Theaster Gates - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Introduction


    Praised by ArtReview as ‘the artist who does more outside the gallery than within’,i American artist Theaster Gates is widely celebrated for his socially engaged sculpture, installation and performance works, and the work that he does for his community through his Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to neighbourhood regeneration and cultural development.


    Marking his auction debut in Asia, Phillips in Assocation with Poly Auction are pleased to present this tremendous work from his celebrated Civil Tapestry series, Dirty Red -  not just the largest work from this series to come to auction, but also the largest work by Gates to have ever come on the market. Comprised of colourful red strips of decommissioned fire hoses that are tonally arranged and stitched together, Dirty Red is monumental both in size and in historical meaning and importance, powerfully makeing reference to the civil rights struggles in the United States, specifically those that took place in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama. 


    Civil Tapestry series



    “Art and protest are forms of political thought...They are both potent and make apparent the deep inequalities, injustices and truths of our time.”
    — Theaster Gates



    Dirty Red belongs to one of Gates’ most important bodies of work, his Civil Tapestry series, made from strips of decommissioned fire hoses that the artist acquired in his hometown of Chicago. Works from the series, such as Civil Tapestry 4 (2011), part of the permanent collection of the Tate Modern museum in London, demonstrate Gates’ engagement with both materiality—reclaiming raw, scrapped materials and bestowing them with a new power—and the charged history of racial politics that remain significant today. 



    Theaster Gates, Civil Tapestry 4, 2011
    Collection of Tate Modern, London



    The use of decommissioned fire hoses in this series is symbolic of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America, specifically The Birmingham Campaign of 1963 in which high-pressure fire hoses were used against peaceful protestors, injuring men, women and children. The Birmingham Campaign, launched in the spring of 1963 and also known as “Project C”, was one of the most influential campaigns of the Civil Rights movement, and is considered by many as a pivotal moment that ‘led to immediate shifts in the American South and created opportunity for Black people to integrate’, as stated by Gates.ii


    Led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and influential figures including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverends James Bevel and Fred Shuttlesworth amongst others, the protest set out to overturn the city’s segregation rules by putting pressure on Birmingham’s merchants during the Easter season. The non-violent protest consisted of mass-meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, a march on the city hall, and the boycott of downtown merchants, but was met with violent attacks ordered by Birmingham City Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, employing police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses against those involved. Nearly one thousand young people were arrested, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose time behind bars led to one of his most famous discussions on racial injustice and civil disobedience in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. 




    Image showing the police’s use of high-pressure fire hoses during The Birmingham Campaign, 1963



    Producing some of the most compelling imagery of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the use of fire hoses to blast non-violent protestors, as well as fierce police dogs to break up the demonstrations, were widely condemned, and in May 1963, an agreement was reached to desegregate the city. In his address to the nation, President John F. Kennedy criticised the Birmingham police for their actions, accelerating the drafting of a civil rights bill as a result.


    Photographs and video imagery of the protests were circulated around the nation and the world, demonstrating the violence of the Birmingham police, attacking cowering, peaceful protestors of all ages. Gates’ use of old fire hoses as the material for his Civil Tapestries firmly roots his art in the social and political context of the Civil Rights Movement, and powerfully stimulates conversations ‘about milestones made toward racial equality’.iii Further, some of the hoses used in his Civil Tapestries, such as Civil Tapestry 4 have printed lettering on its surface with details of the manufacturer or dates, unequivocally rooting the material to the context of the Civil Rights Movement. 



    Image showing the police’s use of high-pressure fire hoses during The Birmingham Campaign, 1963



    The use of decommissioned fire-hoses also alludes to the destruction of Black churches by fire, specifically the bombing of the Fifteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, in which four young girls were tragically killed. The death of four little girls shocked the nation, and was another key turning point in the violent struggle for civil rights in Birmingham, shocking those at home and around the world. Striking tapestries such as Dirty Red become symbols that pay tribute to those who participated and fought in the struggle for racial equality, the red of the work evocative of the blood that was so terribly spilled.


    Adding to the layers of its meaningful complexity, the title of the present lot, Dirty Red, also contains racist connotations through the way it alludes to a derogatory slang idiom that categorises people based on appearance and skin colour. However, the title can also be read more literally, referring to the raw materiality of the hoses that have faded over time and contain dirt and residue after years of use and their subsequent dereliction. 

    “Black art and experience have exponential value beyond putting our trauma on display for non-Black audiences to interact with...Our art is not only our grief, but our joy, our celebration, our traditions and the beauty that exists in extravagance and the everyday of our communities. There has to be a belief that artistic power lives amongst all people, and there needs to be a willingness to invest in those that seek out that artistic prowess in every form, from every underrepresented community, and amplify it on the walls of cultural institutions throughout the world.”
    — Theaster Gates


    Aesthetics of Abstraction



    Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959
    Collection of Tate, London



    From afar, Dirty Red resembles the aesthetics of American abstract paintings by the likes of Barnett Newman, Frank Stella and Mark Rothko, and it is only when you come closer that the connection between the fire hose and its associations with civil rights struggles becomes powerfully apparent. Dirty Red is mesmerising in the tonality of its earthy, rich reds and browns, playing with formal elements of colour, depth and scale in a manner reminiscent of Rothko’s colour field paintings that absorb the viewer in the expressive nature of their colour modulations, as seen in Red on Maroon (1959) on view at the Tate, London.


    Visual elements such as luminosity and darkness are apparent in Dirty Red, with Gates’ ability to achieve a gradual, subtle tonality indicative of his artistic finesse. The thickness of the hose material and its age contribute to the work’s infatuating texture, rippling in some areas as the hose protrudes from its wooden frame, further adding to the intricacy and depth of this sculptural work. The appearance of Dirty Red changes when the viewer approaches the work, and again when they traverse across its colossal width. 



    Barnett Newman, Onement, I, 1948
    Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York



    Barnett Newman, pioneering abstract expressionist artist, and his iconic “zip” paintings are also interesting to consider in regards to Gates’ Civil Tapestry works, as often the different colours of his hose strips appear as “zips” that disrupt the composition. This is less apparent in Dirty Red, but in works such as Civil Tapestry 4 owned by the Tate, London, strips of umber strikingly contrast with surrounding cream and beige bands of hose material. Since the inception of his “zip” paintings in the late 1940s, as seen in early works such as Onement, I (1948), Newman used vertical bands to define the spatial composition of these works, painting strips of oil paint on top of masking tape to create a thick, irregular band. In Onement, I, a fiery orange disrupts the warm, syrupy brown of the background, seemingly dividing the painting into two equal parts but also working to unite the overall image. Gates employs a similar visual strategy in his Civil Tapestries, providing focal points for the viewer whilst also serving to divide then unite the overall work. 



    “Humble” beginnings



    Gates is well-known for his interest in materials, particularly what he has referred to as “humble” objects such as clay and tar that carry not only connections to his personal history and experiences, but heavy historical connotations. The artist refers to himself as a potter despite his engagement with a diverse range of media and involvement in numerous professional realms, including academic professor and inspirational speaker, due to his fundamental love for “humble” materials and his desire to illuminate their beauty.


    His interest in found materials is evocative of Marcel Duchamp’s trailblazing use of “readymades” in the early twentieth century, taking everyday manufactured objects and designating them as art. Perhaps more relevant in relation to Gates is the work of Robert Rauschenberg, whose Combines (1954-64) incorporated traditional art materials with ordinary things. Bed (1955) is a phenomenal example of this groundbreaking series in which he covered a wooden board with a pillow and quilt, splattering the fabric with gestural, dynamic thrashings of paint. Working with materials not common to the walls of galleries and museums, Rauschenberg’s work is a striking precedent to Gates’ practice. 




    Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955
    Collection of MoMA, online



    Aiming to reinvigorate objects that we tend to overlook, Gates imbues his materials with a new power in his sincere engagement with issues including race and gender. His tar paintings, for example, aim to decolonise the medium whilst ‘making space for new voices’.iv Sparking wider conversations around the meanings of his works, images such as Dirty Red repurpose found materials that carry weighty historical connotations, placing it in a contemporary context for the consideration of present and future generations. 



    Theaster Gates, Diagonal Bitumen, 2014
    Courtesy of White Cube


    Collector’s Digest


    Theaster Gates is an influential artist whose significance is felt both within and outside of the gallery context. In 2010, Gates was featured in the Whitney Biennial, a critical moment in his career in displaying his work to a wider audience. At the Biennial, ‘he revamped the museum’s sculpture court with found objects, transforming the space into a gathering area for performances, social engagement, and contemplation’, a highly successful demonstration of his work.v That same year, he was also honoured with a solo exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, again catapulting the artist’s career to new heights.


    Since then, his work has been featured in many reputable galleries and museums around the world, including Tate, London; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, to name a few.


    Recently, Gagosian presented the artist’s first-ever solo exhibition in New York, titled Black Vessel, which ran from 10 October 2020 to 23 January 2021, extended due to the exhibition’s critical and popular success.This year, his work will be featured in the upcoming group exhibition at Gagosian, Social Works, scheduled to run from 24 June to 13 August 2021, curated by Antwaun Sargent and ‘exploring Black social practice as it relates to space in the museum, the gallery, and the community’.vi


    He also has recently been honoured with two solo exhibitions in Shanghai. The first, China Cabinet, was held by Gagosian at Prada Rong Zhai, closing on 7 May. TANK Shanghai are also currently presenting a solo show titled Bad Neon, which runs until 29 August 2021.


    Further, Gates continues his social interventions through his Rebuild Foundation, mostly focused on restoring Chicago’s South Side through different initiatives including community arts programming and cultural development. In 2017 he was awarded the Artes Mundi 6 prize and the French government’s Chevalier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.




    ‘Theaster Gates; Power 100’, ArtReview, 2019, online

    ii Theaster Gates, press release for An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures, Kavi Gupta, Chicago 2011

    iii Nasher Prize, ‘Theaster Gates; 2018 Nasher Prize Laureate Teaching Resource’, Nasher Prize; Nasher Sculpture Center, 2018, online

    iv Laura Feinstein, ‘Interview: Theaster Gates: ‘Art and protest are forms of political thought’, The Guardian, 22 October 2020, online

    ‘Theaster Gates: AMALGAM’, Gagosian Quarterly, Winter 2019, online

    vi ‘Social Works’, Gagosian, 2021, online 


    • Provenance

      Regen Projects, Los Angeles
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, Regen Projects, But To Be a Poor Race, 14 January - 25 February 2017
      Dallas, Nasher Sculpture Center, 2018 Nasher Prize Laureate: Theaster Gates, 17 February - 28 April 2018


Dirty Red

fire hose and wood, in 5 parts
(i) 152.3 x 130.3 cm. (59 7/8 x 51 1/4 in.)
(ii) 152.3 x 128.5 cm. (59 7/8 x 50 5/8 in.)
(iii) 152.3 x 123 cm. (59 7/8 x 48 3/8 in.)
(iv) 152.3 x 126 cm. (59 7/8 x 49 5/8 in.)
(v) 152.3 x 153 cm. (59 7/8 x 60 1/4 in.)
overall 152.3 x 660.8 cm. (59 7/8 x 260 1/8 in.)

Executed in 2016.

Full Cataloguing

HK$4,600,000 - 6,200,000 

Sold for HK$5,922,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021