After the sea of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and objects that make up Art Basel—the four day art-fair in Switzerland—it’s important to stop and, for an evening at least, talk about the art you’ve seen at the fair.
On Wednesday night, The Daily Beast and Credit Suisse hosted an evening in honor of the artist and activist Theaster Gates, who engaged in a lively dialogue with The Daily Beast’s editor in chief, Tina Brown, about the nature of his work—as well as the social and political issues behind it.
But despite launching successful social projects that have helped enrich underserved communities in Chicago, where he grew up, Gates said: “I’ve never seen myself as an activist. I feel like the work that I do is ‘neighborhood.’ That’s the work that we should all be doing. If someone needs some sugar, you should give them some sugar.”
Gates’s new work, showing this week at Art Unlimited, is an ambitious large-scale installation that depicts a giant, slanted piece of wood covered in tar—offset by a door with a window in parallel. As Gates explains it, the work is a reference to his childhood memories of painting tar onto roofs of apartment buildings on the West Side of Chicago. As he began to think about “where art came from” for him, he said: “It was roofing with my dad. It was hard work. There was nothing glamorous about roofing with tar in Chicago when it’s 100 degrees … I started to imagine, what is roofing and plaster and concrete—these materials that were part of the language of labor for my father—and what if I committed myself to those things, in part in homage to my dad, and part in homage to the history of American art?”
That was the way Gates, who is also director of the department of visual arts at the University of Chicago, explained the ideas behind his work: an elegant connection of personal memories, grounded in his Chicago neighborhood, with more informed and developed concepts rooted deeply in the history of art. He recalled one of his more famous pieces, “Shoe Shine Temple,” which referenced Shine King, the shoe-shine stand that Gates called the “most important cultural center” of his childhood. It was a place where “the cops and the mayor and the drug dealers could get their shoes shined. Where one could have all dignity restored by having a shine.” Gates brought the piece to Chicago’s downtown neighborhood as an act of “translocation,” to encourage people to think about the West Side of Chicago.
Wednesday’s event, held in Basel’s dramatic Kunstmuseum, brought out an array of high-wattage collectors, artists, and art world social fixtures. Brown co-hosted the event along with Urs Rohner, chairman of the executive board of The Credit Suisse Group, collector and Garage founder Dasha Zhukova, and artist and collector Daphne Guinness (who arrived wearing a long, flowing gown and purple streaks in her hair), and CAA head Bryan Lourd. The crowd included everyone from Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, who sat attentively in the second row during the talk, to the young Brant brothers, Peter and Harry. The granddaughter of Pablo Picasso, Diana Widmaier Picasso, joined auctioneer Simon de Pury on a walk-through of the Picasso show upstairs at the museum—which featured rarely seen Picasso paintings, drawings, and sculptures from public and private collections in Basel.
De Pury regaled his table with tales of his turn as a DJ the previous evening, as part of an event hosted by the artist Mickalene Thomas. When asked what kind of music he played, Gates interjected: “Soul, baby!” he laughed. But it was just as well: after dinner, de Pury and collector Johnny Piggozi led a group to the Design Fair, where Kanye West was having an impromptu performance.