Through an art practice predicated on cultural reclamation and social empowerment, Gates exchanges and recharges objects and ideas, proposing the artwork as a communicating vessel or sacred reliquary of recollected histories, critical vitality, and shared experience.
"I always find myself returning to the vessel. It is part of the intellectual life force of my practice and it precedes all other forms of making", Theaster Gates.
Gates first began using clay as a student in the 1990s. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in ceramics and urban planning from Iowa State University, he spent a year in Tokoname, Japan, studying pottery. For Gates, it is the cycle of labor and everyday use that sacralizes the clay vessel, endowing it with transcendent communal and ritualistic meaning.
The Benaki Museum is pleased to present a group of Gates’ recent large-scale ceramic works in the Prehistoric, Classical and Roman Antiquities Galleries of the Museum of Greek Culture. Juxtaposing contemporary and ancient works will prompt open-ended associations between objects and their materiality, addressing the importance of making and manual labor as well as the spiritual relation to the earth embodied by ceramic practices throughout time and across cultures.
In this diverse group of seven unique large-scale vessels, glazed and fired to produce a range of effects —from chalky white and crackled to dark and biomorphic with a lustrous metallic sheen— Gates synthesizes ancient traditions and modern aesthetics, drawing elective affinities between Eastern, Western, and African techne. His consideration of the clay vessel as a universal object of ritual significance, which testifies to the primordial relationship between humankind and clay, is given full expression in the Benaki Museum galleries by virtue of comparison with ancient ceramic works from across the Eastern Mediterranean zone.
Gates was born in Chicago, where he lives and works. He received a BS from Iowa State University, Ames, in 1996. After graduating, he studied pottery in Tokoname, Japan, before receiving an MA in fine arts and religious studies from the University of Cape Town in 1998 and an MA in urban planning from Iowa State in 2006. Public collections include the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Tate, London. Solo museum exhibitions and projects include “An Epitaph for Civil Rights”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2011–12); “Processions”, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2016–19); “True Value”, Fondazione Prada, Milan (2016); “Black Archive”, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2016); “How to Build a House Museum”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2016); “The Minor Arts”, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (2017); Black Madonna, Kunstmuseum Basel (2018, traveled to Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany); “Black Image Corporation”, Fondazione Prada Osservatorio, Milan (2018–19, traveled to GropiusBau, Berlin); “Amalgam”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2019, traveled to Tate Liverpool, England); “Assembly Hall”, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2019); and “Black Chapel”, Haus der Kunst, Munich (2019–20), “China Cabinet”, Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai (2021); “Bad Neon”, Tank Shanghai, Shanghai, (2021); and “A Clay Sermon”, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2021). Gates participated in the Whitney Biennial, New York (2010); Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany (2012); the 56th Biennale di Venezia (2015); and the Chicago Architecture Biennial (2015 and 2019). He is the recipient of the twelfth Frederick Kiesler Prize for Architecture and the Arts (2021); the Crystal Award (2020); the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development (2018); the Nasher Sculpture Prize (2018); the Sprengel Museum Kurt Schwitters Prize (2017); and the Artes Mundi 6 prize (2015). In April 2018 Gates was appointed the first distinguished visiting artist and Director of Artist Initiatives at the Lunder Institute for American Art, Colby College, Waterville, Maine and received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Arts London in 2018. In 2022, Gates will design the Serpentine Pavilion as the first non-architect commission.