For Theaster Gates at the Armory, There’s No Sale Without Process

Theaster Gates. (Photo by Rozalia Jovanovic)

“Who has access to a venture capitalist?” said the artist Theaster Gates as he wrote on a 10-foot-tall chalkboard at the booth of Chicago and Berlin dealer Kavi Gupta at the Armory Show. Mr. Gates had pulled up a yellow chair to get at higher parts of the board and wrote down, “New Forms of Philanthropy,” and underlined it dramatically. He was speaking to a man in a pinstripe suit and cordovan shoes who was looking on eagerly, but a small crowd had formed around him and it became a kind of presentation. “You do now,” someone shouted.

It was 12:25 p.m., and the Armory Show had only opened 25 minutes ago. Mr. Gupta’s booth was the only one within sight with any kind of activity. The wood-framed chalkboard was a work of art entitled Chalk Board II (2012). And while we weren’t aware of it at that moment, Gallerist was witnessing a sort of ritual in the process of a sale of a work by Mr. Gates.

“His work is all about this social practice,” said Mr. Gupta. “You saw him talking to the people. He will continue to talk to the people. It becomes a takeaway that is about some idea that he wants to discuss. The person who gets it should have some kinship to this idea, which is why he didn’t want to pre-sell these.”

According to Mr. Gupta, Mr. Gates is opposed to selling work before people can see what the works are. “People just want to buy them as these objects. But it’s the space around these objects that he is interested in,” said Mr. Gupta. “So it’s less about these crazy objects and more about what the meaning is, why it’s important to us.”

Within that first hour, people had already tried to buy works and failed, because they didn’t understand the process. “We’ve had ten people, easily, come up to us and say, ‘I’m just going to buy these, I want to buy these,'” said Mr. Gupta. “We’re like, ‘No, you can’t buy them because they’re not pieces yet.'” Thus, Mr. Gates is on the premises today to “make them the pieces.”

“These were $40,000,” said Mr. Gupta about the two large chalkboards, Chalk Board I and Chalk Board II, both of which had been sold, though the second one is going to a private collector. But the the work doesn’t become theirs until they show up for the ritual indoctrination of the work.

“We have a list of collectors waiting. So they will come and see his performance,” said Mr. Gupta. Mr. Gates was already at the table surrounded by people.

As for everything else? “We’ve sold almost everything you see,” said Mr. Gupta who was in a dark suit with a blue shirt. He smiled. But there are still some small chalkboards that Mr. Gates will be working on throughout the day.

“Can I do my speech?” Mr. Gates shouted. Mr. Gupta nodded.

“I’m a boring speaker and I like it that way,” said Mr. Gates unfolding a piece of paper. “People are interested in the issues because the issues are important. We don’t want to be swayed by superficial eloquence.”

Then he stood on the chair and said loudly, “Exuberance Manifesto number 16. I am a sometimes charismatic. An artist who believes. Belief is the root of my passion. The objects that live in the world that come from my shop or abandoned buildings, sketch pads, or an engagement process with the people, they are all by-products of a much more substantial set of internal mechanisms that rarely compute as legible or believable.” After he finished, he sat down and again was swarmed by people.