For someone whose work is so closely associated with a particular place – a series of culture-driven urban regeneration projects the artist has masterminded on Chicago’s South Side – Theaster Gates certainly gets around. And not just, as is the case of many of the artworld’s leading lights, because his works circulate from gallery shows to biennales to art fairs to other arts festivals around the world. Over the past few weeks he’s been in Basel, Paris and Nairobi (where he was invited to help a friend conceive a retreat for black artists), and now he is talking on the phone from the streets of Washington, DC (his exhibition The Minor Arts will open at the capital’s National Gallery of Art in March) and discussing his upcoming show at White Cube’s Hong Kong branch. But then again, the creation of a balance between the specific and the universal is arguably one of the keys to his art. As much as is a careful attention to time management.
Gates’s second show in Hong Kong opens this March. His first, in 2013, titled My Back, My Wheel, My Will, introduced the Pearl of the Orient to the ‘roofing’ paintings (made using tar and other materials – wood, felt, rubber, etc – associated with the roofing industry) that he has been making since the retirement of his father (a roofer). His new show, Tarry Skies and Psalms for Now, will among other things demonstrate how the series has developed. His father’s life of work, Gates points out, gave him the opportunity to get to where he is today. ‘It’s completely sentimental,’ he has said of the origins of the series in an interview with Carol Becker, ‘the objects are just the things that allow me to continue the relationship with my dad.’ And yet, while the roofing works may have started from the personal and biographical, they end up in a formal dialogue with some of the biggest (white) names of twentieth-century American art – Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Agnes Martin – aided and abetted by titles such as Diagonal bitumen (2014). Of course, Gates’s intrusion into the history of American narratives also has a political and racial agenda. New York and, previously, Chicago may still be absorbing the triumphant retrospective of works by Kerry James Marshall that recently passed through their cities, but “it’s time to acknowledge in a big way the history of black painting”, Gates says now.
If the dense reliefs of the tar paintings are, as Gates puts it, “similar” to artworks such as the paint-encrusted canvases produced by Abstract Expressionism (often billed as the first specifically American art movement to achieve widespread international recognition), they distinctly differ from them as well. For what begins as a tribute to the black labour that constructed the housing in his hometown ends with an example of postlabour – the way in which the skills of Gates, his father and the team of roofers with whom the artist creates his roofing works can be repurposed to create poetic artworks in an age in which their contribution to the construction industry no longer has great value. They earn more per hour working for him then they did making roofs, Gates points out, and learn (at times to their amazement) that their work can have a conceptual as well as a practical value. Indeed, during our conversation, the artist often speaks of his role as building a sense of the “poetic”, the “sacred”, and conjuring the “symbolic” in everything he does.
On a basic level, Gates and those who write about him tend to cultivate a romantic Robin Hood-image of his activities as an artist. He sells artworks to the rich in order to fund projects – largely administered by the artist’s nonprofit Rebuild Foundation – that boost knowledge production, community building and self-empowerment for the overlooked and underresourced. It’s a win-win situation: his collectors are complicit and willing participants in the artist’s system (at this stage a psychiatrist might talk about assuaging various forms of guilt), and the artist gets to work on and fund his larger, urbanscale projects back home. This relationship found its most literal articulation in Gates’s Bank Bond (2013) – which comprised bonds, bearing the slogan ‘In Art We Trust’ and signed by the artist, made from the marble partitions of urinals located in Chicago’s Stoney Island State Savings Bank, that Gates, who had bought the derelict building (for $1) from the city in order to transform it into an arts hub and archive (containing the books of John H. Johnson – founder of Ebony and Jet magazines – the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, godfather of Chicago house music, and a slide collection documenting art and architectural history) sold in an edition of 100 for $5,000 each at that year’s Art Basel. He has said that he and his team spend ‘10 percent of our time making the art that makes 90 percent of the money that’s helping us grow’. And central to all of Gates’s work, which spans painting, sculpture, ceramics, installation, performance and various forms of urban regeneration and planning, is the creation and transfer of value.
In this, of course, Gates’s output as a whole points to the heart of current debates about art and the class divisions (intellectual as much as financial) that dominate what we so casually call ‘the artworld’: debates about the economic versus the conceptual value of art. One brief gloss on this divide came during a recent late-night conversation with a curator who pronounced of this year’s upcoming European art jamborees that “Venice is for the collectors and Documenta is for the curators: Venice is for the work of fundraising and seeing art that has been endorsed by the market, and Documenta is for the work of discovering new artists and new practices”. What is so interesting about Gates’s practice as a whole is the way that it recognises and exposes the existence of such divisions while at the same time exploiting them in order to mobilise the resources of communities as a whole. Something similar was certainly at work in 2015, when Gates famously announced, on winning the £40,000 Artes Mundi Prize, “Let’s split this motherfucker.” Although it’s also a reminder of the role that generosity and a general interest in and curiosity about what other people are doing plays in Gates’s output.
As to his latest adventure in Hong Kong, Gates is fascinated by the hyper-rapid spread of private museums and other urban developments on the mainland. He hints at discussions begun – concerning the development of community involvement, neighbourliness and sacredness in such projects as well as the problems of neighbourhood displacement and “under-preserved spaces” – and ready to be followed up. But more than that, he’s interested in reaching out to new audiences on the basis that they open up new possibilities for dialogue: “I’m starting conversations,” he says. And given his presence in Washington, it seems only fair to end by asking him whether his country’s new president has changed the nature of any of his conversations back home. “I don’t think he really cares about what happens on the South Side of Chicago,” says Gates, laughing. “But it makes me work harder.”
Theaster Gates’s Tarry Skies and Psalms for Now will be on view at White Cube, Hong Kong, 21 March – 20 May; Theaster Gates: The Minor Arts is at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, through 4 September.
From the Spring 2017 issue of ArtReview Asia