Theaster Gates:
“Every Square Needs a Circle”

Gray Warehouse, Chicago


Theaster Gates’ new show at the Gray Warehouse, “Every Square Needs a Circle,” brings together two blue-chip presences on the local art scene. Gates, an art world juggernaut, is showing in his hometown on the heels of recent exhibitions at Fondazione Prada, Palais de Tokyo, and Kunstmuseum Basel. It feels like anything should be possible at this moment and at this level for Gates, who is now represented on all fronts by Richard Gray, Regen Projects, White Cube, and Gagosian.

“Every Square Needs a Circle” seems like it should reflect exactly what the artist wants at this point in his career because, if not now, when? If not here, where? Gates is using this show to give us the breadth of his object-making and refocus our attention in a divergent practice.

In Chicago and now internationally, Gates’s reputation and his cultivated brand precede him, creating an expectation that the work will be restorative. The viewer familiar with Gates may expect that somehow the materials themselves will contain in them the dynamism of Gates’ performative presence, if not his oeuvre, which encompasses social practice and economy-building. Walking into the show, I wondered, what is the breaking point of a single image or object under the weight of the artist’s celebrity career, which thrives on constantly renegotiating and redeploying its value?

The exhibition doesn’t disappoint, functioning as a broad sampling of recent projects that have debuted internationally. The pressure is placed on the material to create evocative correlations between the histories of art, black life and labor against the backdrop of the city.


Theaster Gates, Mama's Milk, 2018. Metal and light. Image courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery


The individual objects are mesmerizing, particularly the centerpieces around which the show is arranged: a suspended neon sign, Mama’s Milk, and the altar-like Every Square captivate the room. Entering the main hall, we’re lured by a glowing, suspended Rothschild Liquors sign that has been adapted to include an additional blue script reading “Mama’s Milk.” The buzz and slight flicker of the neon, hung at eye level from the lofted ceiling, activate the air with light, heat, and anxiety. The sign is entrancing but looms in the background as you walk through the exhibition. It is a tangible artifact that mentally situates us in Chicago and its history. That decision anchors a show that could feel like a scattered catalog of recent works, reconnecting it to place.

In the middle of the exhibition sits a monumental sculpture that feels like an altar or a stage—a metal framed platform that has stairs leading to a hollow grid. It is punctuated with sculptures made of found objects, wood, and clay that bring to mind Gates’ recent exhibition, “Amalgam,” in Paris. Walking over and over in a circle around Every Square, the heart of the show, I wonder: what does it mean to presume that an object can have transformative power in the way Gates’s objects are assumed to perform?

Most art practices aren’t expected to carry the weight of social responsibility, but what does it mean that we expect Gates’ work to be redemptive, replenishing—to have the same type of power every time? In a practice that is continuously repositioning itself to facilitate, to grow, to absorb, what place do objects hold?


Theaster Gates, Every Square, 2019. Mixed Media, Image courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery.


Gray’s press release points to Gates’ ongoing mining of the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois and a small Agnes Martin painting, Little Sister, as catalysts and reference points for his visual research. The connection between the two creates an echo. Gates’ artwork melds the formal and material modernisms of Martin’s grid with Du Bois’s data portraits, made for the 1900 Paris Exposition, that sought to picture the lives of Black Americans using ingenious and unusual graphs that read like paintings ahead of their time.

But here, the artist riffs materially. You can see Agnes Martin’s Little Sister in the structure of Every Square and even in the title of the show, as Martin’s painting is a modest ink grid with round copper nails that punctuate each square. Du Bois’s data portraits are reimagined in neon in the works Progress Mill and Slaves, Ex Slaves, where the image is foregrounded and stripped of descriptive text. In both, the title links the works back to the DuBoisian meaning. The grid and diagram here take on many connotations—formally, as a means of support, of constraint, a ground; conceptually, as it applies to people’s lives or the scale of the city, it is something lived with, to be interrupted or reimagined.


Theaster Gates, Slaves Ex Slaves, 2018, Neon. Image courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery.


The works that sit in the periphery reinforce these interests and modes of working. A bronze statue from Gates’ Black Madonna series is enclosed in metal fencing looking out onto the show toward three tar paintings in the back of the gallery. These bring to mind religious triptychs and speak to the artist’s father’s career as a roofer in Chicago.

Two Circles, an installation of linen-bound Artforum magazines on a sleek shelf, is the last work that I linger with as I exit. Gates’s own words are embossed on the spines of the volumes, letting the set read as a poem. It is a moment where the convergence of his interest in the apparatus of the art world, design, and history all serve his own words, and it feels like the most concise and understated work in the exhibition.


Theaster Gates, (from left) Highway with Mountain, Black Rainbow, Arc, 2019. Rubber, tar and wood. Photo courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery.


“Every Square Needs a Circle” is the conscious tailoring of a larger-than-life persona into a show that puts the artist as a sculptor first. The artist is quoted in the gallery’s press release saying, “the work is not about a social mission—it is about sculpture and how things I believe in manifest through the material world.” By now, Gates is solidly in art’s canon and will remain a significant artist in Chicago and internationally. This hometown show reiterates how the artist sees himself among the many parts we see him play and reminds us that the objects are meaningful in their own right.


Sara Rouse


“Every Square Needs a Circle” is on view through June 29 at Gray Warehouse, 2044 W Carroll Ave, Chicago, IL 60612.


Sara Rouse is an artist and writer living and working in Chicago, IL. She received her B.F.A from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012 and her M.F.A. from the University of Chicago in 2015. Follow her work at and on Instagram @sararouse.



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