Taking place across three floors of the museum, this exhibition will encapsulate the full range of Theaster Gates’s artistic activities, featuring artworks produced over the past twenty years and site-specific environments created especially for this presentation. Gates has titled the exhibition “Young Lords and Their Traces” in honor of the radical thinkers who have shaped his home city of Chicago and America as a whole. For Gates, collective forms of knowledge are built across objects, images, sounds, movements, and most importantly, through the relationships between people. This survey exhibition will comprise a choreography of works including paintings, sculptures, videos, performances, and archival collections that work together to memorialize both heroic figures and more humble, everyday icons. Gates’s elevation of these quieter sources of knowledge, and his assertion that collecting and archiving are forms not only of preservation but also of devotion and remembrance, have made his work reverberate both locally and internationally.
Gates emerged in the early 2000s with a sculptural practice characterized by its use of salvaged materials and deeply researched interdisciplinary histories—a mode of working that he maintains today. The elegiac formalism of Gates’s large-scale tar paintings, experimental clay vessels, and immersive architectural installations can be linked to both personal and collective narratives of labor and spirituality. Alongside his early sculptural production, Gates has undertaken an ambitious project to revitalize his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago by transforming unused buildings into experimental spaces for the exploration of Black culture. In recent years, Gates has linked these activities by rescuing a variety of historical collections of images and objects in Chicago and creating architectural spaces and sculptural structures for their preservation and dissemination to wider audiences.
Through “Young Lords and Their Traces,” Gates will reimagine the function of a museum as a space for personal histories and spiritual convocations. As part of the expansive exhibition, one entire floor of the New Museum will be transformed into a kind of personal museum, gathering artworks, artifacts, and mementos connected to influential figures in Gates’s life and career who have passed away in recent years: curator Okwui Enwezor, writer bell hooks, and Gates’s own father, among others. While tinged with a sense of loss, Gates’s recent work creates a network of intellectual and aesthetic affinities across generations. The result is less a map of personal obsessions than an assembly of voices in which the viewer is invited to participate. Combining an intimate, poetic sensibility and a sense of civic commitment, Gates’s work reimagines art as a form of social sculpture that can open up new modes of collectivity and knowledge production even in the most surprising contemporary settings.
“Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces” is curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson Artistic Director, and Gary Carrion-Murayari, Kraus Family Senior Curator with Madeline Weisburg, Curatorial Assistant. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog copublished by the New Museum and Phaidon featuring new essays by Jessica Bell Brown, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Ryan Dohoney, Coco Fusco, and Dieter Roelstraete, and an interview between Theaster Gates and Massimiliano Gioni.