Few artists make work as wide ranging as that of the Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist Theaster Gates, whose art encompasses ceramics, cooking, sculpture, music, performance, film, and land development. It also includes what art historians generally call social practice—a medium that focuses on art as a means of social or political engagement—although Gates resoundingly rejects the term.
Gates’s projects may at times seem unrelated to one another; what connects classic clay vessels, canvases covered with roofing material, a Black Madonna figure, the revival of neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, and a neon sign reading “Burn Baby Burn” emblazoned above 5,000 records from the personal vinyl collection of DJ Frankie Knuckles? In fact, there are identifiable threads running through the whole of his oeuvre.
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“I’m a potter, which seems like a fairly humble vocation,” Gates told a Ted Talk audience in 2015. “I know a lot about pots. I’ve spent about 15 years making them. . . . I spent a lot of time at my wheel with mounds of clay trying stuff. . . . The limitations of my capacity, my ability, was based on my hands and my imagination, [and] if I wanted to make a really nice bowl and I didn’t know how to make a foot yet, I would have to learn how to make a foot—that process of learning has been very, very helpful to my life. I feel like, as a potter, you also start to learn how to shape the world.”
At Iowa State University, Gates studied urban planning and ceramics, then spent a life-altering year in Tokoname, Japan, sharpening his pottery skills, an experience that reverberates aesthetically and conceptually in his work to this day. He later received a master’s degree in religious studies and fine arts from the University of Cape Town. In addition, he is a musician; his ensemble, The Black Monks (formerly The Black Monks of Mississippi) makes music rooted in Southern Black traditions as well as Asian monastic chants.
In November, New York’s New Museum opened the midcareer survey “Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces,” which acknowledges his manifold influences, from his parents to writer bell hooks to film scholar Robert Bird to color-field artist Sam Gilliam. At the opening of the show, on view through February 5, 2023, he told viewers, “The art isn’t about art. The art is about deep belief in the power of human beings to make each other better, that we might all become our better selves.”
As an introduction to Gates’s art, here’s a look at six of his key works.