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Gagosian curator-director Antwaun Sargent on Black faces, Black spaces + HOW HE GETS HIS BODE CUSTOM!!
Antwaun Sargent — he’s a critic, author and, as of a few weeks ago, the newest director & curator at Gagosian gallery. Over the years Antwaun’s written about art for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vice, among other places. In 2019 he published his first book, The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion, and last year he edited Young, Gifted and Black: A New Generation of Artists. His first Gagosian show is slotted for later this year.
More impressive than any of that, as far as we’re concerned?? Antwaun stays FLOODING THE D*MN FEED with elegant over-the-top fit pic upon elegant over-the-top fit pic … And since Blackbird Spyplane is the No. 1 source across all media for “unbeatable art-theorizing while monstrously DRIPPED DOWN,” it was only natural that we hit up Antwaun & ask him to tell us about a rare & cherished possession…
He didn’t think long before choosing a sketch of himself, drawn by L.A. artist Henry Taylor, whose incredible paintings first came on our radar at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. “It’s bizarre for me to say as a gallery director, but my personal relationship to art isn’t about objects, it’s about social, communal relationships,” Antwaun says. “So I haven’t actually gotten around to framing the drawing yet — but I need to.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve said the first Gagosian show you work on will explore “notions of Black space” — tell us more about that.
Antwaun Sargent: “I’ve gotten deeply interested over the last few years in visual artists who’ve expanded their practices out into the communities in which they live, and who have a real material effect on those communities — and the reason they have that effect is because they’re obsessed with the spaces which we as Black people occupy, and the spaces we’ve been excluded from occupying. That’s ‘spaces’ in the sense of institutions, like galleries and museums; it’s ‘spaces’ in the sense of communities; and it’s spaces that are psychological. Because all of those are important in the ways we negotiate power and negotiate worth.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Community-building is cool in any case, but especially in the context of the art world, which can often feel like this insular, closed-off system…
Antwaun Sargent: “What’s funny about the art world is it’s obsessed with talking about audiences — ‘reaching this audience,’ ‘reaching that audience’ — but the actual work does not always reflect that. I think things are changing, though. Over the last several years, people have started to address the historical limitations and erasures and the ways we’ve used spaces in racist and sexist ways. What I basically mean by that is we used to just show white straight men, and that’s starting to change.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Speaking of artists enmeshed in their communities, you decided to tell us about a portrait that Henry Taylor drew of you. He’s painted celebrities from photographs (like Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis) and from memory (like Jay-Z), but he’s also known for painting Philando Castile from a YouTube still of his killing — and for painting regular people that he meets out in the street, inviting strangers to his studio in Los Angeles to sit for him…
Antwaun Sargent: “Yes, first off, he’s such a gifted painter, but one of the things that’s important to think about with his work is that he paints his community as it is. He’s not interested in what some of other Black portrait-painters have done: he’s not interested in explorations of ‘dignity’ or ‘power’ or ‘Black excellence.’ Henry’s painting homeless folks, painting the people of the street, and what’s so important about that is, historically, those people have been told they don’t matter, and how they’ve been told that in portraiture, specifically, is we don’t see them. They’re not there in our historical-visual account of culture.
“That’s something that makes his work so fresh. Also I love his use of impasto and abstraction and figuration and blending those into the image — and even his use of language, in the way he titles his works.”
Blackbird Spyplane: The one that pops into my mind when you say that is “Haitian working (washing my window) not begging” — that title’s doing a lot more than a straightforward description…
Antwaun Sargent: “He’s painting this man and telling you to focus on the value of his labor, which we don’t often value. He’s re-setting the sort of rules of engagement around unhoused people. When you see someone in L.A. come up at a stoplight, as you do, trying to make a buck by washing your window, Henry is saying: Recognize the man’s labor.
“I think there’s a lot of labor that can go under-recognized because of the socioeconomic circumstance you’re in, or the color of your skin, or your gender. So without beating you over the head, there’s this poetic resetting of our notions that Henry captures in his mark-making, in the subjects he chooses to paint, and in how he chooses titles.”
Blackbird Spyplane: What paintings of his do you especially love? You posted “Cicely and Miles Visit the Obamas” to yr IG the other day, when Cicely Tyson died…
Antwaun Sargent: “That painting is amazing on a lot of different levels, because he takes this old black-and-white society photo from when they were married and transports this image of ‘Black excellence’ and genius on to the lawn of the White House — I love that gesture, the play in that, like, ‘We had Obamas before we had these Obamas.’ And if you go even further, they’re standing before the White House, which was built by enslaved people, so it talks about that labor and that lineage, this notion that there is a dark history, but a rich history. And it speaks to Henry’s playfulness — if you meet him, he’s the most gregarious person you’ll ever meet.
“There are so many others I love. One was in the Whitney Biennial — ‘Ancestors of Genghis Khan with Black Man on Horse.’ It’s an amazing, virtuosic, deeply emotional, defiant, empathetic image. I was interviewing Henry a few years ago, and he called that image his ‘Guernica.’ So he’s talking about Picasso’s grayscale modernist masterpiece from 1937, and how that was a response to a certain violence, and he was thinking about that in the context of his own lineage: His grandfather was a horse trainer who was killed — lynched — in East Texas in 1933. So it alludes to that, and to all these intersecting histories, and there’s nothing straightforwardly chronological about it, but what connects the image is Henry Taylor. That’s the way we live with history. You might not see the connections, but this person does.”
Blackbird Spyplane: So Taylor drew you — how did that come about?
Antwaun Sargent: “I was interviewing him. He was being given an award that Robert De Niro set up to honor his father, who was an artist, so we were at the Greenwich Hotel, in the back garden, having a bottle of rosé, and there’s nothing linear about an interview with Henry Taylor: He talks and it’s almost prophetic; you catch what you catch. But we’re having this conversation, and the whole time he’s drawing me, and when we were finished he ripped out the page, told me, ‘I had a cousin called Big A,’ wrote that at the bottom, and handed it to me.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I’ve only seen his paintings, so it’s very cool to see this quick-and-loose drawing …
Antwaun Sargent: “He also makes sculptures. The paintings have dominated because they are what they are, and also the privilege we give paintings. But I was struck by the way he captured me — it was this impromptu portrait, but he captured my likeness. That’s me thinking. So he’s in full command of the paint brush but also the pen.”
Blackbird Spyplane: BTW, yr heavy into fashion — what designers are you feeling these days?
Antwaun Sargent: “The same way that I’m deeply interested in young artists, I’m interested in new designers. I try to make sure I’m supporting established names along with new ones. Two younger names I love and buy a lot of are Wales Bonner and Emily Bode. I’m actually heading over to see Emily tonight because I asked her to make me a custom jacket and, amazingly, she said yes.
“I love their voices and the fact that when you wear them, you know you’re wearing them. I love that. I love statement anything. Beyond them, I’m in love with Bottega, their knits are amazing; I’m a huge Marni fan; huge Dries fan. I love Raf, can’t wait to get my hands on the knits he did with Prada. And — because he’s a friend and because he makes really great clothes — I wear a lot of Pyer Moss. I’ve gotten into riding a bike, cycling like a madman, and I’ve been wearing the ‘Experiment’ shoes he made with Reebok on my rides.”
-Antwaun Sargent is on IG here and Twitter here. His book The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion, is available through Aperture here; he edited Young Gifted and Black: A New Generation of Artists, which u can check out here.
-Every “Blackbird Spyplane Interview,” w/ such luminaries of the arts & jawn sciences as Jerry Seinfeld, André 3000, Emily Bode, Lorde, Online Ceramics, Nathan Fielder, Phoebe Bridgers, Rashida Jones, John Wilson, Ezra Koenig, Antonio from 18 East and more, is here.
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