Report: The Work of Chicago Artist Theaster Gates on Exhibit in New York Gallery

A room of clay vessels in the Gagosian Gallery exhibit. Photo credit: Theaster Gates and Gagosian; Robert McKeever.

Chicago artist and urbanist Theaster Gates has a new solo exhibit at Gagosian Gallery in New York. The show titled Black Vessel uses materials such as metals, clay and tar to show the hard work of today’s and yesterday’s laborers and artisans as well as to showcase the legacies of racial injustice. This is Theaster Gates’ first solo exhibit in New York, reviewed in today’s New York Times by Yinka Elujoba.

One series of works, titled “Tar Paintings,” uses roofing techniques and industrial materials to combine abstract art with the history of racial injustice. It also reflects his family history; his father was a roofer. Another gallery features glazed and fired clay vessels that explore the history of Eastern, Western and African instruments. A wooden architectural piece in another gallery is titled “New Egypt” and contains the complete 70-year bound set of Ebony magazines from Gates’ collection.

Gates is known as an entrepreneur and community developer as well as an  artist. He purchased the Stony Island State Savings Bank, an empty and crumbling building, from the city of Chicago in 2013. He’s renovated it and it’s now known as the Stony island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., a gallery and archive for the community. It contains the book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines; the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music; and slides from collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. The Archive holds 14,000 architecture books from a closed bookshop. Another element of the arts bank is the Listening House, which holds 8,000 records purchased when Dr. Wax Records closed.

The Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo by Altawati, courtesy Wikimedia Commongs.

Gates’ Rebuild Foundation includes the arts bank, other vacant buildings converted to cultural purposes, and houses on the south side that are being renovated. The foundation supports artists by providing free arts programming, creating new cultural amenities, and developing affordable housing and live/work spaces.

Gates grew up in East Garfield Park and holds a degree from Iowa State University in urban planning and ceramics. He also studied in South Africa, receiving a degree in religious studies, before going to Japan to study pottery. A 2015 Smithsonian Magazine article, by WBEZ journalist Natalie Moore, described Gates’ project to revitalize South Side neighborhoods, one building at a time. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in London, Liverpool, Paris, Berlin, MIlan, Basel, Hong Kong and U.S. cities.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.