Degrees of Subversion

An Interview with Fred Wilson

Nature may play a role in how we look but nurture determines what we become. Fred Wilson grew up in a mixed Caribbean and African American family with a devotion to learning. There are now three generations of educators in his family, so it is not surprising that he would find himself a teacher as well, in public galleries, universities and, most significantly, in his role as one of America’s most persuasive conceptual artists. He is a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award (1999) and the 2002 Larry Aldrich Award and he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2003. Among his recent exhibitions are “Sculptures, Paintings and Installations: 2004–2014” at the Pace Gallery in New York; “Venice Suite: Sala Longhi and Related Works” at JGM Gallerie in Paris; “Fred Wilson: Local Color” at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2013; Fred Wilson: Works 2004–2011 at The Cleveland Museum in 2012. His practice has taken him to museums all over the world, where he has been invited to develop exhibitions that reframe their collections.

Wilson is, by his own admission, a seeker after the unseen. It is his conviction that you can tell more about a museum by what it doesn’t show than by what it does. The socio-aesthetic board game he is playing has its own snakes and ladders, and in the particular rag-and-bone shop into which he descends, he has been able to discover and then bring to the surface objects and images that show us things we are not always happy to see. “There is a lot of unconscious denial in art museums,” he says. I don’t go in looking for racism. I go towards the denial.”

Fred Wilson, installation view, “Fred Wilson: Works 2004 - 2011,” Cleveland Museum of Art, 2012.

An intervention by Fred Wilson is quietly subversive. As he points out, “it doesn’t bring the building down; it doesn’t cause a firestorm.” While that may be true, it can generate some considerable heat. The intervention which initially brought him widespread public attention was at the Baltimore City Historical Society in 1992. Called “Mining the Museum,” the exhibition introduced his technique of juxtaposing objects drawn from the collection that had never been shown together, if they had even been shown at all. Wilson is not a proponent of deaccessioning because keeping collections intact ensures the possibility of discovering the actual, and sometimes hidden, history of the institution.

This is not necessarily a conscious avoidance; museum collections bear the imprint of the cultural and social values held by the society at the time they were collected. Those values and assumptions are waiting to be found. His institutional critique is a response to the institutional unconscious. In one way, museum collections are ready-mades for Wilson; in another, they are fields of investigation. As an artist he exists in an area between anthropology and archeology. He is also an excavator who mines the museum in two ways; in going to the core to uncover what is there, he also makes the museum his own. By changing the teller, he radicalizes the tale.

Ota Benga, 2008, bronze with silk scarf and wood base, 59.5 x 12 x 12 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art. Photograph Pace Gallery.

His juxtapositions are textbook. In Untitled, a muscular Greek figure is burdened by the neckbending weight of art history. This Atlas-aesthete holds Janson’s History of Art and The Great Masters on his shoulders. He stands on a plinth but directly underneath his feet is another book, which seems to provide his sense of balance. This book is African Art. In another piece called Atlas, Wilson shows a black waiter decked out in a white jacket and black pants, with one hand on his hip and the other upturned and flattened out, as if he were carrying a serving tray. Instead of drinks he holds a globe on which there are a myriad of pushpins and small black flags; each one is a stop in the itinerary of the global slave trade.

Wilson has been especially effective in using black collectibles, those ceramic mammies, Uncle Toms, pickaninnies, Jolly Negroes, jockeys and watermelon-eating children that take the form of cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers and mechanical banks. “Collectibles” was the title of a show of sculptures and photographs at Metro Pictures in 1995 in which he used these objects in popular culture to demonstrate the complex iterations of racism. He is suspicious of easy polarities. “I exist in the subtleties,” he says, “I don’t exist in the polarities. I don’t believe they really exist.”

Even so, there are times when subtleties are not possible. In Metalworks 1793–1880, he places in a display case intricate silver pitchers, cups and tea services along with iron slave shackles. The message is clear; the enslavement of one class of people allowed for the production of precious objects for another. He has an unfailing sense of the right combinations; so, elegant wooden parlour chairs face a crude wooden whipping post that was used to punish slaves; and the slit-eyed hood and robe of a Klansman rests in a high-wheeled, turn-of-the-century baby pram.

Fred Wilson has a way of using language in the titles of his exhibitions that underlines the ambiguities he recognizes in both life and art; in 1990 at White Columns he showed “The Other Museum;” in 1993 his exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum was called “The Museum: Mixed Metaphors;” in 1997 at the University of California, Davis, he chose “Re-Shuffling the Deck;” in 2004 at the Museum of World Culture in Goteborg, Sweden, he installed “Site Unseen: Dwellings of the Demons.” These installations all involved a process of uncovering, of resiting and of rearranging.

In September Dreams, one of the works in “Speak Of Me As I Am,” his exhibition at the Venice Biennale, he moves backwards from the deaths of Desdemona and Othello to the time when they were in love. To retrieve the pearl the Moor threw away, he reverses the temporal order. It is a noble idea, a recognition that by going back into our cultural history—through museums, art and literature— we can find the knowledge that will allow us to abandon and alter the mistakes we have made. Fred Wilson has been instrumental in that process of necessary re-historicizing.

The Conversation II, 1996, glazed ceramic found objects, (large figure) 10.75 x 6.5 x 8.25 inches, (small figure) 2 x 1 x 1 inches. Photograph Ellen Labenski. Courtesy Pace Gallery

This interview was conducted in the artist’s Williamsburg studio in Brooklyn. Fred Wilson will deliver the 10th annual Shenkman Lecture in the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph on March 23, 2016.

Border Crossings: I want to get a sense of the heritage that you describe as African, European, Native American and Amerindian. Do you want to parse those various traditions? Fred Wilson: Let me just say that there are times when you say something and it sticks. I said that a long time ago and it is true, but I don’t live through that historic identity. My family is from the United States and from the Caribbean, and both sides have African, European and native ancestry to varying degrees. My aunts and cousins continued the global family by marrying into Asian and Latino families. Due to all this I somehow feel connected and empathetic to all people as if anyone could be family, even if no one else is aware of it or returns that feeling.

Your background is interesting; you’re born in the Bronx and then your family moved to Westchester. Isn’t that a fairly tony neighbourhood? Westchester is a huge suburb with various kinds of suburban neighbourhoods and we moved up there twice. We moved a lot, every five years for one reason or another. I was born in the Bronx and my parents bought a house in Brooklyn, where my mother’s family is from, but her parents are from the Caribbean. When we moved to Westchester, Yonkers, I was just a small child. It was working class and white. My father was a civil engineer who became an international consultant; my mother was a schoolteacher. I found out really late in an off-the-cuff remark my father made that when they were married they wanted to get an apartment in a desirable neighborhood in the Bronx. They answered an ad for the apartment describing themselves by their professions, saying “a schoolteacher and an engineer.” They got it over the phone. They would never have been able to move into that building had the landlord seen them. That’s what you had to deal with in the ’50s. It’s totally changed now, obviously. My mother was perfectly happy in Brooklyn, where they had bought a brownstone after moving from the Bronx, but my father had this idea of upward mobility, so we moved to Westchester. My mother was an amazing person; she was also an artist who designed the house, and my father made sure that it was structurally sound. It was a beautiful house.

Your mother had bought a Noguchi table. For wedding gifts she asked for money because she wanted to choose everything herself, so she had Russell Wright dinnerware, as she was interested in Danish Modern of that period. She got a Noguchi table back in the ’50s. She rarely bought any new furniture after that, so I inherited the table and my sister got the Russell Wright. My mother was something else. I thought all kids learned about colour theory when they were children! She was a working class girl who went to Hunter College as an education major and an art minor. She was a pianist and also a painter. If she had been born now, she would have been an architect, as it was she who designed and built the three houses we lived in. She made the most of all she could. In her world, she really pushed the boundaries.

Atlas, 1995, painted ceramic, globe, pushpins, flags, 20 x 11.5 inches. Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures Gallery.

Was it your paternal grandmother who went to college in the ’20s? My father’s mother came here from St. Louis in the ’20s and lived in Harlem and went to NYU. The lore is that she walked from Harlem down to The Village to go to school. She knew writers and others of the Harlem Renaissance.

Was she photographed by James VanDerZee? No, she was a schoolteacher and was not out and about. She knew some of the writers because they intersected in literary circles but she didn’t go to places like the Cotton Club; she was not that kind of woman, or girl. She was terrific and was mainly interested in education. She was the oldest of 13 and all of them went to college.

Mine/Yours, 1995, detail, painted ceramic figures, photograph, text, overall dimensions 11 x 24 11 inches.

In your background there is a consistent respect for education. It’s as if you didn’t have a choice other than to be similarly engaged. I come from a pedagogical background. My grandmother was an educator, she taught mentally challenged children, and when she retired she kept doing things connected to teaching until she couldn’t. She died at 104. She was the sweetest thing and was quite amazing. I can use the word amazing a lot about the family. She was especially interested in education and so she bonded with my mother who was a teacher all of her career. My sister is an educator, too. So education has haunted me throughout my life and I have done my share of it. I’m not trying to teach anything in my art but I am interested in sharing. For a lot of my early career it was making sure things became clear or plain. It was a passion for me to make clear things that were complex or invisible, or things that people were not thinking about.

Metalwork 1793-1880, silver vessels in Baltimore Repoussé style, 1830-80, maker unknown; salve shackles, ca. 1793-1872, maker unknown, made in Baltimore. From “Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson,” The Contemporary and Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1992-1993.

Your mother’s father came from St. Vincent, where he was a carpenter and also a gardener. They also came in the ’20s. My grandparents met here but they were from the same small island. When you’re young you don’t ask the questions you wish you had, but he had been a carpenter, as was his father. He and one of his uncles built the sanctuary for the church on the island, but he also worked in the Botanical Gardens in St. Vincent, the first of its kind in the New World. So he had a love of plants and horticulture and his house in Brooklyn was festooned; the front yard was wild with plants and he even had a little greenhouse attached to the back, which was also wild with flowering plants and fruit trees. This was in Brooklyn. My mother didn’t realize what this green madness was growing up until she went to the Caribbean. It was also an “aha!” moment for me going there and realizing that he was recreating his world in the warmth of the greenhouse. It was a wonderful connection with him because when we were little, he would take my sister and me to the Botanical Gardens in Brooklyn and talk about the plants, using their botanical names. Though I loved being with my grandfather, I was bored out of my mind with the details, but all these years later I have realized it was a great connection between him and me because I like taxonomies of things, and he gave me a sense of our ancestral homeland right there in Brooklyn.

Modes of Transport 1770-1910, baby carriage, ca. 1908, maker unknown; hood, 20th century, maker unknown. From “Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson,” The Contemporary and Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1992-1993.

Somehow these things have been formative in your own art making. Which leads me to ask the obvious question: did you want to become an artist from an early age? Yes. I wanted to be a veterinarian briefly when I was in elementary school but quickly realized I didn’t want to cut up cats in veterinary school. But I was the best little artist in this small grade school in the ’60s. I was the only black kid, so it gave me a bit of self worth. My mother saw that in me, she was a huge promoter, and it was also her interest. I got connected with art very early. In New York City I went to the famed music and art high school. As I went through high school I was interested in environmental and graphic design, but in the end I thought that being an artist was the most important thing I could do. By the time I got to college I thought it was the highest calling. In college I developed a focused interest in photography, performance and sculpture. Returning to New York City after college I became more interested in physical things, like building materials. I think I get that from my father. My father is a whole other subject. While my mother was extremely visually oriented and creative, he was much more analytical and philosophical. He was interested in Eastern philosophy and theoretical physics; he wrote a self published book called Mind Is Time; and he started an international organization called The Consciousness Research Foundation. People didn’t know how old he was and when they found out he was 10 years older than he said, he was forced to retire, at which time he focused entirely on his Foundation. He had left America much earlier because he couldn’t handle its very reductive notions about race. He had real issues with that and the general lack of intellectual dialogue. He lived all over the world as an international consultant but he settled in Southern Spain. His second wife was, is Dutch. I think they met in New York at a museum.

Did you develop your appreciation for objects from your father? The museum work and the object are certainly me; but questioning everything was his influence. This again is hindsight. We always got along but I didn’t want to give him much credit for a long time.

Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960, from left: whipping post, date unknown, maker unknown; armchair, ca. 1896, maker unknown; side chair with logo of Baltimore Equitable Society, ca. 1820-40, maker unknown; armchair, ca. 1855, by JH Belter; side chair, ca. 1840-60, maker unknown. From “Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson,” The Contemporary and Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1992-1993.

To continue reading the interview with Fred Wilson, order a copy of Issue 137 today.