On ViewThe New Museum
Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces
November 10, 2022–February 5, 2023
Theaster Gates has always worked at the intersection of various practices. His multifaceted work encompasses craft, painting, sculpture, video, social practice art, performance, institutional critique and the art of the archive. He is probably best known as the impresario of the Rebuild Foundation and its offshoot, the Dorchester Projects. Located in Chicago, where Gates grew up and still lives, these initiatives focus on the revitalization of neglected and underserved communities. The latter, his signature project, involves the transformation of vacant buildings in the largely African American Dorchester neighborhood into local cultural centers in a manner initially pioneered by artist Rick Lowe in Houston.
At the New Museum, Young Lords and Their Traces presents Gates in a different light. Curators Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari have given Gates a free hand to design the show and he has filled three floors of the New Museum with installations, sculptures, paintings, videos, and salvaged objects that speak to a less public side of his work. As Gates notes in his catalog introduction, the exhibition “constitutes an important pivot within my practice – not away from the social, but a deepening, a ripening, of my practice toward objecthood that his been growing for the last decade.”
Though it veers from his social practice activities, the exhibition still emphasizes collectivity and recuperation. Gates imbues a strong ambiance of spirituality by paying homage in various ways to the powerful influence of the Baptist church on the South Side of Chicago that he attended as a child and where he participated in the church choir. The show is also, as he notes in the catalog, a memorial of sorts to various friends and mentors whom he has lost in recent years. These include curator Okwui Enwezor, who was a champion of Gates’s work; the writer bell hooks, with whom Gates became close near the end of her life and who is represented by a small bell she gifted him; fashion designer Virgil Abloh, memorialized here with such examples of his design work as running shoes and jewelry; and scholar Robert Bird, specialist in Soviet avant-garde cinema at the University of Chicago, whose entire library forms the centerpiece of one of the galleries. Gates’s late father, who was a roofer and builder, is recognized with his tar kettle, a large contraption used to soften tar before application.
Items belonging to these and other figures are enclosed in vitrines in a gallery with dimmed lighting, giving them the quality of secular relics. Gates, who began his career as a potter and still considers this a key part of his work, also pays respect to an important guide he never met, the enslaved potter David Drake, also known as Dave the Potter. In the antebellum period in South Carolina, Drake created and (unusually for an enslaved artisan) signed and inscribed powerful stoneware pottery, producing a legacy that Gates has helped revive. One of Drake’s pots is included here. Elsewhere in the show, another large display presents figurative African tribal sculptures and large black stoneware pots by Gates that partially riff on work by enslaved artisans like Drake.
Salvage extends to many of the objects on view. A set of Frank Stella-like geometric abstractions has been pieced together from wooden floorboards rescued from the Wade Thompson Drill Hall at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. A suite of tar paintings referencing his father’s livelihood were originally created for a Rothko chapel-like installation at the Serpentine Museum. A video combines art historical images compiled from the glass lantern collection of the University of Chicago’s slide library with snippets of voices from lectures, poetry and academic classes that underscore the discipline’s longstanding Eurocentric biases. Items rescued from dismantled Chicago buildings attest to the destruction of history that is inextricable from urban redevelopment. In a strategy recalling that of artists like Leonardo Drew and Mark Bradford, Gates creates modernist paintings and sculptures out of materials that evoke darker chapters in African American history.
The exhibition pushes beyond the social practice narrative that often eclipses other aspects of Gates’s practice and illuminates the existent tensions, not only between the public and the private, but also in terms of the aims of the work and its expected audience. Populist outreach lives alongside a highly intellectualized approach to art and culture. An immersion in the messy realities of social injustice sits alongside a cool minimalist aesthetic, here accentuated, and one might argue, exacerbated by the New Museum’s curatorial style. Is there a contradiction between Gates’s identification with the dispossessed and forgotten and his embrace by Chicago’s power brokers? Or between his avowed commitment to grassroots community organizing and the adulation he has received from the art world’s most august institutions?
These tensions are not always resolved, not that tensions always need to be. In Gates’s work they lead to a complexity that is rich but also vaguely troubling. One has the sense at times that he is skating over the surface of approaches more deeply mined by others. The many facets of his multi-disciplinary practice glitter like shards of glass from a broken vessel, but it is not always clear how they can be pieced together.