Stroll through galleries, museums and studios, flick through auction catalogs and social media feeds, and it starts to become obvious: The art world is increasingly strewn with basketballs. “It’s like the best sport ever,” said Jonas Wood, who has become one of the world’s most sought-after painters while making basketball a recurring theme in his work.
Titans of art who contemplated the sport in years past are having their work revisited in basketball-specific shows. Younger artists are engaging with the game as avid fans, wary skeptics or nostalgic adults. And the market is responding.
Consider a cross section of recent exhibitions: Last summer, drawings by the influential artist David Hammons, made by bouncing dirt-covered basketballs on paper, appeared at Nahmad Contemporary on the Upper East Side in a show called “Basketball and Kool-Aid.” This spring, Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea presented basketball-themed paintings from Barkley L. Hendricks, who died in 2017, at an exhibition called “In the Paint.”
That was not to be confused with a hoops-oriented group show called “In the Paint” that opened this year at the Local Gallery in Toronto or another exhibition, also called “In the Paint,” a few years back at the William Benton Museum of Art in Connecticut. The Weatherspoon Art Museum, in Greensboro, N.C., had its own basketball-inspired group show, “To the Hoop,” in 2020.
“We filled a nearly 5,000-square-foot gallery, and really I could do a Part 2 and Part 3 because there is that much work out there that is strong work,” said Emily Stamey, the curator of exhibitions at the Weatherspoon, which experienced record-breaking attendance numbers in the opening weeks of the show.
The proliferation of basketball as both a subject and medium in art is the result of a convergence of multiple cultural currents and creative impulses, artists and others in the industry say.
The generation of artists currently reaching the height of their powers came of age alongside the exploding popularity of the N.B.A. over the past few decades, following the rise of players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Even artists who are not outright fans of the game said they observed how deeply it penetrated society.