Fire Hoses for $39,000 Bring Fame to Theaster Gates: Hot Art

Theaster Gates Installation
Installation view of ``An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures,'' the first solo exhibition of Theaster Gates. Source: Kavi Gupta Chicago via Bloomberg

Theaster Gates, 37, is an artist, urban planner, ceramist, performer and lecturer at the University of Chicago.

Take that, James Franco.

Less than two years after he burst onto the mainstream art scene, Gates’s works sell for as much as $50,000. They are in the collections of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

He’ll be the official artist of the Armory Show in New York in 2012.

Last week, Gates was the toast of Aspen, where a dozen of the world’s top art collectors enjoy an active social calendar anchored by the Aspen Art Museum and Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

“If you are a contemporary art collector in Aspen this August, it’s going to be pretty hard avoiding hearing about Theaster Gates,” said Dennis Scholl, a part-time Aspen resident who recently bought two pieces by Gates. “He’s on the list of every contemporary collector right now.”

On Aug. 12, 200 people filled Anderson Ranch’s performance space to capacity to hear Gates and two members of his Black Monks of Mississippi music ensemble croon about a 19th-century potter they call “Dave the Slave.”

Expensive Fire Hose

The following day, Gates’s sculpture, featuring an old fire hose, fetched $39,000, surging past its $20,000 estimate and becoming the priciest piece sold at the art center’s charity auction.

“Doing a performance in Aspen takes an artist from zero to 60,” said Lowell Pettit of Pettit Art Partners, a New York-based art advisory firm. “Within the 5-mile radius, you have a deeper collector concentration than anywhere else in the world.”

Until last year, Gates didn’t have the gallery representation or make much sellable art. In Chicago, his hometown, Gates was known as a performance artist and founder of the Dorchester Project, which buys abandoned houses in the rundown South Side area and converts them into affordable housing for artists.

“Everyone knew about him and was waiting for him to start making work,” said Kavi Gupta, whose Chicago- and Berlin-based gallery began working with Gates in 2010, the year he was included in the Whitney Biennial and began turning the gutted material from the Dorchester Project into art that reflects on black history and social inequality.

His first solo show at the Kavi Gupta Gallery, “An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures,” sold out before its opening in April, with prices ranging from $20,000 to $50,000.

Most pieces featured decommissioned fire hoses, a reference to the police’s hosing of civil-rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. The coiling hoses were framed by old moldings, mantle pieces and floor boards, and had titles like “In Event of Race Riot.”

“They are beautiful, beautiful objects, almost abstract,” said Scholl. “Then you read the title and you get a little shiver.”

(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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