David Hammons was born in 1943 in Springfield, Illinois, the youngest of ten children of a single mother. In 1962 he moved to Los Angeles, where he started attending Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) from 1966 to 1968 and the Otis Art Institute from 1968 to 1972. There he was influenced by internationally known artists such as Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, and Chris Burden, but was also part of a pioneering group of African-American artists and jazz musicians in Los Angeles, with influence outside the area. In 1974 Hammons settled in New York City, where he slowly became better known nationally. He still lives and works in New York.
Much of his work reflects his commitment to the civil rights and Black Power movements. A good example is the early Spade with Chains (1973), where the artist employs a provocative, derogatory term, coupled with the literal gardening instrument, in order to make a visual pun between the blade of a shovel and an African mask, and a contemporary statement about the issues of bondage and resistance. This was part of a larger series of "Spade" works in the 1970s, including Bird (1973), where Charlie Parker is evoked by a spade emerging from a saxophone, and Spade, a 1974 print where the artist pressed his face against the shape leaving a caricature-like imprint of Negroid features.
In 1980, Hammons took part in Colab's ground-breaking The Times Square Show, which acted as a forum for exchange of ideas for a younger set of alternative artists in New York. His installation was made of glistening scattered shards of glass (from broken bottles of Night Train wine).
Other works play on the association of basketball and young black men, such as drawings made by repeatedly bouncing a dirty basketball on huge sheets of clean white paper set on the floor; a series of larger-than-life basketball hoops, meticulously decorated with bottle caps, evoking Islamic mosaic and design; and Higher Goals (1986), where an ordinary basketball hoop, net, and backboard are set on a three-story high pole - commenting on the almost impossible aspirations of sports stardom as a way out of the ghetto.
Through his varied work and media, and frequent changes in direction, Hammons has managed to avoid one signature visual style. Much of his work makes allusions to, and shares concerns with minimalism and post-minimal art, but with added Duchampian references to the place of Black people in American society.
On James Turrell's works concerning perception of light, Hammons said "I wish I could make art like that, but we're too oppressed for me to be dabbling out there.... I would love to do that because that could also be very black. You know, as a black artist, dealing just with light. They would say, "how in the hell could he deal with that, coming from where he did?" I want to get to that, I'm trying to get to that, but I'm not free enough yet. I still feel I have to get my message out."
Along with his focus on cultural overtones, Hammons’s work also discusses the notions of public and private spaces, as well as what constitutes a valuable commodity. An illustration of these concepts can be seen in Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), a performance piece in which Hammons situates himself alongside street vendors in downtown Manhattan in order to sell snowballs which are priced according to size. This act serves both as a parody on commodity exchange and a commentary on the capitalistic nature of art fostered by art galleries. Furthermore, it puts a satirical premium on "whiteness", ridiculing the superficial luxury of racial classification as well as critiquing the hard social realities of street vending experienced by those who have been discriminated against in terms of race or class.
Also noteworthy is the artist's use of discarded or abject materials, including but not limited to elephant dung, chicken parts, strands of African-American hair, and bottles of cheap wine. Many critics see these objects as evocative of the desperation of the poor, Black urban class, but Hammons reportedly saw a sort of sacrosanct or ritualistic power in these materials, which is why he utilized them so extensively.
In "The Window: Rented Earth: David Hammons," an early solo exhibition at the New Museum, Hammons dealt with the diametrically opposed relationship between spirituality and technology by juxtaposing an African tribal mask with a modern-day invention—a child’s toy television set.
Hammons explored the video medium, collaborating with artist Alex Harsley on a number of video works, including Phat Free (originally titled Kick the Bucket), which was included in the Whitney Biennial and other venues. Hammons and Harsley have also collaborated on installations at New York's 4th Street Photo Gallery, a noted East Village artist exhibition and project space.
In a show at L & M Arts in uptown Manhattan (January 18–March 31, 2007, his first authorized New York show since 2002, although there have been unauthorized surveys), Hammons collaborated with Japanese artist Chie (Hasegawa) Hammons in a piece that enjoyed public acclaim. In the posh uptown gallery specially selected by Hammons (who does not accept to be associated with any one gallery), they installed full-length fur coats on antique dress forms—two minks, a fox, a sable, a wolf and a chinchilla: "Hammons and his wife have also painted, burned, burnished, and stained the backs of all of these coats, turning them into aesthetic/ethical/sartorial traps.... Hammons has said that he wants 'to slide away from visuals and get deeper.' At L & M, not only does Hammons do this; along the way he conjures thoughts of shamanism, politics, consumerism, animism, genre painting, animal rights, and jokes. Here, we're treated to a sensibility as barbed, serious, maybe fearsome, and as passionate as any in the art world."
Hammons’s African American Flag is a part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He also has work in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Paris; The Tate, London; and other museums and collections.
Hammons received the MacArthur Fellowship (popularly known as the "Genius Grant") in July 1991.