In his first American museum survey exhibition, at the New Museum in New York City, Theaster Gates unites his artistic beginnings as a ceramics sculptor with the impressive amount of objects that he has acquired as an archivist, collector and friend to many. “Young Lords and Their Traces” follows the lineage of his artistic and archival practice through multiple histories.
The exhibition presents itself as an homage to religion, art, history, memory, but ultimately feels united by the presence of religion and spirituality. During the pandemic, Gates’ father passed. He also lost friends then; while he mourns the personal and collective losses, he also mourns the fact that he didn’t have time to mourn. In his own words, the exhibition is about “what it means to feel while making, what it means to miss people and what it means to make shape when people pass.”
The inherited exhibited objects include bell hooks’ bell, Gates’ father’s fur coat, Virgil Abloh’s sneakers, and meaningful objects from more of those in his life who have recently passed. Curator Massimiliano Gioni notes that the objects are “charged with stories.” But paying attention to only the weight and significance within these objects might distract from what Gates is trying to convey in “Young Lords and Their Traces.”
Gates remarked that his exhibition is about “how symbols help us live.” Many of his symbols are reminiscent of crosses and other religious iconography even though they seem mundane; for instance, a clothing rack. The rack holds two wooden hangers on each side, one holding a white fur coat (belonging to his father), and one empty hanger, noting an absence. Likewise, in a row of red books shelved on a wall, each book’s spine has gold lettering that reads as fragmented sentences. Somewhere in the middle of all these words, I found “Ben F. Chavis – Knows What It Means – To Be Hung From the Cross.”
Finding the heavenly in everyday spaces is a common theme in this exhibition, which is both monumental and modest. It is filled with many small, scattered objects, while quietly exposing larger histories. Gates says that his mother found God “in a converted bathroom.” His work titled “Bathroom Believer” is an homage to that idea, just as many works are homages to significant people in his life. The museum space becomes a metaphor for religion. I wondered if there was some connection between the two, and if Gates was making a commentary on how art history can feel like a religion, and museums can feel sacred.
On the fourth and last floor of Gates’ work, the religious theme is, quite literally, amplified. We enter what the artist calls an imagined “Doric Temple.” In the center, a Hammond B3 organ is positioned to play one note, “A Heavenly Chord” (2022). Surrounding the room, floorboards of the Park Avenue Armory adorn the walls. They also mimic cross shapes. Theaster transports us. The suspended note is echoing in a space of no time, only resonance.
Theaster Gates’ “Young Lords and Their Traces” at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York. Through February 5, 2023.