Lot 2: DAVID HAMMONS, “African-American Flag,” 1990 (dyed cotton, edition of 5). | Estimate $700,000-$1,000,000. Sold for $2,050,000 (including fees)

 

NEARLY THREE DECADES AGO, David Hammons hoisted his newly created red, black, and green “African-American Flag” (1990) above Museum Overholland. He was participating in “Black USA,” a group show organized by Christiaan Braun, director and curator at the Amsterdam museum.

Recognizing the lack of exposure and awareness of African American artists in Europe, Braun organized the exhibition of seven artists with the intention of presenting a broad group with distinct practices. He selected Hammons, Jules Allen, Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Martin Puryear, and Bill Traylor. No African American women were featured in the show.

Based in New York, Hammons had been working in Europe at the time and was already known for the insightful comments on race and society imbued in his installations, performances, and mixed media sculpture and paintings. The “African-American Flag” was among the works Hammons contributed to “Black USA” (April 7-July 29, 1990).

The 1990 flag was executed in an edition of five and an example from the series was offered at auction for the first time at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 18 in New York. Consigned by the Collection of Over Holland, the work was expected to yield $700,000 to $1 million and sold for more than $2 million (including fees), twice the high estimate.

WHEN HE PRODUCED THE FLAG, Hammons was inspired by two disparate symbols: The U.S. flag and the Pan-African flag adopted by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League in 1920. Realized in red, black, and green, the UNIA flag’s powerful palette would continue to symbolize Black Power and the African Diaspora into the 1960s, 70s and beyond. The artist also drew from the stars and stripes design of Old Glory. Hammons’s hybrid interpretation brings into sharp relief the mixed messages of America’s checkered history.

There are many accepted myths about the origins and meaning behind U.S. flag that are not grounded in fact. Regardless, the American flag is universally viewed as a banner of freedom and justice. Yet, America’s march from a colonial outpost to a visionary nation and world power is intertwined with Native American slaughter, 400 years of slavery, Japanese internment, Jim Crow, and the latest backlash against Muslims and immigrants.

In turn, the “African-American Flag” is an emblem for a people, a shared history, experience, and outlook. Today, a version of the flag flies out front of the Studio Museum in Harlem. A beacon of pride and cultural affirmation, it’s a political statement that feels powerful and especially suited to the historic neighborhood and the groundbreaking institution that describes itself as “the nexus for artists of African descent.”

The flag flies out front of the Studio Museum in Harlem. A beacon of pride and cultural affirmation, it’s a political statement that feels powerful and especially suited to the historic neighborhood and the groundbreaking institution.


July 19, 2015: DAVID HAMMONS, “African-American Flag” 1990, flies outside the Studio Museum in Harlem. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

ONE OF THE ORIGINAL FLAGS from the 1990 series is also in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. A gift from The Over Holland Foundation, the work was acquired in 1997. An example of the work is in the Pizzuti Collection in Columbus, Ohio too.

In 2014, an “African-American Flag” was displayed at the grand opening of Jack Shainman’s upstate New York location in Kinderhook. Flying atop a pole in front of the old school building that now houses white-walled gallery spaces, the flag anticipated an inaugural exhibition of works by Nick Cave. Hammons’s flag also flew in Long Island City, greeting visitors to MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” exhibition in 2015.

Earlier this year, it was presented in Paris in “The Color Line: African American Artists and Segregation” (Oct. 4, 2016-Jan. 15, 2017), the group exhibition at musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac.

SINCE ITS CREATION, the flag has been invoked in the broader art world, drawing attention to the irony that threads Hammons’s practice. Its sheer existence and prominent display over the years gives voice to the artist who has had a conflicted relationship with the “art world,” and brings to the fore the race and social justice issues raised in his work.

This month, it was a major lot at Phillips. One has to wonder if the symbolism and meaning of Hammons’s “African-American Flag” is diminished when it’s bid up to $2 million at an art auction where the monied one percent places value on a work intended to draw contrast between American justice, freedom, and opportunity and the reality experienced by many African Americans who, despite their contributions to the nation’s progress, across generations, haven’t always felt represented by red, white, and blue of the U.S. flag. In this context, there is a real absurdity. Or, perhaps, therein lies its strength and power. CT

 

READ MORE about artist resale/royalty rights here and here

 

BOOKSHELF
Over the years, David Hammons’s work has been documented in a number of collectible catalogs. Published in 1991, “David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble” celebrates two decades of his practice. More recently, “L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints,” offers an historical overview of the artist’s practice and the Los Angeles assemblage movement of the 1960s and 70s. Last year, catalogs accompanied important exhibitions at Mnuchin Gallery in New York (“David Hammons: Five Decades”), a career survey billed as the first of its kind in 25 years, and the George Economou Collection in Athens (“David Hammons: Give Me a Moment”), the artist’s first major show in Greece, and first survey in Europe. A rare interview with Hammons conducted by art historian Kellie Jones appears in her book “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art.”