Theaster Gates: The Minor Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Elaine A. King
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Artist, Theaster Gates. Photo courtesy of

Theaster Gates is a 21st century Renaissance man whose art practice comprises painting, sculpture, installation, music, design, performance and urban planning.  Gates is, as are L.A. artists Mark Bradford and Richard Lowe, an extraordinary social practice artist who can sees potential beyond the surface of a situation despite its outwardly decrepit state. He was born in Chicago in 1973 on Chicago’s run-down South Side, known as Greater Grand Crossing, where he continues to work and live. This visionary raises money, collaborates with urban planners/architects/policy makers and has been supported by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel who made Gates an off-the-record commissioner of renewal for the city’s South Side.

Gates’ undertakings focus on poverty and racism as well as African American history and culture, fusing minimalist abstraction with social practice.  He is committed to the rebirth of poor neighborhoods, merging urban redevelopment with art.

Left: Sample project, Gates’ Rebuild Foundation neighborhood improvement initiative.  

He graduated from Iowa State University in 1996 with a B.S. in Urban Planning and Ceramics and went to Japan to study art.  Religion became a subject of his curiosity prompting Gates to explore this subject in South Africa. In 1998, he was awarded a M.A. at the University of Cape Town in Fine Arts, and Religious Studies.[1]  Theaster Gates is the originator as well as the artistic director of the Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit organization that concentrates on cultural renovation and affordable space ventures in Chicago’s low income and under-served neighborhoods. The Rebuild Foundation presently handles projects in the Greater Grand Crossing district of Chicago and several projects incorporate the Stony Island Arts Bank, the Black Cinema House, the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, Archive House, and Listening House. In January 2014 he designed a million-dollar installation for the South Side’s 95th Street subway terminal. It is the largest public art project in the history of the Chicago Transit Authority.[2]

Theaster Gates’ new collection of work, The Minor Arts is currently on view in the Tower Gallery of the National Gallery of Art (right).  Sarah Newman, the exhibition’s guest curator and James Dicke, Curator of Contemporary Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, organized it. According to the National Gallery, Gates is only the fourth living artist to be featured in the Gallery’s Tower exhibition series, following Barbara Kruger, Kerry James Marshall, and Mel Bochner. This is Gates’ first one-man exhibition in Washington and on the East Coast.

Undeniably, Gates is a bricolage artist whose creative minimalist constructions are made from diverse range of discarded things, which he refers to as “modern castoffs.”  This is a term he uses for materials that technology, the market, commerce, industry and families have abandoned.  His work is an amalgamation of salvaged materials of furnishings and pieces of derelict buildings previously occupied by black people, rubbish left on the streets, architectural remnants from industrial sites/buildings and places that most often are found in the neighborhoods where he is engaged with projects and have historical significance. In both his installations and sculptures he unceasingly integrates found materials, giving them a new life that addresses characteristics about Black Americans.

Left: Installation view of Theaster Gates: The Minor Arts. Courtesy of the artist, White Cube, and Regen Projects
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Stepping off the elevator toward the Tower gallery, a sensation of quietude pervades this area. In this dimly lit room one encounters two sizeable, black tar abstract paintings–one of which has been slashed.  Highlighted at the end of this corridor-like expanse an axe is hung on the wall, apparently the one used to lacerate the painting.  For some, this work, “Flat Bush,” might evoke images of violence. However, for Gates, the gesture equates with the precision and skill of laborers. To demonstrate his point, he performed this slashing act on the work at the National Gallery to demonstrate his point.

Once inside the Tower, visitors observe an assortment of dissimilar sculptures and installations, ranging from a high school gym floor to a portion of a demolished church’s slate roof, covering an entire wall of the gallery. Collectively, each piece accents the other while resonating its own unique meaning.

This latter work, Slate Corridor for Possibility of Speaking in Tongues and Depositing Ghetto Reliquary (2017) above left, is a 48-foot-wide and 20-foot-high portion of a slate roof saved from the St. Laurence Church in Chicago.  Gates transports Chicago’s South side architecture into the gallery and, in doing so, he equates the skillful technique of a roofer’s craftsmanship with the aesthetic qualities one sees in refined minimalist sculpture. The artist’s father was a roofer by profession and perhaps this work can be seen as a tribute to him and his craft.

The jewel in the crown of the exhibition is New Egypt Sanctuary of the Holy Word and Image (2017) on right, photo above, a work that coalesces minimalism with African-American culture.  This sculptural installation is a looming wooden tower intended to be a monumental freestanding library with a marble floor, salvaged from St. Laurence Church.  The piece reads as a type of sacred archival shrine for Ebony magazine.  The Johnson Publishing Company had given its collection of magazines to Gates’ Rebuild Foundation when the company moved its headquarters in Chicago.  The interior space of the structure houses wall-to-ceiling bookshelves containing about 13,000 rebound back issues of Ebony magazine, chronologically organized by decade in gray, black, green and red volumes.  On the exterior walls of the edifice the visitors sees only the white pages that we cannot open or read.  Within the covers of the influential periodicals are significant records about ever-changing African American life and culture, from the 1940s through the 2000s.

Right: Installation view of A Game of My Own, 2017. On view in Theaster Gates: The Minor Arts. Courtesy of the artist, White Cube, and Regen Projects National Gallery of Art, Washington 

 A Game of My Own (2017), above right, is commanding wall installation that links art with inner-city life and its youth culture. It is a massive wooden panel consisting of floorboards reclaimed from a demolished Detroit high school gymnasium. Gates reordered the planks of wood and selectively painted black lines and colorful shapes throughout the piece, transforming the functional old floor into a potent geometric abstraction. Beneath this work is a narrow field of gray stones, spanning the length of the installation above.  For Gates this symbolic basketball court is a tribute to inner city kids who, evermore, are increasingly are facing the loss of places to gather and play.

Each of the sculptures and installations on display in the museum represents only micro-symbolic fragments of the extensive initiatives that Theaster Gates is engaged in. He is an artist/urban planner now internationally recognized for his work and art. Gates draws on his fertile background to call attention to and improve the lives of under-privileged people.  In spite his worldwide acclaim, Gates opts to remain in Chicago, carrying out his mission, one project at a time!

By Elaine King, Contributing Writer

Theaster Gates: The Minor Arts

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

March 5 through September 4, 2017

See: Theaster Gates official website, Theaster Gates at TED, and Art 21,


[1] John Colapinto (January 20, 2014). “The Real-Estate Artist: High-Concept Renewal on the South Side”. The New Yorker.

[2] John Colapinto.

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