Theaster Gates Transforms the New Museum into a Church of Memories and Music

On the fourth floor of the New Museum, a Hammond B3 organ waits to be played, keys in want of fingers. Thick black cables connect the instrument to a set of seven Leslie speakers hung on the walls—arteries made to pump the room full of vital sound. The organ and the speakers gesture towards the heart of Black music and religious intonation. Together, they form Theaster Gates’s A Heavenly Chord (2022), a ready-made sculpture and—occasionally on Saturdays—an active instrument.

“Young Lords and Their Traces,” Gates’s first museum survey exhibition, is an astonishing compendium of the artist’s multidisciplinary practice, which extends from ceramics to music, urban planning to archiving. Named after the Young Lords, a Chicago street gang turned national civil rights organization of Black and brown leftists, the show is as much an homage to place, community, and their material echoes as it is a record of Gates’s practice over 20 years. On view through February 5, 2023, it asks and answers the question of how the everyday life of communities can be represented through objects. Ultimately, it is a deeply affective display that posits artmaking as a form of object care and spiritual attention.

A presentation of wood-based works on the fourth floor suffuses the New Museum with the subtle perfume of pine. Discarded materials like wood figure prominently in Gates’s practice, where old things take on new formal arrangements. A profound understanding of the materiality of architecture has led Gates, who was trained as an urban planner, to think of wood as an animate material, alive with the past.

In his “floor works,” Gates gestures to the multiple cycles of life and use encoded in wood’s fibers. Resembling the composition of Frank Stella’s “Black Paintings” series (1959–60), these works repurpose wooden floorboards from New York’s Park Avenue Armory to form geometric abstractions that act as minimalist memorials to the building’s former architecture. In the back corner of the gallery stands a large shed-like structure—its contents hidden from sight unless viewers stand in the crevice behind the installation, rapt in the intimacy of a shared secret. Tucked inside is a bell from the recently demolished St. Laurence Church in Chicago, from which Gates gathered scrap material for his art. The sculpture, titled St. Laurence Bell (2014–22), is part memorial for lost history, part sanctuary for the divine.

Meanwhile, the museum’s third floor is transformed into a love letter to clay, the material in which Gates got his start. He often cites it as the primordial origin of making; his video work A Clay Sermon (2021) even begins with the refrain: “In the beginning, there was clay.” Arranged on the floor like a sculpture garden is a display of 38 clay vessels in a style Gates calls “Afro-Mingei,” a hybridization of Black aesthetics and Japanese craft.

Looking at the ceramics requires walking among them and sharing in their meditative atmosphere. Their ethereal, perhaps even funerary mood is redoubled through titling: The most recent pots, made in 2022, are named Black Vessel for the Traces of Our Young Lords and their Spirits. Nearby is the film Billy Sing’s Amazing Grace (2013), which was made in collaboration with the Black Monks—Gates’s music ensemble whose sound draws from gospel music and the blues. As the space echoes with the sound of the film, it’s easy to imagine the clay vessels covered with the spiritual residue of song.

Several of the works in “Young Lords and Their Traces” are made with objects and artifacts that once belonged to Gates’s loved ones that the artist transformed into delicate gestures of grief and remembrance. Among these are Robert Bird Archive (2022), a monument to Gates’s late friend built entirely of his books, and Sweet Chariot (2012), a tar kettle gifted to the artist by his father. Time has bestowed upon the latter work its unique formal definition—a flat tire pointing to its history of use that renders the sculpture distinctly human.

One room in particular, made splendid with maroon walls and matching plush carpet, is imbued with affection. Here, seven vitrines encase tokens of love from archives and collections under Gates’s care: a boot once belonging to Sam Gilliam; a bell gifted from bell hooks; sneakers from Virgil Abloh. These works are moving because of where they have been. They touch us because they were touched by others.

On my way out of the museum, I found myself inexorably pulled back to the fourth floor by the familiar sound of an organ. The Black Monks member Duane Patrick was playing A Heavenly Chord, filling the whole building with rapturous music. Indeed, “Young Lords and Their Traces” is a thoughtful account of Gates’s career, as well as a church of feeling made from clay and wood, from memories and sound.

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