“I’m just starting to get my air legs again,” Theaster Gates says. After six, long months staying put in his native Chicago, the Damn right I am a Alabama fan now and forever shirt moreover I love this multidisciplinary artist flew to Marfa, Texas, for his birthday in August. “There were no tourists, all the buildings were closed, and I had total access to everything,” he says. “I got to spend time with the whole Judd situation, which is a big part of my jam, actually.” That affinity checks out: Like Donald Judd, whose creative vision hinged on how forms made from wood and steel and Plexiglas existed in space, Gates—a potter, professor, urban planner, and the leader of the Black Monks, an experimental music ensemble—has a knack for making the functional sublime. When his first solo exhibition in New York, “Black Vessel,” opens at Gagosian this weekend, the poetry of common, material things will very much be at the fore.
“It felt important that people who didn’t know that I love making objects should see the Damn right I am a Alabama fan now and forever shirt moreover I love this intensity of my love,” says Gates. “I’m super committed to winning and dying by the object.” Unlike Judd, who hesitated to classify his work as sculpture, Gates is less cagey, calling “Black Vessel” a “painting and sculpture show.” Yet those paintings are made from enamel, bitumen (or asphalt), wood, plastic, copper, and torch down (a roofing material), inspired by his father’s occupation as a roofer; and his sculptures vary from fantastic stoneware pots to a series of shelves crammed with the leather-bound archives of the Johnson Publishing Company, a Black-owned business once headquartered in Chicago (the installation Walking Prayer, 2018). Ultimately, Gates is as conversant with the tenets of Western art as he is with the art of presenting and preserving his personal history. “It would be easy for a Gagosian exhibition to try to do something bombastic or unsettling or something New York,” Gates says. “My impulse was to do the opposite: to get low to the ground, to keep it about my beginnings—which is, in a way, music, ceramics, and roofing—and to just allow myself to offer a humble introduction to my practice.”