Theaster Gates | Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me

26 January – 2 March 2024

Theaster Gates

Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me

New York

The exhibition’s title honours the 1970s duet ‘Be Real Black For Me’ by librettists Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack
Artist Profile
Theaster Gates
White Cube New York presents ‘Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me’, a solo exhibition by Theaster Gates, in which the artist creates a series of material pairings - across painting, sculpture and archival installation - indicative of musical harmonic devices. Shifting the ideology of art from visually based to metronomic, Gates explores how sound holds pain and suffering, joy, temporality, memory and contingency. Engaging with the history of built environments, craftsmanship and music, Gates transforms the gallery space into a tableau of personal and collective memory – an immersive homage to community. With music serving as a through line in Gates’s practice, the exhibition’s title honours the 1970s duet ‘Be Real Black For Me’ by librettists Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. Drawing from an evocative, emotional crescendo midway through the song – marked by the echoed repetition of the phrase ‘hold me’ – Gates explores the connections between music, composition and the complex interactions between artistry and mental health, acknowledging the truth of Hathaway’s own profound struggles with fame and creative transmission during his lifetime. Foregrounding the inherently personal act of memorialisation, Gates’s large-scale sculptural work, Sweet Sanctuary, Your Embrace (2023), pays tribute to his father’s craft as a roofer by incorporating roofing techniques to layer and tar the piano with bitumen. Elevated on a marble plinth, Gates exalts this personal relic into an object of reverence. Sublimated from a dynamic state to one of muteness, the process dually realises the preservation of the instrument and the cessation of its functionality. ‘In order for the piano to live forever, it has to be rendered unplayable’, the artist notes, ‘To use the thing is to destroy it; to shelve it is to ensure an extending of its life.’ Similarly, transposing industrial materials and roofing techniques, Gates’s new tar paintings push the materiality of the tar and foreground the process, allowing it to articulate its own narrative. These compositions suggest a more formal quality, manifesting divisions of colour that evoke landscape terrains and marry industrial material with self-referential imagery. In his holistic approach to craft, Gates’s work addresses issues of erasure within labour practices, making visible the intricacies and commemorating the histories of craftsmanship. The sink sculpture Radical Prioritizing: 1840s Style (2010) belongs to a series of works that establishes a dialogue between Gates and Dave Drake (‘Dave the Potter’), an enslaved potter from South Carolina, known for signing and inscribing his clay works with poetic couplets. In continuation of his earlier series, the ‘Whyte Paintings’, Radical Prioritizing: 1840s Style comprises a cast iron Kohler sink inscribed with a quote from one of the songs of Dave the Potter. Crafted during his residency at the Kohler manufacturing company, the work functions as a reflection on the story of Dave the Potter and the broader dynamics of race and craft. Gates states, ‘Catfish Fresh (Radical Prioritizing: 1840s Style), the object, the animal, the house, the land – all more important than the person who built it and the person who preserves it, the person who tills it, the person who cooks it.’ Within the second floor of the gallery, a suite of three multi-part installations draws from the archival holdings of the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), the Chicago-based publisher established in 1942. Renowned for producing Ebony and Jet, two iconic lifestyle magazines that became fixtures in Black households across the US, Gates recreates the interior office spaces of JPC, replicating the original cleated panelling. Remarking on the office spaces as he first encountered them, Gates notes, ‘The panels were both aesthetic and sound buffering. They felt like they were doing the primary work of creating the energy of the space […] each floor had a different coloured panel, different series wallpaper, and the wallpaper, flooring and ceiling were all related in colour and symbology.’ In Encyclopedia Blacktannia (2023), Gates curates a selection of ephemera acquired from the JPC archives, including its original office plaque and boxes housing archival copies of Jet and Ebony. Accompanying these items is a chair salvaged by Gates from Crispus Attucks Elementary School before its demolition in 2018, which the artist has recast in bronze as an act of preservation. In another vignette, entitled Credit Union Office (2023), set against a backdrop of black cloth panelling, Gates’s part-archival sculpture Self-cleaning Stack (2012–19) features a brush whose wooden handle takes the form of a Mammy figure, an archetypal image of a Black woman. This brush was sourced from the Edward J Williams collection of ‘negrobilia’ – a group of objects depicting Black individuals in racist, stereotypical ways, collated by Williams as a way to remove them from the market. In repositioning and recontextualising the brush, Gates not only addresses the ways we engage with depictions of the Black female form but also explores the role women have played in the articulation of male dignity. The brush, serving the practical purpose of cleaning lint, itself stands as an indicator of professionalism and pride in presentation at JPC. As the artist has said: ‘That suite, for me, is both praising the dignity of Johnson Publishing, and making a critique of the kind of subjugated role that women continue to play.’ A third work, 11th Floor with Triangle and Mask (2023) is comprised of four red fabric panels adorned with an original JPC office plaque from the 11th floor of the JPC building, which was the personal penthouse of the company’s founder, John H Johnson. Assembled on a salvaged marble base, the installation features a triangular black ceramic sculpture by Gates and an Igbo mask. It is one of a series of bronze casts created by the artist from wooden African masks in the JPC collection. Much like the chair, the bronze casting functions as an act of conservation – a way for the artist to give form to memory. Casting a sovereign presence within the same floor space, ‘The Duet’ comprises two bronze vessels that tower at nearly ten feet high. Through their vast scale, Gates honours the legacy of ceramics, evoking a time when property lines were demarcated by a stone or clay disc and gravestones were plotted with ceramic vessels. Working with the original vessels, Gates invests in the symbolic potency of the object and its communicative potential. Here, bronze preserves the personal and spiritual significance of clay, protecting the layered histories of the material. To celebrate the musical influences that have informed the exhibition, Gates will stage an intimate critical listening session with musicians and scholars, featuring speakers Matthew Morrison and DJ Reborn. The event will include songs by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, as well as other soul artists who were part of Atlantic Records during the 1960s and ’70s. Coalescing the past 15 years of Gates’s socially engaged practice as an artist, archivist and urban planner, the exhibition stands as a dedication to both the rich legacies and irreducible influence of Black culture and craft.