Elena Filipovic, David Hammons: Bliz-aard Ball Sale
Afterall Books 2017
February 1983: a man in coat and scarf stands on a sidewalk among various street vendors at Cooper Square in downtown New York City. At his feet, a collection of perfectly spherical white forms, arranged according to their sizes, sits atop a striped North African rug. No sign adorns this display, but its intention is clear. This man is selling snowballs.
The man, of course, is David Hammons, and his now iconic Bliz-aard Ball Sale is the subject of Elena Filipovic’s eponymous book, part of Afterall Books’ One Work series, in which an artist or art historian discusses—you guessed it—a single art work. And there is much to discuss about Bliz-aard Ball Sale. For starters, the work’s only documentation, two rolls of color and black-and-white slide film taken by photographer Dawoud Bey, provides scant evidence of what exactly the Sale entailed. Furthermore, because Hammons didn’t publicize his artwork—part performance, part public art, part dig at minimalist sculpture and the contemporary art market—those who witnessed it did so by chance, and they didn’t apprehend it as art. Bey notes that this was also by design: “Most people just looked and laughed, they just thought it was so bizarre. And so perfectly comical—a man standing on the street selling snowballs. It wasn’t even an Artist on the street ’cause that would have ruined the effect. It was just a man on the sidewalk selling snowballs.”
Those who witnessed it did so by chance, and they didn’t apprehend it as art.
Filipovic analyzes Hammons’s elusive, hilarious, and brilliant Bliz-aard Ball Sale in a number of ways. Through meticulous archival research and close study of Bey’s photographs, she reconstructs the details of the Sale, including Hammons’s assembly of the display and his interactions with passers-by (it does seem that he sold at least one snowball), and offers her own compelling formal analysis. She also discusses Hammons’s uneasy relationship with the contemporary art worlds of the 1970s and 1980s, his engagement with African American history and culture, and his fascination with the streets of New York, especially Harlem, from which he gleaned ideas for his works simply by looking closely at the people and things that populated them. The resultant book is eminently readable; Filipovic’s clear language guides us through short sections that illuminate Bliz-aard Ball Sale by shining light on these different contextual threads. Each line of inquiry leads back to that day in 1983, and we are able to see the Sale, Hammons’s oeuvre, and the varied world of art and commodity through a new lens.