the whitey art gallery scene en vogue, and he had a rather bitter satirical edge: race based attitudes that hit on whites and blacks with almost equal derision, but he knew the game was historically fixed. I thought it was funny that the snowballs were priced according to size. Hard to say, because David was cagey but we had an easy rapport, he'd lived in California and gone to art school there. (Chouinard) Cynthia said Hammons was a good artist so I took her word since she was a good artist. One night at closing I noticed that David was getting a big plastic bag from a bartender, probably Mark Boone, and I looked in the bag and it was full of bottle caps. Hammons would carry off a garbage bag of beer caps, but I didn't know why. He just said he was making a sculpture. Some long time after I saw the bottle caps nailed to a telephone pole like beadwork, and way up at the top was a basketball hoop and backboard on each pole. I knew right then that David was the best artist I had ever met, and he'd made these totems that were as tall as palm trees, beautiful painful urban African perfection.

In 1985 I was asked to produce the 14th edition of Eye Magazine from California, and it wasn't so much a magazine as an artist original book and the only one I'd seen was produced by my Oakland artist buddy, Roger Boyce, and I was one of the artists who'd contributed 155 copies in a series that would be bound together with about thirty artists to form Eye Magazine #13 - titled Small Arena For Heroics. (1983) I was happy to be a contributor and worked hard to make my page really cool, but it was no more than par for that course. I think Roger sold them for $20 and sold them all the same year. Roger was also an accomplished professional artist on his way to showing at the Corcoran, we grew up in the same hood in Hayward, he was part of the SF/SF Show, and a year after I moved to NY, Roger and his wife Beate Bruhl moved here.

I was living in New York for less than a year, renting a room in a loft in downtown Brooklyn and working as an art mover, and this woman I knew from Roger, Mary Seamster, was the person in charge of the EYE project, and she sent me a check to cover the cost of producing #14. I think it was $600 or $700. I asked every good artist I knew well enough and thought it was a good idea to ask writers, performance artists, gallery or museum curators to contribute 200 copies of whatever they wanted as long as it fit standard 11" x  8 1/2" paper dimensions. I had asked about 22 artists, and ended up with 17, but really sixteen because one artist from California dropped out after I'd started the printing process. I titled #14 Cobalt Myth Mechanics, and all I could tell the contributors was that everyone would get a copy, Mary would distribute a bunch in California, and we would have a party somewhere here in NY, sell books to friends and a book agent, Leon Klayman, bought them wholesale, then he sold in Europe and some institutions on the East Coast. I lost contact with Leon back in the 90's. Printed Matter sold them once the price went up to $200 in 1989 and I stopped making them. They also lost one. The printing process ruined two with bad punches. I'd over designed the covers, and the gray stock board for the covers would swell in high RH plus release discoloring acids that ended up burning the inside cover pages unless the books were kept dry in the dark.

Karen Finley was a well-known artist, I knew her from San Francisco, she was a jawdropping performance artist, and though she had reservations, figured 'what the hell', her friend Dona Ann was into it, so she typed the hilarious "I'm an Assman", and had them Zeroxed on red paper with a handwritten final sentence. About half the work in #14 was print shop based, but there were some great traditional graphic works, like Jeff Goodman's etchings, Vincent Desiderio's woodblock prints, or Cynthia Kuebel's paintings on paper. We didn't pay the artists, we had not enough to publish it and it was normal for artists to do anything to get the work out in public. I just thought it was all great fun, good art and attempts. a way to get a group of lesser-known artists in NY mixed in with curators and critics, and I would make a killer cover with a steel plate on it and the printer would bind them for $5 a piece after they figured out how to punch through the heavy backboard I'd cut into 400 sheets. The binding process and handmade covers were, in fact, killing me. Friskets and spray paint in my room stacked with piles of unfinished handmade books. They were so labor intensive each copy averaged over two hours after collating so I produced the copies in small batches, and in fact never finished more than about 150.

I asked David to contribute, and he said sure, he'd do it. When I'd collected just about all the work to start making the books, Hammons said I had to pay him, so I did, and I didn't even know what he was going to do, but I didn't care as long as he did something. I'd already begun the title pages for every artist and had set a launch date. He had me. Actually, I respected him for valuing his work, and I only knew a few artists that could survive on selling their work, and he could live on little. At least he seemed to. The East Village had a hot gallery moment then, but we weren't a part of it. David said they were a bunch of white kids from Risdee just working their connections, but I would have been happy to get into one of those cool little galleries but I didn't because they were gone before I figured out what I was doing as an artist. Hammons didn't seem to care - then he gave me a big stack of the recycled corrugated cardboard semi-graffiti spray painted screen stencils, The Man Nobody Killed, Michael Stewart, 1958-1984* I was so happy to get anything from him by then it took a long time to understand David had made a passionate ode to habitual injustice, and a kid with a spray can died for his art because authority will kill you if you defy it.
Even though I arrived in NY in September of 1984, I didn't know that much about Michael Stewart but had heard the cops killed him for tagging in a subway station - the 14th St. and First Ave. F train station. By the time I got here the uproar over the trial of the police that arrested Stewart had peaked because it's business as usual in New York over cops murdering citizens of color. (Eleanor Bumpurs, a disturbed old lady, fatally arrested by police shotgun, 1984) The defendant police officers were exonerated. The reason I didn't know as much about Stewart was because it happened in 1983, a year before I got here, almost to the day. The one Zerox patch of copy on the piece by Hammons has the date 1958 to 1984. David either blew the date, which is a little hard to conceive, or he did it to see if anyone would catch the date glitch. With David, I figure he knew, and it was another notch against stupid educated art people. He knew I didn't know shit, but then again I really didn't. I know I was having a hard enough time surviving 1985, because I got blindsided by a car while working as a bike messenger earlier that year and sustained a concussion, lost teeth, and gained 20 stitches on my face. That was an interesting year.

In spite of myself, EYE Magazine #14 was published in 1986, with a lot of help from Cynthia Kuebel, Dona Ann McAdams and the East Village Lesbians (a loose gang) that helped me get through 1985. The art made for #14 was much better overall than the bookbinder's choice of bookmaking. The choice of contributors was the luck of the editor and the freewheeling ways of being able to throw a wide net. The experienced artists' work for #14 has, maintained archival stability and easily weathered 26 years of whatever I put it through, except for the water damage that took out unbound copies in a basement flood. The publishing party was held at Baskerville and Watson Gallery in 1986 and the first customers I see in the ledger are Sherrie Levine, Joy Silverman (Director L.A.C.E.), and artist Nancy Evans. The first copies sold for $25. 30 were given to the artists and people that helped me in some way, 14 were given to EYE and Mary Seamster. The price of #14 rose through the years, though I had little to do with it. In my own procrastination I stopped binding by 1989, a kind of guardian angel of stasis that can curse or cure. I have managed to cart a small pile of untouched art made in 1985/86 because I didn't want them hole punched, or didn't care to try to re-enact a crappy binding process the work never deserved.

In that period (1986) David Hammons had created his famous telephone (Higher Goals) pole b-ball totems, and our time at 7th and B was past. I did start to get a bead on my art and was put into group shows by Bill Arning, Kathleen Cullen, Nayland Blake and that went on until I moved into video reporting in the early '90s. Every time I have seen David Hammons through the years he's always been a gentleman, a candidly unflinching critic of American everything, the impeccably dressed artist extraordinaire, and in my opinion, best known for "How You LIke Me Now?", his masterwork of Jesse Jackson ironically chiding the National Portrait Gallery. There are so few precision archers of his stature and ability. Although his work is in virtually every major museum from here to Europe, he maintains his cloak of unreachability, and no one within the highest channels of the art business can ever know whether he will return a call or letter, except for Lowry Sims or Thelma Golden. (His dealers, L/M Arts don't know what he'll do for an exhibition until Hammons lets them know)  He is my dark mirror to the sunny history painted by the winners. As for the other contributors to #14, it's another story, and as interesting for the little I really know about the elusive Mr. Hammons.

Cobalt Myth Mechanics EYE #14 - List of Artists 1986

Robert Atkins,
Perry Bard,
Jo Babcock,
Roger Boyce,
Vincent Desiderio,
Nancy Evans,
Tom Finkelpearl,
Karen Finley,
Jeff Goodman,
David Hammons,
C K Kuebel,
Dona Ann McAdams,
Tom Sarantonio,
Lori Seid,
Janice Yudell,
Jon Zax

Written 6/6/2011

Comments Add your own

  1. by GregThu Jun 28, 2012
    10:59 pm

    Paul,
    In your well informed opinion, how many of these were actually finished and bound?
    How many are still around but unbound?
    When you say you “carted around a pile of untouched art made in 1985/1986″ does this mean that the entire edition’s worth of unbound contributions could find their way into the art market?
    I have been trying to research the particulars of this in terms of numbers of finished bound books vs numbers of spare parts one might find out there in the world.

    Thanks, Greg Kucera

Spill Your Guts