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Theaster Gates and Paul Morris at the Armory Show
Theaster Gates and Paul Morris at the Armory Show’s party at Rose Bar, left, and Theaster Gates, In the Event of a Race Riot, 2011, at Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago

ARMORY SHOW TOASTS THEASTER GATES

Oct. 28, 2011

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“I should have been a preacher,” Theaster Gates said to the audience at the celebration of his appointment as the 2012 Armory Show artist commission at Rose Bar in the Gramercy Park Hotel on Tuesday. The 38-year-old Gates, who studied religion, does have the oratory skills and resonant baritone of a preacher. Or maybe a politician -- after his remarks, Gates mingled comfortably with a crowd that included collectors Aby Rosen and Michael Cox Winmer and artist Angel Otero, shaking hands and introducing himself to strangers.

Whatever his strategy, it appears to be successful. The ceramist only entered the public eye about two years ago and he’s already had works included in the Whitney Biennial, and in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum and the Walker. In August, one of his signature tire sculptures sold at an Aspen charity auction for $39,000, well over its $20,000 estimate.

Becoming an Armory Show artist, a kind of brand ambassador for the fair, seemed just as effortless. “It was the fastest decision ever and the first time it was unanimous,” said Armory president and co-founder Paul Morris of the committee’s selection. Morris, who first spotted Gates’ work at the Kavi Gupta booth at Art Chicago in 2010, added that he typically looks for young artists of varying nationalities, races, genders and media. “We don’t always want just a white male painter.” Last year, the Armory chose Mexican-born, Belgian-based artist Gabriel Kuri. Gates is African-American.

At the celebration, on large tables set up at the back of the bar were what looked like two fringed bath mats. The accompanying placard identified the items as Civil Rights Throw Rugs (2011), works Gates made from decommissioned fire hose. These works are on sale in an edition of 20 for $2,000-$10,000, depending on the size and style. In addition, Gates is contributing 20 boxes, each containing a piece of fire hose, assembled by Chicago convicts and on sale for $2,000 each. But better act fast. Morris said he’s already sold about two-thirds of the lower-priced mats and half of the others.

Aside from designing a limited-edition multiple for the Armory Show, each year the commissioned artist is also responsible for conceptualizing the “visual identity” of the fair. In Gates’ case, this job entailed submitting about 15 images that graphic designers will abstract for the catalogue cover and promotional material.

If he didn’t have enough on his plate, Gates continues to lead a second life back home in Chicago. He’s sings with the southern Baptist-inspired choir The Black Monks of Mississippi and works for an affordable-housing nonprofit on Chicago’s South Side. Sounds like the makings of a good politician.

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Theaster Gates in performance, courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago
Theaster Gates in performance, courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago

Theaster Gates, "Epitaph for Civil Rights," installation view at the Geffen Contemporary, Los Angeles, 2011
Theaster Gates, "Epitaph for Civil Rights," installation view at the Geffen Contemporary, Los Angeles, 2011

Theaster Gates, Civil Rights Throw Rug, 2011
Theaster Gates, Civil Rights Throw Rug, 2011