My body is capital, my brain is capital, my hands are capital, and the byproducts of my hands are capital. And once I understand my own value, I think about spatial value, the value of other people, the value of people working together, the possibility of exponential value as a result of certain kinds of bodies rubbing up against each other.
Theaster Gates has incubated new models for artistic creation, social transformation, and building legacies. Traversing a vast array of methodologies encompassing sculpture, performance, and archives, he explores concepts of value and economy, as well as spiritual and material exchange, as they perform in charged social contexts.
Gates first began to work with clay at Iowa State University, Ames, where he received a BS in 1996. After graduating, he studied pottery in Tokoname, Japan, before receiving an MA in fine arts and religious studies from the University of Cape Town in 1998 and an MA in urban planning from Iowa State in 2006. These seemingly disparate interests came together in Gates’s oeuvre as early as 2007, in Plate Convergence at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago. For this performance piece, Gates organized a dinner party themed on a fictional tale of a cultural collaboration between a Black family and a Japanese ceramicist.
In 2010 Gates created the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit platform targeting neighborhood regeneration, community arts programming, and cultural development in Chicago. Many of the foundation’s initiatives have focused on revitalizing Chicago’s South Side—creating hubs and archives for Black culture that catalyze discussions about race, equality, space, and history. Two years later, at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, Gates expanded this redemptive urban initiative into a transatlantic correspondence with 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, in which two derelict nineteenth-century buildings—one in Kassel, the other in Chicago—underwent a mutual transmutation, whereby parts of each were reused in the rebuilding of the other, and the resulting spaces were consecrated with live performance.
Gates began his Civil Tapestry series, stitching salvaged fire hoses over wooden supports, in 2011. The resulting works appear abstract and minimalist but are historically charged; they evoke the Black American struggle during the Civil Rights movement, in which law enforcers broke up peaceful civilian marches with the violent use of high-pressure hoses. In 2012 Gates introduced tar as a medium in his work, with a series of textural, high-relief paintings in tribute to his father’s occupation as a roofer. Sometimes featuring footprints and drips, these paintings literally and metaphorically equate making a roof with making art. In a subsequent series of scarred bronze wall reliefs, he immortalized the rough, tar-papered surfaces of Chicago roofs in a sculptural material that is ancient, noble, and universal.
Gates started the Black Madonna Press in 2018, distributing materials drawn from his expansive collection of print media and archival photography. His project Black Image Corporation (2018–) promoted new awareness of the legendary Johnson Publishing Company, which was responsible for circulating positive and glamorous images of Black middle-class life through culturally influential magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Selections of images from the vast Johnson Publishing Company archive, along with relics from the corporate offices, have featured in Gates’s exhibitions at institutions including the Kunstmuseum Basel (2018), Osservatorio Fondazione Prada, Milan (2018–19, traveled to Gropius Bau, Berlin), and Haus der Kunst, Munich (2019–20).
Since 2009 Gates has led the Black Monks, a musical ensemble channeling traditional secular and religious Black music through experimental forms of improvisation and dialogue. Gates has brought his performative practice into the museum, including his ongoing series Processions—held at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, between 2016 and 2019—which investigates “sonic imagination” and celebrates Black history and culture through music workshops and recitals. In 2019 Gates brought B.A.R. (Black Artists Retreat), a project of cultural exchange that he has held yearly since 2013 at his studio in Chicago, to the Park Avenue Armory in New York.
Gates is a professor at the University of Chicago and director of artist initiatives at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He was artist-in-residence at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, in 2018–19. In 2017 Gates was awarded the Artes Mundi 6 prize and received the French government’s Chevalier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.
January 23–March 14, 2020
Britannia Street, London
Blanc sur Blanc
January 16–March 7, 2020
An Exhibition for Notre-Dame
June 11–July 27, 2019
Extended through July 13, 2019
June 10–July 13, 2019
February 12–March 23, 2019
Theaster Gates: Black Vessel
Join Theaster Gates in his studio as he prepares for his upcoming exhibition at Gagosian, New York, this fall. In this video, shot entirely on location in Chicago during the recent tumultuous weeks, Gates reflects on the metaphorical power of materials and process, and on the redemptive potential of art.
How to Renew the Color of Bricks
Social historian Chris Dingwall reflects on Theaster Gates’s engagement with the history of quotidian materials, focusing on the symbolic qualities and function of his brick-based sculpture.
Cast of Characters
James Lawrence explores how contemporary artists have grappled with the subject of the library.
Theaster Gates: Amalgam
Theaster Gates’s exhibition Amalgam explores the social histories of migration and interracial relations by highlighting the specific history of the Maine island of Malaga. Here, William Whitney considers the exhibition in relation to Gates’s ongoing art practices and social commitments.
Gagosian Quarterly Winter 2019
The Winter 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a selection from Christopher Wool’s Westtexaspsychosculpture series on its cover.
The Studio Museum in Harlem
Established in 1968, the Studio Museum in Harlem has served as a crucial institution in the development, presentation, and promotion of artists of African descent. With the museum now preparing for the construction of a new home, Gagosian’s Mark Francis spoke with Thelma Golden, director and chief curator, and Sir David Adjaye OBE, the project’s principal architect, about the building plans and the centrality of artists in their collaboration.
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019
The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.
Behind the Art
Theaster Gates: Slate Wall Drawing
Theaster Gates’s exhibition Amalgam at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, features some of the artist’s slate wall drawings. Watch as Gates creates one of these works in this time-lapse video, featuring music by Theaster Gates and the Black Monks.
(RED) Auction 2018
Theaster Gates and Sir David Adjaye join Bono to spearhead (RED)’s third auction of contemporary art and design, raising funds for the global fight against AIDS. As Gagosian prepares the preview exhibition, Gillian Pistell looks at the urgency of this vital cause.
Gray Sound Sessions
Friday, July 31, 2020, 7–8pm edt
Theaster Gates and special guests will perform Gates’s sound piece Whoa de Whoa as part of Gray Sound Sessions, a free streaming weekly music-and-sound series featuring concerts, happenings, and experiments with form and platform. The event is put on by the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago. To watch the live performance, visit Theaster Gates’s Instagram.
Photo: courtesy Theaster Gates Studio
Black Vessel for a Saint
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has permanently installed Theaster Gates’s Black Vessel for a Saint (2017) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. In 2014, St. Laurence Church, located just a few blocks from Theaster Gates’s Chicago studio and considered an architectural beacon in the neighborhood for more than a century, was demolished. Among the objects and materials that Gates collected from the building was a life-size stone statue of St. Laurence, a venerated Roman martyr and the patron saint of librarians and archivists. Gates included the statue in several exhibitions in Europe, revealing new meanings in each location, before placing it in its permanent home in the Sculpture Garden in 2017, within a shrine built from custom-made black bricks.
Theaster Gates, Black Vessel for a Saint, 2017 © Theaster Gates. Photo: Gene Pittman
Visions of the City
Theaster Gates was selected as the second recipient of the Visions of the City artist grant in July 2019. Launched by the Obayashi Foundation in 2017, the program awards one research grant every two years to an artist with an abundance of creative ideas and a specific interest in urban development and renewal.
Through August 16, 2020
Haus der Kunst, Munich
For the sixth iteration of Haus der Kunst’s Der Öffentlichkeit commission series, Theaster Gates has created the expansive Black Chapel. This multipartite installation directly responds to the architecture of Haus der Kunst’s Middle Hall, exposing it to a complex politically and spiritually charged narrative while rendering it as an inviting social space. Two large pavilions, as well as vitrines, contain sculptures, photographs, and documents. Rotating mirrored sculptures and illuminated panels displaying photographs from the landmark Johnson Publishing Company further animate the space.
Installation view, Theaster Gates: Black Chapel, Haus der Kunst, Munich, October 25, 2019–August 16, 2020. Artwork © Theaster Gates
The Black Image Corporation
Through December 5, 2020
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta
As an ongoing concern, Theaster Gates’s Black Image Archive examines the legacy of the Johnson Publishing Company archive, which contains more than four million images and helped shape the aesthetic and cultural vision of modern African American identity. Founded by John H. Johnson in 1942, the company created Ebony and Jet, two key periodicals for Black American audiences. Gates’s participatory exhibition invites visitors to actively explore the archive, which includes images by Moneta Sleet Jr. and Isaac Sutton, among many others.
Photo: Isaac Sutton, courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. All rights reserved
Theaster Gates and Cauleen Smith
Opening August 2020
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Bringing together the work of two interdisciplinary artists, this presentation centers on video projections that each take archival magazine photography as a departure point. Theaster Gates’s Do you hear me calling? Mama Mamama or What Is Black Power? (2018) pays homage to the power of women by exploring the idea of the Black Madonna through a reworking of three decades of images drawn from the archives of the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines. Smith’s Sojourner (2018) culminates with a feminist reimagining of an unpublished photograph taken for Life magazine in 1966.
Theaster Gates, Do you hear me calling? Mama Mamama or What Is Black Power?, 2018 (still) © Theaster Gates
December 13, 2019–May 3, 2020
Tate Liverpool, England
In Amalgam Theaster Gates explores social histories of migration and interracial relations by focusing on a specific episode in the American narrative concerning the forced eviction of Black and mixed-race residents from the island of Malaga off the coast of Maine. The artist’s interest in this historical event has given rise to new sculptural, architectural, filmic, and musical perspectives in his oeuvre as he critically examines the history of land ownership and race relations in the northeastern United States. This show has traveled from the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
Installation view, Theaster Gates: Amalgam, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, February 20–May 12, 2019. Artwork © Theaster Gates. Photo: Chris Strong