Theaster Gates: The Rise of an Unconventional Art Star

Theaster Gates believes that good art can rescue bad neighborhoods. Here’s how he has convinced the international art world to buy into his vision.

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Gates’s many collections pack a former Anheuser-Busch building he owns.

Gates’s many collections pack a former Anheuser-Busch building he owns.

Gates’s art career can be divided into two phases: pre- and post-Whitney. Before the Biennial, he was relatively unknown beyond Chicago. Afterward, he began fielding calls from collectors, offers of high-profile artist residences and fellowships, and career-defining invitations—such as one from the curators of the 2012 Armory Show in New York City to be the year’s featured artist.

Each of Gates’s post-Whitney exhibitions was bigger and more ambitious than the one before. At the Milwaukee Art Museum, for example, he showed sculptures made from discarded Kohler sinks and invited scores of vocalists from the city’s gospel community to join him in songs inspired by the slave ceramicist-poet Dave the Potter. At the London gallery White Cube—which represents Damien Hirst, Chuck Close, and now Gates—he hung a salvaged 1967 Ford fire truck from the ceiling to reference the use of fire hoses on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. He did so against a backdrop of thousands of bound Ebony and Jet magazines. “What better way to support African American artists than to give them material to use in their art?” says Linda Johnson Rice, the Johnson Publishing chairman and Gates collector who greenlighted the magazine donation.

An art object (one made from old fire hoses)
An art object (one made from old fire hoses)

But no project quite illustrates the scope of Gates’s ambition like 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, which he unveiled last summer in Kassel, Germany, at the sprawling contemporary art fair Documenta 13. Coproduced by the MCA (which got first dibs on the sequel, 13th Ballad), 12 Ballads was his biggest feat yet: a real-estate mash-up more extreme than any stunt on HGTV. It involved the teardown and partial reconstruction of an abandoned Grand Crossing house inside a hulking vacant German apartment building.

Gates says that he was inspired by the ideas of servitude, migration, and black labor. But this explanation is elliptical and, in typical Gates fashion, confusing. When asked about it recently, he said that the Kassel installation—assembled over the course of two months with about a dozen Americans and Germans who lived, worked, and partied in the house—allowed him to engineer a solution to two “big ass” forlorn buildings: one left to rot in Chicago and the other in Kassel, which had been heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II.

Tate Modern curator Mark Godfrey, writing for the magazine Frieze, said that he was moved by the intimate reality of the house and how Gates’s team repurposed everything. Even the beds in which they slept—also on display—were made from wood planks carted in from Chicago. Godfrey described Gates as “a master of testing out well-meaning white curator-critics like myself”—suggesting that Gates uses his confrontational stage persona in part to manipulate the mostly white art establishment.

That’s the closest thing to a criticism of Gates that you’ll find in the art press—or from talking to people familiar with his work. (We know; we talked to nearly two dozen.) Because he has “staked out a very broad territory,” as James Rondeau, the Art Institute’s chief curator of contemporary art, puts it, just about everyone has skin in the game when it comes to Gates’s success. No one in Chicago’s arts community wants to see his star wane: He has brought it the oxygen of international acclaim. People who have invested in the betterment of the South Side certainly don’t want to see him fail. Nor does the U. of C., which has made him the face of a crucial community outreach program in Washington Park through its new $2 million arts incubator. And, of course, the wealthy people who collect his art and the galleries that sell it to them will lose if the value of his work falls.

For 13th Ballad at the MCA, Gates has loosely planned a three-part display in the museum’s atrium, says Kate Hadley, his studio and exhibition manager. A large double cross will be suspended from two beams and feature compartments that hold souvenirs from the Documenta 13 show; an altar will be constructed of salvaged wood. Gates is also incorporating 13 discarded pews carted out of the U. of C.’s interdenominational Joseph Bond Chapel. The pews will represent a “huge big-E ecumenical experience,” says Gates.

It wouldn’t be a Gates show without performance. He and his band will appear three times, and South Side church choirs have been invited to participate. Separately, in a fourth-floor screening room, video will loop of performances from Grand Crossing and from Kassel.

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