Just as workers from the Washington Project for the Arts completed installation yesterday of a controversial portrait of Jesse Jackson as a white mana group of about 10 knocked the painting down with a sledgehammer. "How Ya Like Me Now?," by New York artist David Hammons, was left in pieces in a parking lot at Seventh and G streets NW after a tense rush-hour confrontation between three white WPA employees and the group of black men, who felt the painting -- created by a black artist -- derided Jackson. The city had prevented the work from appearing on the streets for six months, giving permission for the outdoor installation only last week. The confrontation started when one man stopped to talk to the three WPA employees, who were working on the piece. He was soon joined by others, who appeared to be in their early twenties, said WPA employee Elizabeth Curren. Although some of them seemed to know each other, others did not, and Curren believed the gathering was spontaneous. "There was a lot of yelling that we were white and had no right to do it," Curren said last night. "They were very angry and started to accuse us of violating the essence of Jesse Jackson by putting this piece up. They shouted a number of things at us, such as what right did we have to make him with blond hair and blue eyes, and how would we feel if Abraham Lincoln was up there and he was black." Eventually one of the men said, "I'm going to bring it down," according to Curren, and grabbed a sledgehammer that had been used for the installation. The men knocked most of the painting down, and then stamped on the pieces. "It felt like suddenly everything had gone over onto the wild side, and it was getting dangerous," said Curren, who left the site with her colleagues, none of whom was hurt. WPA acting co-director Rick Powell, who curated the show that included Hammons'spainting, arrived as the attack was ending. "I think they thought it was an insult to Jackson," said Powell, who is black. "If they were to analyze the piece, it was very obviously anything but that. I was absolutely devastated because I actually saw the end of the event, and the people proceeded to walk over to the bus stop and take the bus." The picture asks "a simple yet profound question to viewers: Are our likes, dislikes and expectations of people based on their race?" Powell said. Hammons depicts a Jackson with blond hair, blue eyes and pink cheeks. WPA director of programming Philip Brookman, who was not present during the attack but who had been at the site much of the day, said most of the painting -- which was constructed to come apart along straight lines -- is damaged but not destroyed. The pieces knocked down from their scaffolding were taken to WPA last night, but the top section -- showing the upper half of Jackson's eyes, one ear and his forehead, topped by curly blond hair -- remained standing at rush hour last night, about 15 feet from a Metro stop. Even before yesterday's attack, the painting had become the latest artwork to be trapped between the competing interests of artistic expression, public opinion and government involvement in the arts. The portrait, which measures 14 by 14 feet and is painted on tin, was intended to be one of seven public artworks in WPA's exhibit "The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism," which will close on Dec. 9. Although curator Powell got city permission for the other pieces to be installed around the District, he was unable to get approval for the Hammons painting until last week. Deborah Daniels, public relations director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, which owns the site at Seventh and G, said earlier this month, "When I looked at the piece, the first thing I thought was, 'That's Jesse Jackson in whiteface.' "The issue is not art criticism," Daniels said. "This agency does not have a current policy on installation of portraits on city property that could be considered controversial and would open the city to severe public opposition." Jackson, who has not commented on the portrait, has been touted as a possible candidate to oppose Mayor Marion Barry but has not said he will run. Another city official, who asked not to be identified, said earlier this month, "Public art ought to reflect the interest and sensitivity of the community. The piece in question is political satire, and that is not always understood." But late last week, the city agreed that the painting could be installed. WPA officials said they were given no reasons for the delay or the approval. Yesterday morning Brookman, Powell and others began work. "All day long people had been making comments," said Brookman. "Some people thought it was really a wonderful piece, it was very important, a wonderful statement. Some people would laugh at it, because they would get the joke of it. Others would walk by and be really offended by it, that someone would treat an icon like Jesse Jackson this way." Late yesterday Powell tried unsuccessfully to reach Hammons, who is in Rome on a prestigious Prix de Rome fellowship, to tell him what happened and discuss what to do with the painting. "I think he's one of the few artists I know whose work really elicits comments from people," Powell said of Hammons. "I think David is someone who is really immersed in and uses African American culture to make statements. His works may not take a realistic or naturalistic approach to the culture. They use irony, satire -- that's part of their strength. I think that's part of their wit -- I think that's part of their African American wit. "I think simply the people who did this were not willing to go beyond a superficial understanding of this. On one hand, I really can understand their frustration, particularly when it comes to images of blacks when they're used and abused in the greater media. At the same time, I felt this was a particular instance of a black artist, in a show organized by a black curator, really coming from a black perspective, when I hoped this wouldn't be an issue." Curren said of the attack, "It was very sad, and yes, it was frightening. We were not trying to attack an icon, a wonderful man. We felt like we had been hoping this would be part of furthering a dialogue, and so it was pretty awful to have it go the other way. On the other hand, this was a small segment of the population that passed by. And many of the people who passed by were very supportive." Last night, the eyes remained on Seventh Street. Some people passing by glanced at the site, others walked by without noticing. Hollis Griswell, however, a friend of one of the WPA staffers present at the attack, made a special trip to the painting. "I'm terrifically disappointed," he said of the attack. "It smacks of the worst kind of spontaneous censorship." Staff writer Reuben Castenada contributed to this report.