“Outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol,” Hammons has remarked. The artist constructed Untitled (Night Train) using found objects from the streets of New York—bottles of Night Train and Thunderbird, inexpensive brands of alcohol. The ring of bottles is embedded in a pile of coal which, together with the work’s title, evokes Black culture and lore from the underground railroad to the Freedom Train. The work’s components also combine to create visual puns: the coal and Night Train bottles form the name Coltrane, while the Thunderbird bottles allude to another great jazz saxophonist, Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Gallery label from 2020
Untitled (Night Train) is one of a series of circular or semicircular sculptures that Hammons fashioned from liquor bottles collected from the streets and vacant lots of New York. The graceful arching ring of clear and green-tinted bottles is embedded in a circular pile of coal. Each element is emblematic: the bottles are those of the cheapest popular brands of alcohol in the late 1980s, Night Train and Thunderbird, and the coal reinforces the work’s allusion to trains, an image that figures prominently in African American culture and lore.
“Outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol,” Hammons has reflected. Since the 1960s, the artist’s many assemblages have engaged questions of African American identity, urban culture, and racial stereotypes through the use of evocative, frequently discarded materials such as hair clippings, paper bags, and basketballs. Often the works also represent pointed visual puns. Here, for example, the triangulation of materials and words—“Night Train” and coal—can be combined to form the name Coltrane, a salute to the renowned African American jazz saxophonist and composer, while the Thunderbird bottles allude to another great jazz saxophonist, Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)