In the past, the writer and critic Antwaun Sargent was often thwarted in his ideas for gallery exhibitions that they were too expensive or too ambitious.
Then he became a director at Gagosian.
Sargent can now dream big what he will open with his first exhibition “Social Works” on Thursday in the West 24th Street of the gallery in Manhattan. The exhibition curated by him shows the work – most of it in the last challenging year – of 12 black artists, all of whom are actively involved with their communities through efforts such as food banks, mentoring and neighborhood revitalization.
“The whole thing is about art as a social act,” Sargent, 32, said in a recent interview at the gallery. “Given the last year of the pandemic and protest and the history of black artists, the work is more than just sitting still on the wall. It’s really about the social implications of what it means to be black in this world and move through this world and move through space and take space and create space and reinvent space. “
With the impressive funding and square footage from Gagosian, Sargent was able to say yes to the artists’ oversized ideas – like a working urban farm by Linda Goode Bryant, where vegetables are harvested in the gallery, wall mounted and available free to visitors; a giant spiral of crushed New York limestone by architect David Adjaye, his first large-scale sculpture; and an installation with five fellows from the New Haven Art Center NXTHVN, which was co-founded by Titus Kaphar, one of only two artists in the exhibition represented by Gagosian (the other is Theaster Gates).
“Complete freedom,” said Sargent, describing how much leeway he had in developing the show. “Gagosian has phenomenal resources. I wanted to use those resources to do shows like this. “
Sargent, the writer of “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion,” hired in January, said he realized he was living through a moment of reckoning as galleries and museums delve into their history of excluding artists, curators and artists Executives of color.
And some in the art world fear that the current craze for buying black artists, showing black art, and hiring black workers will be shallow and short-lived.
But Larry Gagosian said he was campaigning for “a long overdue realignment of the art world”.
“As my career progresses, it occurs to me that I may not see things as well as I did 20 or 30 years ago,” he added. “I can refresh my perspective with someone like Antwaun.”
Sargent said he feels the gallery welcomes his contribution and wants it to be successful. “I don’t feel like I am in a sink-or-swim environment,” he said. “I feel supported”
The artists on the show see Sargent’s attitude and his first show as an encouraging sign, though their staying power has yet to be seen. “What makes the change now is supply and demand,” said Bryant, who struggled to get real estate agents to rent a space to her in 1974 when they showed black artists in her own gallery, Just Above Midtown, known as JAM wanted.
“The question is, does the way we perceive each other change fundamentally, how we build hierarchies and separations?” She asked about Gagosian’s efforts. “I think it’s way too early to say ‘yes’.”
The exhibition “Social Works” shows the work of artists who specifically deal with their communities. Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Halsey, for example, founded Summaeverythang last summer, which brings organic fruits and vegetables to some of the city’s underserved neighborhoods.
Your installation at Gagosian looks at South Los Angeles through the signage to show how a community “inscribes itself into the physical landscape,” said Sargent, “to make sure we understand the value of that language.” Halsey’s colorful paintings on wooden boxes relate to how big box dealers crowd out local traders, Sargent added, the way that gentrification “often removes the contributions of a community”.
Rick Lowe, who founded Project Row Houses, a Houston nonprofit, in 1993, offers a new series of paintings commemorating the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre in Oklahoma.
Carrie Mae Weems, who heads the community organization Social Studies 101, has in the exhibition works from her photographic self-portraits “Roaming” and “Museum” from 2006, in which she stands in the midst of monuments and institutions.
Gates, who is working to revive Chicago’s South Side, has an installation dedicated to DJ Frankie Knuckles, who died in 2014, the “Godfather of House Music,” which contains more than 5,000 records from Knuckle’s personal archive – many of which are being digitized, while they play in the gallery – and a neon “Burn, baby, burn” phrase used by Watts rioters after it was popularized by disc jockeys.
Adjaye, who designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Studio Museum in Harlem’s new building under construction, used New York Earth to create a curvilinear maze that evokes West African architecture and feels like a roughly hewn Richard Serra.
Adjaye said in an email that he is “exploring black spaces on the continent in terms of social hangouts”. The sculpture invites people to move around in it and reflects Adjaye’s emphasis on integrative and accessible architecture.
“It’s about fragments of chambers and buildings built out of the earth,” he said, “which were the backdrop for the life of black people.”
Sargent, who recently looked stylish in a cream-colored straw hat and Adidas Wales Bonn Samba shoes (long tongue and quilting) is not necessarily considered a disruptor as he has been part of the art world for a decade. (The works, like most of them, are for sale in the gallery; prices on request.)
But he wants to expand the way people can experience art beyond the purely aesthetic and attract visitors who normally come to the gallery to “have some fun”. [Gerhard] Richter Exhibition ”as well as those who might be more interested in how art can be“ in service to my community ”.
“If we are trying to rethink the institutional space, we should all work together to envision something else,” said Sargent, “and push for what else would be possible if we dream just a little beyond tradition.”
He also said it was important that art spaces that display black images better appeal to black audiences. “If you say that it’s about a group of people and they don’t come to see the work or get some financial benefit from the work, it makes me uneasy,” said Sargent. “If the work involves a particular community, why don’t you see that community in this museum? Why don’t you see this community in this gallery? “
Allana Clarke, a Trinidadian-American who works in black beauty products, has two plays on the show – one is a poem made from raw unprocessed cocoa butter and beeswax that spells both “black” and “lack”; another a sculpture made from the glue used for hair extension tissue.
She said that “Social Works” goes further than the “virtuous signals and empty gestures” that came from many institutions over the past year. “It’s not that,” she said. “This is a really complex take on blackness.”
“Hopefully this is the beginning of something that is impactful and sustainable,” she added. “It’s completely overdue.”