This Painting of Jesse Jackson as a White Man Provoked a Sledgehammer Attack
Perhaps more than any other midterm race this year, Georgia’s gubernatorial contest between the Republican Brian Kemp and his challenger, Democrat Stacey Abrams, exposed just how much racism still pervades our electoral system. In addition to statewide voter suppression issues, a white supremacist group issued racist robocalls against Abrams—the country’s first major-party black female candidate for governor. To what degree did the candidates’ race influence the outcome—still undecided, as of publication—of yesterday’s election? It’s an uncomfortable question, forcing us to consider the prejudices (both structural and personal) that still influence who the country votes for, and why.
Jackson was very much on the country’s mind when Hammons received his commission, part of WPA’s fall 1989 exhibition, “The Blues Esthetic: Black Culture and Modernism.” With the show, organizer Rick Powell (WPA’s co-director at the time) hoped to explore blues musicians’ influence on modern artists. Other contributions included a 1966
The title also gives Hammons’s work a brazen edge that’s quite fitting for its subject. Jackson got his political start in the fight for civil rights, working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After King’s 1968 assassination, Jackson formed Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), which supported inner-city students and employment initiatives for African-Americans. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Jackson became a prominent figure in the news, renowned both for his work with PUSH and his rousing rhetorical style. He imbued his speech, as Joyce Purnick and Michael Oreskes wrote in a 1987 New York Times profile, with “a dramatic, almost messianic fervor.” In 1984, he founded the National Rainbow Coalition, which promoted gay rights, in addition to gender and racial equity.
In 1984 and 1988, Jackson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Interestingly, Purnick and Oreskes quote David Axelrod as saying about Jackson, “He’s got an enormous innate sense of the media.” Decades later, Axelrod served as the chief strategist on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.) Jackson lost the campaigns to Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, respectively. In 1984, one campaign advisor criticized media attention in the New York Times, stating that journalists had offered a racist and narrow portrait of Jackson as a “one-dimensional preacher with a mouth.”
Jackson was a perfect subject for Hammons, who already had a history of creating provocative artwork about racial prejudice. Throughout the 1970s, he incorporated images of spades into his paintings, prints, and sculptures. “Spade,” of course, had long been a racist epithet; Hammons manipulated the symbol to reclaim the word for himself and his oeuvre. The sculpture Spade with Chains (1973) (in which real chains thread through a real spade) eerily links the term to the history of slavery.
As part of a 1986 project for Public Art Fund entitled Higher Goals, Hammons mounted basketball hoops onto Brooklyn telephone poles and adorned them with over 10,000 bottle caps. Between 20 and 30 feet high, the hoops were clearly dunk-proof. “It’s an anti-basketball sculpture,” he once said, according to a 2011 book by Dr. Kellie Jones and poet Amiri Baraka. “Basketball has become a problem in the black community because kids aren’t getting an education. They’re pawns in someone else’s game.” The work advocated “higher goals” for black youth than playing basketball.
With How Ya Like Me Now?, Hammons offered an ironic take on a prominent black figure, critiquing popular perceptions about him—and not (according to the elusive, press-shy Hammons) deriding Jackson himself. Yet the artist’s stance wasn’t clear to local passersby. A group of men began yelling at the WPA members mounting the work, then smashed it with a sledgehammer the team had been using. They believed that the painting itself was racist.
Powell told the Washington Post that he was devastated by the destruction (the journalist, Elizabeth Kastor, notes that Powell is black, as were the vandals). Powell told Kastor that Hammons’s work asks “a simple yet profound question to viewers: Are our likes, dislikes and expectations of people based on their race?” How would Jackson have fared in the media, and our elections, if he was white? If the vandals’ anger was misdirected, it was still indicative of nationwide angst about this eternally fraught topic.
Frank Watkins, communications director for the Rainbow Coalition, offered a statement on behalf of Jackson. “This particular artist gave artistic expression to…what African American people have had to live with,” he said (according to a second Kastor article), “and that is if Jackson were white, he would be president.…Apparently, the pain of that kind exploded among some people, and that’s why the destruction took place.”
The vandals’ reaction, then, became crucial to the piece and its meaning. When Hammons mounts the piece now, he places a row of upside down sledgehammers before it. They separate the viewer from the artwork. As symbols of destruction, they honor the viewers’ anger with a reverential position in the art museum.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.