“I’m just starting to get my air legs again,” Theaster Gates says. After six, long months staying put in his native Chicago, the multidisciplinary artist flew to Marfa, Texas, for his birthday in August. “There were no tourists, all the buildings were closed, and I had total access to everything,” he says. “I got to spend time with the whole Judd situation, which is a big part of my jam, actually.” That affinity checks out: Like Donald Judd, whose creative vision hinged on how forms made from wood and steel and Plexiglas existed in space, Gates—a potter, professor, urban planner, and the leader of the Black Monks, an experimental music ensemble—has a knack for making the functional sublime. When his first solo exhibition in New York, “Black Vessel,” opens at Gagosian this weekend, the poetry of common, material things will very much be at the fore.
“It felt important that people who didn’t know that I love making objects should see the intensity of my love,” says Gates. “I’m super committed to winning and dying by the object.” Unlike Judd, who hesitated to classify his work as sculpture, Gates is less cagey, calling “Black Vessel” a “painting and sculpture show.” Yet those paintings are made from enamel, bitumen (or asphalt), wood, plastic, copper, and torch down (a roofing material), inspired by his father’s occupation as a roofer; and his sculptures vary from fantastic stoneware pots to a series of shelves crammed with the leather-bound archives of the Johnson Publishing Company, a Black-owned business once headquartered in Chicago (the installation Walking Prayer, 2018). Ultimately, Gates is as conversant with the tenets of Western art as he is with the art of presenting and preserving his personal history. “It would be easy for a Gagosian exhibition to try to do something bombastic or unsettling or something New York,” Gates says. “My impulse was to do the opposite: to get low to the ground, to keep it about my beginnings—which is, in a way, music, ceramics, and roofing—and to just allow myself to offer a humble introduction to my practice.”
Running parallel to that practice is Gates’s work with the Rebuild Foundation, established in 2010, which has turned vacant buildings up and down the South Side into vibrant cultural institutions. (He gave a TED Talk about it in 2015.) Although the scale and circumstances will be different—very different, in fact, with most indoor gatherings still verboten in New York—Gates is after a similar transformation at Gagosian. Using layers of blackened brick, he’s fashioned a sort of “sanctuary,” complete with music by the Black Monks, in one of the gallery spaces, carving out “a little bit of holiness” on 11th Avenue. “I’m committed to making spaces, and the spaces can allow for many things to happen, gatherings being one of them,” he says. “But I love these moments, like when I was in Rome, where you can walk into an empty church and there’s one person praying at a triptych by Caravaggio. The empty vessel in some ways feels even more holy, because you have a one-to-one relationship with the architecture and with silence.” He adds, “What we’ve had to do during COVID is just rethink how the spaces that could contain many might still reverberate if there’s only a few.”
“For us to have had our largest single gallery venue closed for six months, and to be opening with Theaster Gates’s exhibition, it feels like a kind of consecration of the space,” says Louise Neri, a director at Gagosian who has followed Gates since 2012. “It’s really such an amazing feeling to have had this work going on over the last two months, and to be opening with such a kind of transformation, and work that has such profound implications.”
Gates’s latest “roofing works,” or “tar paintings,” are another highlight; here, his obsessions with objects and spaces are quite literally collapsed together in a layered collage of torch down and other old roofing materials. Those materials, stripped from the buildings he’s bought and rehabilitated in Chicago, are some 60–70 years old—the same stuff that his father would have used.
Gates’s process isn’t unlike upcycling in fashion (“I’m transferring what would be wasted material into my raw material,” he says), with a mind to what stories the old fabrics hold. “This is Black space with guns and no jobs,” he says of the run-down neighborhoods where he’s purchased property. “This is Black space with closed and failed schools. And so I almost feel like I had to fragment Black space in order for people to see the beauty, and then re-stitch it,” he says. In the resulting “paintings”—weighty, textured works that visually recall the canvases of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko—Black histories and labor meet the codes of abstract art. “It’s like, what if we were to take the best of knowledge production and you sew that in, or you take the best of conceptual art practices and you weave that back into a Black identity, or you take the best of Japanese craft and you weave that into African ideology.” (On the topic of Japanese influence, Neri points out the certain wabi-sabi-ness of the tar paintings, as well as of Gates’s clay vessels.) To stitch and layer is to tell, in a way, the complicated story of the Black experience: “I feel like the work fragments as a form of survival,” Gates says.
Gates notes that his work these days is more emotional and spiritual than it used to be. “I think that early on in the visual artwork, I felt playful and ironic, and I was learning those chops from the white art world. Don’t take it too serious. Don’t be too sincere with it. Insincerity seemed to be the lingua franca,” Gates says. Now, however, he’s governed by a different sensibility. “I don’t have to prove whether or not I can make things, but I feel like it really matters how I spend my time. So chasing, chasing, chasing these materials, wrestling with them until they make sense, feels like a good use of my time.”
At a moment when so many of our experiences live online, an exhibition like “Black Vessel,” focused on handcrafts and history and physical environments, wields a special power. Gates can appreciate this too. “In a way that I’ve never been inclined, I’ve been mailing my friends small gifts, just using the postal service while it lasts,” he says, because just like everyone else, “my friends and myself were all starving for non-digital moments, you know?”
“Black Vessel” is on display at Gagosian from October 10 to December 19. Schedule a visit here.