David Hammons’ Holy Bible: More Than a Testament to Duchamp


Chris Felver, Portrait of artist David Hammons, New York, New York (1999). Photo: Chris Felver / Getty Images

When picturing the holdings of a library and archives, certain images come to mind. Perhaps chief among them are books stacked high on shelves, periodicals dating back years and rooms full of files overflowing with papers documenting important events, people and ideas.

In the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives, you’ll find these items – and many more hidden gems. One such treasure is The Holy Bible: Old Testament, a limited-edition artist’s book by NYC-based David Hammons. The Gallery’s edition is one of just 165 made by the artist (no. 33).

This unique acquisition appears at first glance to be the sort of Bible a family might pass down through the generations. Yet contained within a leather slipcase measuring 34 cm long, 27.5 cm wide and 6 cm thick, it wouldn’t fit easily in a bedside table drawer.

Remove the book from its sleeve, and its gilded edge and leather-bound cover continue the ruse. But when opened, there’s no biblical scripture. Hammons has replaced the pages with an appropriation of Arturo Schwarz’s The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, volumes 1 and 2, ingeniously using the artist’s catalogue raisonné to create a 1002-page work that binds the two together, all the while exploring the concept of the readymade.

Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1969. Reproduced with permission of Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1943, Hammons moved to Los Angeles in 1962 and studied art at the Chouinard Art Institute, now the California Institute of the Arts, from 1966 to 1968. He continued his studies at the Otis Art Institute until 1972 before settling in New York City in 1974. An African-American painter, sculptor and performance artist, Hammons rose to prominence in the 1970s by addressing issues including race, sexuality and politics. His wide-ranging practice has seen him make prints using his own body, sell snowballs on the street and use basketballs to create drawings by repeatedly bouncing them against a piece of white paper. Like Marcel Duchamp, Hammons also had a fascination with readymades.  

Duchamp, a French-born, then naturalized American artist, is well remembered, among other things, for his pioneering use of readymades – found objects that he modified in some way without significantly changing the objects, that are then placed in the context of a gallery to elicit a reaction. One of his first was a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool: Bicycle Wheel (1913).

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel (1913, 6th version 1964), bicycle fork with wheel mounted on painted wooden stool, 126 x 64 x 31.5 cm overall. Purchased 1971, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Marcel Duchamp / SODRAC (2015)

But it was in 1917 that a Duchamp readymade really made a splash. Fountain, a urinal he upturned and signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” was entered in a New York art event that he helped stage called the Society of Independent Artists Foundation. The work caused intense outrage and was removed before the exhibition opened. A photograph of Fountain was later published in Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché’s art and Dada journal, The Blind Man, where it was praised for changing viewers’ attitudes towards an object.

Hammons plays with this concept in his creation. If his book was placed without explanation in a gallery setting, it could be mistaken for a readymade, yet as an artist’s book, it serves another purpose.

Artists’ books endorse the manufactured product as a form of art. They are produced in unlimited quantities, using techniques associated with industrial reproduction and distribution. In the spirit of Duchamp’s readymades, the multiple art object becomes a subversive art form. The hand is withdrawn completely from the creation of a multiple and the object’s very multiplicity undermines the making of unique works of art. No single copy takes precedence over another, nor is it more desirable or valuable than another. In Conceptual art, the idea as art takes precedence over the object.

With the gold script that reads “Old Testament” on the spine of the book, Hammons may be suggesting that future generations could have something new to add to the work Duchamp, the artist considered to be the father of readymades and conceptual art.


David Hammons’ The Holy Bible: Old Testament, along with nearly 1900 other artists’ books and 700 artist multiples and three-dimensional objects, can be viewed by appointment at the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada.

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