What may all the people who found themselves passing through Cooper Square, New York, on a Sunday, February 13, 1983, have ever thought, seeing a man selling snowballs? Not many years have passed since then, but many things have changed. And perhaps, given the times, today we would be less surprised to see such a seller, we would ask ourselves far fewer questions. Perhaps no one would ever find out that it is an art performance.
Actually, since its author David Hammons never spent time publicizing it, the pictures of that performance — existing in several versions — took some years to become the iconic series which then made David a famous artist worldwide. Called Bliz-aard Ball Sale and captured by Dawoud Bey, the piece brings to life everyday issues that Americans faced in the 1980s, a sort of continuation of some of Hammons’ previous work like Pissed Off from 1981.
Born in Springfield, Illinois in 1943, David moved to Los Angeles in 1962, attending CalArts from 1966-1968, and the Otis Art Institute from 1968-1972, where he was inspired by artists such as Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, Charles White, and Chris Burden. After his move to New York in the mid-1970s, he disengaged from two-dimensional works, preferring to devote his practice entirely to sculptural assemblage, installation, and performance.
The one chosen for Bliz-aard Ball Sale was the day after Abraham Lincoln’s 174th birthday, in the year the artist would turn forty, the age at which John Coltrane, one of his idols, died. Dressed with savoir flair, David hawks his wares, one in his mittened left hand, various icy others carefully arranged according to size on a striped “North African rug”. He shaped the globes—balls as much as ballistics — in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s dart-objects —, with the readymade assist of graduated molds he found at Canal Plastics. Tossing into conceptual free fall wisecracks about selling ice to Eskimos or what a snowball in hell has a chance to do, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, curator and art historian Elena Filipovic discerns, “was thus not only a decidedly ephemeral counterproposal to the art world and material lust of the ’80s. It must also be recognized in the context of an era when countless black men and women were pushed even further into the margins of society.”
In pulling this creation off, David has also clearly demonstrated his ability to communicate with his audience. Here, he is seen selling snowballs in winter. Is there anything that screams “scam” more than that? In this regard, we might conclude that the artist is telling us that what we call business could be nothing other than a collection of fraudulent activities. After all, he built a reputation for creating stuff that depicts what happens in daily life. He once commented that “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol”.