The New Museum Runs from Religion in the Work of Theaster Gates
For almost 20 years, the artist Theaster Gates has been resuscitating a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side called Greater Grand Crossing by purchasing, renovating, and repurposing unused buildings as artists’ studios, screening rooms, and archives for the exploration of Black culture. This thread of social activism and community runs throughout the artist’s first major American retrospective, Young Lords and Their Traces, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Although there are over 100 objects installed through the museum’s three main floors, the show feels less like a retrospective and more like a snapshot of where Gates is right now, honoring the impulses and influences that have brought him to this celebrated position. The well-received exhibition includes works related to his ongoing social practice, as well as a suite of tar paintings titled Seven Songs for Black Chapel #1-7 (2022), a large congregation of sculptures and pottery, several haunting films, and installations of objects and artworks salvaged and collected over time.
What might be surprising to contemporary American museum visitors is that spirituality and Christian religion frame this exhibition. Gates grew up in the Baptist church, and it is reflected in his art and commentary. On prayer, he has said:
Prayer is a process. It is an act that solidifies a present moment with an inconceivable, invisible future. Prayer gives sound form to our deepest desires. In this way, prayer is a process, not unlike making. If making is a way to give material form to our thoughts, prayer is a way of materializing our hearts.
He opens his film A Clay Sermon (2021) at the museum by declaring, “In the beginning was clay. Clay was without form,” a close rephrasing of Genesis 1:1-2 in the Torah. Gates was originally trained in ceramics, and a large gallery in the museum is dedicated to these works. Nearby, another film also invokes a house of worship, Billy Singing Amazing Grace (2014).
On the top floor, an organ connected to multiple speakers and a bell salvaged from a South Side Chicago church take center stage among artworks made from old pine floors of the Park Avenue Armory. Here, the artist has refashioned wood in the form of Frank Stella’s 1958-1960 Black Paintings – one of which is included in the exhibition on a lower floor. The wall text defines Gates’ work relative to Stella’s noting “Gates’ minimal forms deliberately suggest more intangible experiences through his use of religious symbols like the cross and reliance on material gathered from spaces with distinct histories.” I’d go farther; it seems that Gates’ work here represents something that is almost in opposition to that of Stella.
In Helen De Mott’s Arts Magazine review of Stella’s 1960 show at Castelli Gallery, she says, “There is no occultation in the Castelli gallery this month… At its most profound, the work would seem to do homage to a kind of philosophic nihilism.” Stella himself has promoted this notion, as he famously said in 1964, “What you see is what you see.” But, for Gates, it isn’t just what you see – it’s what the material, the location, the circumstance, the artist, and those before him, have brought to the piece that makes it resonate.
It’s unusual to see a major New York contemporary art museum host an exhibition so shaped by this religion and its spiritual aims. The installation, and Gates’ work, are so compelling and strong that perhaps the curators were willing to overlook what might otherwise fall outside their general purview. But, while Gates’ imagery come through clearly here, even the museum’s wall texts seem to sidestep the direct issues. Consider that the epigraph to Gates’ 2021 show at Whitechapel Gallery in London read, “O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.– Isaiah 64:8” In New York, neither religion nor church are mentioned in the opening introductory wall explanations.
Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces is on view at the New Museum (235 Bowery, New York, NY) through February 5, 2023.