David Hammons Untitled, 2000; Crystal, brass, frosted glass, light fixtures, hardware and steel. Image courtesy David Hammons
Toronto‘s got terrific sports teams. Not the kind that have seen anything like a championship or cup since 1993, but enough to provide plenty of excitement for me year round. I love basketball, and from the moment I heard newly-recruited Toronto Raptor Kawhi Leonard‘s laugh, I was a superfan. I admired his preternatural calm, found his poker-face frankly hilarious, and his work ethic and talent spoke for themselves. Thrillingly, Leonard, known as “The Claw,” led the team his entire first season with the club. And in last night’s conference semi-final do-or-die game 7 against Philadelphia, he launched a buzzer-beating fadeaway jumpshot that bounced off the rim…four…times…before sinking into the basket and clinching the series for the city.
What does this have to do with art? Seriously, nothing. But by way of celebrating a moment of sheer, uncomplicated excitement, I thought I’d highlight some contemporary artworks that focus on the subject of basketball. These works are by turns deeply emotional, reflective, passionate, or cooly detached, and couldn’t be described as uncomplicated in the least.
The Los-Angeles based Wood has chosen basketball, and sports at large, as one of the central themes in his body of work. The flat planes of his naïve-style paintings and prints often feature portraits of professional athletes and equipment rendered as still lifes. Already a heavy-hitter in contemporary auctions, this spring is a big one for Wood, whose solo show at the Dallas Museum of Art opened in May, with a concurrent 3-month exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, NYC.
Jonas Wood, Collaboration Appropriation 4, 2015, acrylic and oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Jonas Wood & David Kordansky Gallery
Hammons has examined basketball’s place in the African-American male experience through multiple media over several decades. Among the most evocative of these works are his “basketball drawings,” created by bouncing a basketball into Harlem dirt and then onto paper. This performative act alludes to opportunities both realized and missed—possibility and futility—rendering an abstract, cloud-like image imbued with significance.
David Hammons, Basketball Drawing, 2001, Harlem earth and graphite on paper. Image courtesy of David Hammons and Mnuchin Gallery
Perhaps best known for his wall-sized mixed-media collages incorporating both traditional and found materials, Bradford has also addressed basketball’s place (and absence) in his life through his video work, Practice. As a 6-foot 8-inch man of colour, he’s recounted being told over and over again, often by strangers, that he should play the sport. The video was a response to the assumptions that drive that commentary, as well as an exploration of notions of race, gender and sexuality. Having chosen to defy those narrow expectations and pursue a career as an artist, the video’s title has a double entendre that refers to Bradford’s sacrifice for his own passion, the pursuit of his own practice.
Mark Bradford, Practice (video still), 2003, single-channel video, 3 minutes. Image courtesy of Mark Bradford and Hauser & Wirth, London & Los Angeles
Love him or leave him, Koons’ One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank just might be the most recognizable basketball-centric contemporary artwork around. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a Damien Hirst, though this Spalding readymade from 1985 is suspended in water, not formaldehyde. By appearing to hover in midair, the ball at hand is devoid of the constraints of gravity or a narrative arc—it is literally going nowhere. This offers the viewer an opportunity to consider the object for its aesthetic values entirely, as Koonsian kitch, or for the myriad cultural connotations it denotes.
Jeff Koons, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series), 1985, glass, steel, sodium chloride reagent, distilled water and basketball. Edition of 2. Image courtesy of Jeff Koons
I first noticed Mohamoud’s work in Georgia Scherman‘s booth at 2018’s Art Toronto fair. The London, Ontario-born artist examines basketball from the viewpoint of a black Canadian, as well as that of a woman. Her 2016 sculpture, Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams) consists of 60 concrete basketballs, weighing 30 pounds each. As a woman who was discouraged from her desire to play sports as a young girl, and forced to conform to gender norms that felt foreign to her, she uses the almost 2,000 pound work to represent those deflated dreams, as well as those of her male peers who perceived basketball as one of few pathways to social mobility.
Esmaa Mohamoud, Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams), 2016, sixty solid concrete basketballs. Image courtesy of Esmaa Mohamoud
In Hawaiian-born artist Paul Pfeiffer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse series, still images from NBA games are doctored to remove specific allusions to basketball altogether, leaving behind players in poses both heroic and tragic. For more on this series, see my dedicated blog post (vintage! from 2014) here.
Paul Pfeiffer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 2004. Fuji Digital chromogenic print. Image courtesy of Paul Pfeiffer
Cheers to a promising postseason!