Theaster Gates: Black Vessel
October 10 – January 23, 2020
It is extraordinary that this exhibition of work by the celebrated artist Theaster Gates is the first we have seen in New York. Titled Black Vessel, the show pulls apart various strands that have haunted contemporary art in recent years. The diversity and breadth of Gates’s work constitute a major leap over the trivial battles fought between late Modernism and Postmodernism, a leap that coincides with his instinctive understanding of the ways art has suffered through the analysis of repetitive jargon—as if this theoretical overload was necessary to prove that art itself remains present.
As an artist, Gates functions on his own track, in search of the larger truths of an everyday life where capital is permitted to exist unconstrained, where the history from which Gates’ work emerges takes a prominent and crucial role. This is a history that functions less as a singular premise isolated from the world of everything else, and more as a wide-ranging dilemma: why is it necessary for art to exist at all? This is a big question, through which Gates confronts the canons of various approaches to art history, the ideologies of the Black diaspora, and the artist’s presumed personal evolution to date. The artist attempts to locate the source of the titular Black Vessel, the perennial unfinished vessel, which he understands as a sacred reliquary composed of many histories, eons of critical time and space.
Several of Gates’s enthusiasts have referred to his common use of industrial materials ranging from roof tar, to cast iron, to his recent firing of bricks with manganese dioxide in high temperature kilns. One thing is for certain, Gates does not decorate, even as he retains the right to transform his attitude towards form and materiality. The tar on the roof may function as a sign of structural unity, while at the same time transposing itself as an episodic element within an abstract painting. This is shown in the first large gallery where tar paintings such as Top Heavy, Flag Sketch, and the extraordinary Left Hand of Progress (all 2020) become aesthetic counterpoints, emphasizing their materiality as they hover between roof and canvas. This purposeful ambiguity may suggest that repairing a leaking roof is no less important than completing an abstract painting—to Gates, both tasks play integral and intrinsic roles. As he says, “I wanted to take on the idea that being a roofer was good enough for painting, that in a way I could bring something to my history to this genre and to this field.”
Gates operates as a scholar whose perspective is informed most of all by his work as an artist. To separate one role from another would be misleading: to call Theaster Gates a painter would not be accurate, in that his allegiance to other forms of expression is equally essential to his identity. Just as Gates’s social and cultural obligations belong without separation to his worldview, Gates continues to develop according to a holistic sensibility, which is what finally constitutes his presence in art. He is committed to his past as much as to his future. As a young Black man raised in Chicago, Gates made a formative decision early on to accept the role of artist and go his own way. This is what, for the most part, it appears he has done ever since.
On another level, the title Black Vessel carries a certain mystique beyond materiality. Given this mystical quality, it is curious that one of the most striking installations in this Gagosian exhibition is a large assembly of vessels taken from various cultures, both simple and aristocratic, then re-cast and mounted in diverse configurations. In such an installation, the simulated, even kitsch-like, character of these myriad vessels is overwhelming, thereby raising questions as to the legitimacy of meaning presumably given to the original items. One might read this work as pushing the limits of decorum while, at the same time, behaving somewhat more abstrusely than the artist’s closing installations, which embed African American narratives in their conceptual origins.
At the conclusion of Gates’s sculptural installations, we come upon an immeasurable, sprawling space covered in bricks—this is not something one forgets easily. Within this space are housed the major works that conclude the exhibition: New Egypt (2017) and Walking Prayer (2018–2020). Each of these works involved “repositories of historic Black printed matter” tied to the legacy of the African American experience. New Egypt is a towering structure constructed in wood in which bound volumes of Ebony magazine have been placed in a tightly stacked formation. Here, the volumes of a publication that focused on the Black American middle class were bound in red, black, green, and dark gray—colors identified with the Black Power movement that emerged in the late 1960s.
Walking Prayer shares the same expansive spatial terrain, offering viewers a wide range of published books on the topic of what was once called the “Black experience.” The books in Walking Prayer were arranged on a cast iron “vehicle” using open-access library shelving, which gives the work a strong sculptural presence. This was further enhanced by discreetly rebinding each book in black, with language printed on each spine that, together, constitutes one long poem or performance. According to the press release, this was done to show that, finally, “reading becomes a processional act.” Meanwhile, a Leslie speaker amplifies a single chord from a Hammond B3 organ, which the artist understands as a fusion of Black church gospel and jazz, thus endowing the space with a sacralized presence.
What should be evident in the work of Theaster Gates is the artist’s desire for luminosity. His concerns extend beyond the foreseeable future. Where is the light? Where is the place where the artist settles into view, and can be seen and understood? This search for meaning cannot be trivialized. Gates is one of the most open-minded artists on the current scene, and clearly wants to connect the way he has chosen to live, see, and think with the realities of materiality and the forms that interest him. His idea of art is a big idea. He is tracing the past—his own past as an African American artist—as he moves from one place to another. His ideas go beyond the strata of the obvious. There is nothing at all obvious about Theaster Gates, nothing that suggests a single solution in his work. His presence is a re-awakening, a more involved understanding of what art should be. It is time to see again, and time to take notice of all that we may have missed.