Poetry, power and loss in Theaster Gates' survey

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Poetry, power and loss in Theaster Gates' survey
“A Heavenly Chord” (2022), created with a Hammond B3 organ and Leslie speakers, on display in Theaster Gates’s exhibition “Young Lords and Their Traces” at the New Museum in New York, Nov. 8, 2022. The instruments, popularized by Black churches when the technology came on the market in the 1940s, will be played each Saturday during the show. (Elliott Jerome Brown Jr./The New York Times)

by Aruna D’Souza

NEW YORK, NY.- At the heart of Theaster Gates’ survey at the New Museum, “Young Lords and Their Traces,” sits a curious, mummylike object in a vitrine: a boli sculpture — a power figure created by Bamana artists in Mali to harness spiritual energy. It was crumbling when the artist acquired it, so he wrapped it in strips of white cloth.

This wasn’t simply an act of conservation — it is linked to how the figure was made by those Bamana artists, who swathed wood in fabric before covering it in clay and other sacrificial materials. The move exemplifies what Gates calls “generative care”— tending to the past by carrying its lessons into the future.

It is a notion that seems to inform his whole practice. He rose to fame by reviving a neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side, purchasing vacant and distressed properties and transforming them into artist studios, affordable housing, and performance and exhibition spaces. Part of this work involves training and employing residents in the skills required to renovate and furnish the buildings. He has rescued archives such as the record collections of Olympian Jesse Owens and house-music pioneer Frankie Knuckles, and materials from Black-owned Johnson Publishing Company, whose titles included “Ebony” and “Jet,” so that they can be discovered by new audiences.

And — as demonstrated in this ambitious and elegiac exhibition, his first at a New York City museum — he has reckoned with the lives and lasting influences of lost friends, family, and other Black radical thinkers and makers, among them Nigerian American curator Okwui Enwezor, Black feminist writer bell hooks, designer Virgil Abloh and his own father. The show both grieves their passing and reflects on the emancipatory possibilities of their ideas. He sees them as latter-day Young Lords, a Puerto Rican organization founded in Chicago in 1969. Scorned by the white establishment as a street gang back then, it is now recognized as an important force in community organizing and activism and has been a model for Gates.

Spread over three floors of the museum, consisting of about 100 objects, and surveying the past decade of Gates’ career, with an emphasis on new work, “Young Lords and Their Traces” makes sense of what has sometimes seemed to be a contradiction between the pragmatism of Gates’ social practice — as much about the nuts and bolts of fundraising and red tape as anything — and the poetic idealism of his other art. These include ceramics, paintings, sculptures and installations, sometimes connected to performances, and often incorporating found objects and historically charged materials.

He speaks of all these activities in spiritual, even animistic terms. No matter the medium, Gates is motivated by a desire to connect Black people to their past and to one another. He draws upon a wide range of tools to make that happen — from Japanese spiritual traditions and minimalist painting in his object-making, to mortgage financing and sometimes unlikely political alliances in his urban interventions.

The show is divided into three parts, starting on the second floor, which curators Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari said Gates conceived as a kind of personal museum. It centers on a red-painted, low-lit gallery of antique vitrines from the storage rooms of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which Gates has filled with items that map his personal and artistic universe.

Among these are archival materials related to the Young Lords; a tiny bell, gifted to him by bell hooks; works by Chicago ceramist Marva Lee Pitchford-Jolly, one of Gates’ mentors; a vessel by David Drake, known as Dave the Potter, who practiced his craft while enslaved in South Carolina in the 19th century; the crest from a demolished Chicago building; and poems from the living to the dead — from Arthur Jafa to Abloh, from Gates to Pitchford-Jolly. On the wall is an Agnes Martin drawing; nearby is a paint-spattered boot Sam Gilliam used to wear in the studio.

Some are precious, by the standards of a museum. Others are not. All are worthy of attention.

Archives are the backbone of this floor. Gates is a keeper of repositories dedicated largely to Black experience. But there are outliers, including the recently donated library of film scholar Robert Bird, shown here for the first time. Like many others memorialized in the show, Bird died young — from cancer, at age 50. His 4,500 books, arranged on vintage library shelving, focus on Soviet avant-garde film, especially that of Andrei Tarkovsky.

The otherwise inert display is galvanized by a letter hanging nearby. Written by Bird’s widow, art historian Christina Kaier, who placed the library in Gates’ care, it is addressed to her lost husband: “You will ask, and exhibition goers will also wonder: What is this meeting? What is my library of Russian literature, cinema, and philosophy doing here, in the midst of Theaster’s Black aesthetic space? I think you know the answer: it’s the care for the archive and its heavy weight of histories and knowledges, as well as its promise, that animates you both.”

Labor — both the intellectual labor of someone such as Bird, but also everyday work — has always been at the center of Gates’ thinking. “Seven Songs for Black Chapel #1-7” (2022) is a series of elegant abstract paintings originally created for the artist’s recent project at the Serpentine Museum, “Black Chapel.” Made using roofing materials, they refer to the trade of his father, Theaster Gates Sr., who died in May. Nearby sits “Sweet Chariot” (2012), a tar kettle passed from father to son, which Gates describes as “a memorial to the history of labor and the ways in which labor is a beautiful, spiritual way of transmitting energy.”

The third floor of the museum is, in Gates’s shorthand, the “clay floor.” He started out as a ceramist, drawing on vernacular African American pottery and by Japanese traditions he learned while studying the craft in Tokoname, Japan, in the mid-1990s. The installation here recalls the studio or workshop. About 40 ceramic and stoneware objects sit on the floor or on pedestals, like a gathering. A group of 24 are part of a 2022 series titled “Black Vessel for the Traces of Our Young Lords and Their Spirits,” whose abstract forms evoke both the body and the funerary urn.

The presentation is flanked by two galleries showing videos that effectively tease out Gates’ understanding of creation as a form of communion: “Billy Sings Amazing Grace” (2013), focusing on the Black Monks, a musical group Gates has led since 2009, and “A Clay Sermon” (2021). The latter is a meditation on pottery as a simultaneously solitary art and an occasion for congregation; Gates, in the voice-over, adopts the intonation of a Sunday preacher.

Evocations of spirituality continue on the chapellike fourth floor. Many of the artworks here are made from the original, old-growth-pine floorboards of the Park Avenue Armory that Gates obtained while organizing one of his Black Artists Retreats there in 2019. He transforms the wood into a series of reliefs modeled on Frank Stella’s striped “Black Paintings” from the 1950s, and a shed that holds the bell saved from St. Laurence Church, a gathering place in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood that was demolished in 2014.

At the center of the room is “A Heavenly Chord” (2022), consisting of a Hammond B3 Organ and a series of Leslie speakers mounted on the wall like a wired Donald Judd sculpture. These instruments, popularized by Black churches starting in the 1940s, will be played every Saturday during the exhibition.

In the show’s catalog, Gates cites the “shamanic conceptualism” of German postwar artist Joseph Beuys as inspiration for his work. Referring to Beuys’ sculptures, he writes that “the objects had power not simply because Beuys decided they did, but because he believed, and let others believe, that they had power.”

It’s not hard to see how Gates’ ability to inspire his collaborators and his audiences to change the conditions of their lives has been a key to his success. This show has the power to create many more believers.

But the contradictions still chafe. Take, for example, “A Maimed King” (2012), a glass-and-metal poster case with a crumpled photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. caught inside. Gates gleaned it from a shuttered school and presents it as both a memorial to the civil rights leader and a nod to the racist policies that have left neighborhoods such as his bereft of public support.

It is undoubtedly poetic. But what’s left out in its presentation is that it was precisely one of Gates’ biggest advocates in his urban renewal work — former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — who closed more than 50 schools in the city, largely in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

‘Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces’

Through Feb. 5 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan; 212-219-1222; newmuseum.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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