"Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces" at the New Museum

Where the Gods Are Present

John Hill
10. November 2022
All photographs by John Hill/World-Architects

The Chicago-based artist was present at a press preview of the exhibition the day before it opened on November 10 (it runs until February 5, 2023). But before Theaster Gates spoke to the assembled journalists, World-Architects included, in the lobby of the New Museum, he was spotted on the fourth floor of the museum, manipulating a Hamond B3 organ: holding down some keys and inserting wooden shims between them, eventually getting up once the wall-mounted Leslie speakers were making sounds to his liking. Downstairs, Gates explained that he imagined the fourth-floor gallery as "a kind of Doric temple," an "honorific space where the gods are present." Returning to the fourth floor after the artist's remarks in the lobby, the drone of the organ continued — sans the artist, as it most likely will be played on selected days during the duration of the exhibition — taking on a stronger resonance than earlier. The new, site-specific piece, A Heavenly Chord, is but one artwork — albeit a standout one — in a diverse yet cohesive, and very rewarding exhibition. Below is a visual tour through Young Lords and Their Traces, which moves across the three gallery floors of the New Museum in the recommended order, from the second floor up to the fourth floor.

The elevators open at the second floor to straight-on views of the 50-foot-long Roof Strategies for Museum Corridor (2022), which museumgoers follow either left or right to experience the three unique galleries on the floor.
To the left is a darkened room with various art-history slideshows projected on the walls, with what appear to be old church pews in the center. Gates is known for archiving old materials — books, records, slides, old buildings — but here he seems to be asking museumgoers to question the knowledge that is being spoken.
Next to the slideshow room is a room drenched in red...
...where Gates has put his own art in vitrines alongside works by artists he admires.
One such artwork is an untitled painting by Sam Gilliam, who died this year...
...not long after bell hooks, who died in December 2021. Gates lifted a literal bell given to him by hooks atop a pyramidal base. In his lobby remarks, Gates spoke strongly about needing "time to feel" in the last few years and seeing the show as being about "what it means to feel while making [art]" and "what it means to miss people," including Gilliam, hooks, and Gates's father, who died earlier this year.
The next second-floor space, the largest, features three large installations.
Beyond Sweet Chariot (2012), a tar kettle for roofing, are a few of the seven panels that comprise Seven Songs for Black Chapel #1–7, which were created for this year's Serpentine Pavilion and paid tribute to the artist's father, a roofer.
In the center of the space, set an angle to the walls, are shelves with books from film scholar Robert Bird's archive. Though not on display, Gates might be best known with bibliophile-architects for obtaining thousands of books from Prairie Avenue Bookshop after it closed in 2009; the books are housed in one of the buildings he renovated on Chicago's South Side with the Rebuild Foundation.
More bound volumes are mounted on the wall, as an installation titled A Negro Digest for a Weary Heart (2019).
The third floor has a couple of small rooms with films documenting performances by Gates (singing with the Black Monks in one and making pottery in the other), but it is primarily one large open space with ceramic pieces made by Gates.
In hindsight the diversity of Gates's output can be traced back to at least to the three master's degrees he received from Iowa State University: in ceramics, urban planning, and religious studies.
A narrow stair links the third and fourth floor. Halfway up is a niche with a wood-fired brick and clay oxide sculpture, Lady on a Senufo Stool (2021).
The fourth floor, the "honorific space where the gods are present," is anchored by the Hammond organ and Leslie speakers — "created in the 1940s [to] allow electric organs to mimic the effects of pipe organs [...] popularized in Black churches," per the wall text — and the sounds they create. (Watch the 30-second video for the aural experience.)
One corner of the room is occupied by a wood and metal constructing housing a bronze bell...
...which was salvaged from the demolished St. Laurence Church on Chicago's South Side and was situated outside of the Serpentine Pavilion Gates designed earlier in 2022.
The opposite corner has an illuminated artwork that beckons...
...Bathroom Believer (2018) is an installation with porcelain tiles and rows of bulbs that taps into the religious overtones of A Heavenly Chord (2022): The tiles and lights express how Gates's mother used to pray in the bathroom, finding God present in an unlikely place.

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