What surprised me most about “Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me,” Theaster Gates’ new exhibit at White Cube Gallery in New York, was his use of color. When I reviewed Gates’ first American museum survey exhibition, at the New Museum almost exactly a year ago, his use of wood and paper struck me in those materials’ poetic sensibilities. The works were black, white and grey. The artist honed in more solely on rubber this time, a material he uses often in an homage to his dad, who was a roofer. At White Cube, tar paintings hang along the walls of the gallery. They remind me of melted wax crayons, with beautiful glimpses of blue, red and yellow caught in a gray and black canvas. Some look like mountainous landscapes with yellow skies. Perhaps the most striking piece sits right at the center when you walk in—a silver piano covered in tar. It looks like the remains of a burnt object, excavated from the earth.
On the second floor of the gallery, panels covered in bright red fabric serve as sets where stories might happen. “Encyclopedia Blacktannia” (2023) is the title of one of these works, where a chair and a pile of boxes sit like an open archive. A narrative unfolding. I couldn’t help but feel the exhibit was missing something, however, like the thread of cohesiveness was lost. While the exhibit presents itself as engaging with “musical harmonic devices,” the silence is palpable. With the piano buried in a thick layer of tar, unplayable, and the colorful panels of fabric that hang on the walls like soundproofing, everything seemed quiet. I must note that there were several activations of the space that I missed, including one with DJ Reborn and Matthew D. Morrison in which “they listened to and reflected on records from Gates’ personal vinyl collection for an intimate audience,” as the gallery site describes.
Despite the silence, Gates has an incredible way of bringing archival material to life. His ability to bring history, archives, and his own stories to galleries and museums makes for moments that linger for longer than the space they are contained in. The artist collects valuable historical objects and contextualizes them, but he also creates history with his own hands. The piano, for instance, and also two new colossal bronze sculptures, “Bronze Vessel 1 and 2” (2023), both about eight feet tall, which feel god-like and magical in comparison to the size of his other works and the size of human spectators. And if there was silence felt, these sculptures could be speaking to us about the history that they are witnessing.
“Theaster Gates: Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me” is on view at White Cube Gallery, 1002 Madison Avenue, New York, through March 2.