Reflection and Joy: Theaster Gates On His Practice, Preservation and Being a Convener

"I don’t think of my practice as spanning or embodying multiple strategies... I have one overarching philosophical principle and I use whatever materials I want to express that set of beliefs."

A cool man in a long black coat stands outdoors in front of a brick wall
Theaster Gates at his Chicago studio in 2023. Lyndon French

A few weeks ago, Theaster Gates opened “Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me,” his first show with White Cube’s newly opened New York City outpost. Though Gates is often categorized as a sculptor, his art doesn’t always fit into such tidy categories and usually extends to include installation and social practice, the latter activated through his Rebuild Foundation in Chicago. There’s more than meets the eye in all his work, so we caught up with him to hear more about “Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me,” which is open through March.

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I understand your show’s title comes from the refrain of the 1970s duet “Be Real Black For Me” by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. When did you first encounter this song? What do you think drew you to it as a source of artistic inspiration?

I feel like Donny and Roberta have been on my mind from birth. I was born in ’73, and “Be Real Black For Me” was released in 1972. I was born into soul music, and I was born into this poetic Black joy. It was joy despite the complexities of Black life in urban cities, but I can remember a consciousness of Roberta and Donny in my pre-teens, normally on a Saturday when I was forced to listen to my sisters’ music. They were always playing Roberta Flack, especially the first cuts. “Be Real Black For Me” as a total consciousness started hitting me more recently as I have been reflecting on my own album collections. One of the collections that I have is from an amazing Black potter named Marva Jolly. Her partner gave me Marva’s albums when she died, and Marva had every album of Roberta Flack. She focused primarily on female musicians. In thinking about Marva and playing her albums, the last decade has been a real reflection of these ways in which Black love and Black lives are reflected in our music.

This particular song felt important because it was announcing a harmonic admission. Often, Roberta provides the kind of base harmony that allows Donny to be flamboyant around her notes. She sings with a kind of simplicity, and Donny sings with a slightly more intense vibrato. Together, they feel like a couple, and there is something about that duet that felt right for reflecting on painting.

You recently told Chicago magazine, “When I have an exhibition, it’s a chance for me to say, ‘What do I feel like studying right now?'” What other study went into this show?

Exhibitions have always been a time of reflection. The period before the exhibition is the period that feels the best, especially the research that goes into the creation of a story that might lead to works. For “Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me,” a lot of the work that was happening was thinking about the future direction of my painting and how I wanted to express new sculptural ideas. In some cases, these ideas and the paintings have been in my head for a long time, like using color on torch down, but I try to be somewhat methodical in how I unfurl the material. The more we use the material, the more I realize that it can do bigger things, more complex things. It can be flat, like on a roof, but it can also have dimensionality, and it can take the shape of all of the things that it touches. With that, I imagine that the future use of the material in sculpture will grow.

One of the sculptures in this show was made from your old piano, which you’ve covered in roofing tar. What are some of your early memories with that piano? What was your relationship to music growing up?

The piano isn’t at all sentimental for me. The crux of the piano has more to do with Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack as great musicians. The piano holds Black music, it holds their time at Howard University, it reflects on our knowledge of classical training and improvisation together. The act of tarring it is this ongoing conversation I’m having about preservation and death. To preserve this piano that has been in my life for a long time means that I render it unusable. That feels like sculpture sometimes. The act of fixing or using tar as a fixative and preservative. It is also strangely what museums do. It makes the thing available into the future by rendering it absolutely useless.

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It is fair to say that I feel like there was some compartmentalization happening in my musical life. My dad didn’t listen to church music, and my mom, at least when I was young, didn’t listen to a lot of secular music. So, when I was listening to the music of my time, I was listening to it with my sisters. I was also personally interested in Pat Metheny, John Patitucci, Dave Weckl, Johnny Hodges, Nina Simone—I was interested in the canons of jazz and soul and some classical, but also new jazz and experimental sound and electronica. In high school, I listened to a lot of Depeche Mode because that is what was around me. Every once in a while, I would make some time for some Joni Mitchell. I was taking it all in and converting it into Baptist church hymns all the time. I’ll admit that making music with the Monks gives me a lot of pleasure, but so does making a successful painting.

Your practice spans sculpture, installation, performance and urban interventions. Is there one medium that’s more gratifying than the others for you? Is there one that’s more fun?

I don’t think of my practice as spanning or embodying multiple strategies. I feel like I have one overarching philosophical principle, or I have a set of beliefs, and I use whatever materials I want to express that set of beliefs. I think that part of the reason there is so much continuity between the buildings and objects and public interventions is that it is all flowing out of a set of values, and I think that those values are consistent. This set of values includes recognizing and respecting the power within objects; investing in ritual; choosing to be a conduit for ideas; imagining the conditions—good and bad—around me as conditions that I should respond to and that my work should be a part of. If the condition is that there is an abandoned building next to my house, I should do something about it. I use my real adjacencies to determine my next project.

This past fall you celebrated the 10th anniversary of your Rebuild Foundation’s Black Artists Retreat. What have you learned from ten years of staging the retreat?

When I think about Black Artists Retreat 2013 and seeing Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Amy Sherald, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and eventually, Deborah Roberts, and participating in The Gathering in Kenya with Michael Armitage, what I realize is that this last decade of Black artistic practice has been filled with unbelievable new opportunity for Black and Brown creatives. By having convened so many artists over the last decade, you also realize that artists need each other’s stories to be better at what we do. Over the years, we’ve given each other advice about how to navigate the complexities of the market; we’ve supported each other in high and low times; and many artists met at the retreats and became lifelong friends and sometimes partners. Getting together is a powerful act, and it doesn’t require institutional intervention for it to happen. I am thankful for being a convener and for all the other people who have hosted amazing convenings before and after me.

Other works in this show are drawn from the archives of Ebony and Jet. Did you read those magazines growing up? What’s your impression of them now?

I can remember using Jet magazine and looking at the television listings so that I knew when Sanford and Son or Good Times was coming on. The magazines were always around. They were like an extension of Black consciousness. It wasn’t something I remember as an individual act, rather it was part of the life of being in my house. Now, they occupy the same weight as the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is an unbelievable reference tool for the “skinny” of Black life week-by-week.

I know there is a wealth of books, periodicals and other materials to be found at your foundation on the South Side’s Stony Island Arts Bank. What are some other personal highlights from your collection there?

My collections are special because there is so much that I haven’t unpacked. Part of the joy of having collections is that they consistently provide me with an opportunity for wonder. Of late, I have been listening to a lot of soul music from the Chicago neighborhood Dr. Wax record stores, one of my earliest album collections. I have been looking at letter art from a small collection of artist books that I got from a bookstore in Cleveland, Ohio. The production that was happening in the 1960s and early 1970s in white American art was super interesting. There was a lot of typewriter art, diary-based writing and personal emoting made available for the public. You could feel that artists were working with less financial resources and often a different kind of creative impulse. It was as biographical as it was conceptual. Having these archives is like having more art friends around me all the time.

Reflection and Joy: Theaster Gates On His Practice, Preservation and Being a Convener