When she moved back to her Chicago hometown in 2011, one of the first places curator Naomi Beckwith visited was the studio of artist Nick Cave. “I knew we had to do something together,” Beckwith, who moved back to New York to be chief curator of the Guggenheim in 2021, recalled in a recent interview. They kept in touch over the years, when she realized that Cave “had a round birthday coming up.”
She wasn’t referring to an actual birthday for the 63-year-old Chicago-based artist but rather the 30th anniversary of Cave’s first “Soundsuit,” a head-to-toe garment that he began creating in 1992 in response to the beating of Rodney King the year before by four police officers, whose acquittal sparked the L.A. Riots. He was reflecting in part on his own experience as an African American male just a few years older than King, living in this country. He often returned to a quote he had seen at a rally, “If you want to march about it you got to be able to talk about it.”
In the exhibition’s catalogue, Cave recalls how he felt in the aftermath of those events, shortly after he began teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I went into the office and none of my colleagues said nothing to me. No one. And I was fucking struggling. Struggling. That’s when I found myself in the park across the street. That’s when I looked down on the ground and there was that twig. I ended up collecting all the twigs in the park and made this sculpture from them. That was how the Soundsuit came about.”
In a recent interview, he said all this sparked the following questions in his art-making: “How do we evoke feelings? How do we stay responsible for the actions we choose to make? How can we be advocates in a world that’s troubling?”
This seminal piece soon turned into a series involving a wide range of materials: twigs, sequins, buttons, toys, metal birds, flowers, and much more. Over the past three decades, the “Soundsuits” have come to be visual embodiments of empowerment over brutality, and have been presented variously—some as sculptures, others as costumes in performances. When worn, the works act as a second skin for the performers, concealing their race, gender, and any perceived markers of class.
These works form the centerpiece of Cave’s first career retrospective, titled “Forothermore,” which opened on May 14 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where Beckwith was previously senior curator. The show’s title, Beckwith said, carries the same values as when Cave started on his “Soundsuits.” “Nick was thinking about what it means to center people who have been marginalized in society,” she said.
At first glance, the show’s title looks like a misspelling of “furthermore,” but the neologism was coined to celebrate outcasts and the way art, music, fashion, and performance can help us envision a fairer future. “For one, for all—my work has always been for others mainly,” Cave said.
The multi-hyphenate artist—designer, performer, and educator are also apt titles—has always centered his artistic practice on community building and addressing pressing societal issues. Shortly after completing his M.F.A. at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1989, Cave was offered a teaching position in fiber arts at SAIC. The Missouri-born artist wasn’t sure how long he’d stay there, but he soon fell in love with the Windy City.
“I’m not sure I would be where I am in my career, had I landed in New York,” he said. “Chicago nurtures artists in a very different way. Somehow, they are not tainted here. The level of saturation in New York is so much. Here you don’t really have that. Chicago allows me consistency and clarity.”
Beckwith termed the long and deep conversations between her and Cave that led to the show’s development a “time-travel exercise,” adding, “we tried to bring out the utopian visions you have as a younger version of yourself. If marriage equality has been obtained, anti-Black, anti-queer violence remains.”
The question of what changed and still needs to be changed led to the creation of a dozen new versions of Cave’s best-known works, collectively titled Soundsuits 9:29. During the process of their making, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. “There is an emotional shift in my works, which that moment led me to shroud,” Cave said.
Beckwith thinks that the MCA Chicago display is a “seductive place that can hit you with darker sides of society.” The exhibition’s immersive journey begins with Spinner Forest, a site-specific constellation of some 16,000 hanging mobiles in various shapes and colors that will span the museum’s two-story atrium and lobby. Despite its magical aspect, the work, in fact, refers to gun violence in Chicago. Upon closer inspection, these brightly hued, moving wind spinners have at their center guns, bullets, and teardrops.
Cave’s attention to eye-catching objects with deeper meanings continues throughout the galleries with sculptures, tapestries, videos, and jaw-dropping installations, some of which are displayed against floor-to-ceiling wallpapers collaboratively designed with the artist’s partner, artist and designer Bob Faust.
Early mixed-media installations give way to more fanciful displays, such as “Hustle Coats,” a series that celebrates the drive and labor of those who have brought much-needed resources to their communities. Also included is the “Rescue” series reflecting the loyalty and resilience of those who have been marginalized; it features ceramics of dogs presented on ornamental thrones.
Faust also helped design the exhibition catalogue, which is organized around three parts: “What It Is.” “What It Was.” “What It Shall Be.” The sections draw from a phrase that both Cave and Beckwith grew up hearing. As Beckwith explains in her essay, “You say it when you mean that not much changes, and you say it again when you mean that everything must change. Cave’s practice is in many ways reflective of this expression. His art is both a sobering recognition of all that has stayed the same as well as a portal through which to instantiate a different, more utopic future.”
When a slightly scaled-down version of the show travels to the Guggenheim in November, those three parts will shape the three-level display there. Another difference lies in the absence of a few works from the show’s Chicago premier. “Three to five works won’t make it to New York because of scale,” Cave explained. “There is not enough space to accommodate them so they would have enough breathing space around them.”
Among the never-before-seen works made especially for the retrospective is a bronze Soundsuit titled Amalgam, on which he has been working for the past three years. As with his other works here, the starting point is the found objects that make them up; now, it has just been in a way frozen in time. “I have been trying to get to bronze for quite some time,” Cave said. “At first, I was completely hands on. I had to create a sort of adornment. Then I became more a director than a facilitator. It was amazing to see it take form.”
Never one to settle to one single mode of art-making, Cave enjoys shifting to new mediums. (The larger-than-life mosaic murals imagined last year for the New York subway is proof of that.) Further along, “Forothermore” also includes Cave’s recent series of sculptures of carved and cast bronze hands, heads, and limbs, which he said speaks to the way that Black bodies have been scrutinized historically. A clenched fist raised in the air is a symbol of resistance, a posed hand reaching up through a garland of flowers show that it is unarmed.
Outside the MCA Chicago’s walls, Cave will present two works. On May 21, The Color Is will debut as part of the museum’s annual fundraising gala, ArtEdge, in the Roundhouse at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Hyde Park; the performative fashion experience will feature 80 looks by Nick Cave and his older brother, Jack Cave, with models cast via an open call of everyday people.
Cave’s inspiration for what he describes as “an extension of the exhibition” was the segment in the 1978 movie The Wiz, when the Wizard keeps changing the lighting causing the dancers to adapt their parade to various colors, from green to red to gold. “The gala performance will take place in a similar rotunda as in the film. For me it’s this amalgam of identities and cultures, all in one,” he said. (Two public performances of The Color Is will be staged at the DuSable on May 22 and May 23 for the public to enjoy.)
Since May 5, another Cave work, Ba Boom Boom Pa Pop Pop, has been projected onto the Art Deco building, the Merchandise Mart (the Mart for short) on the Chicago Riverwalk, as part of Art on theMART, which at 2.5 acres of facade is the world’s largest digital art projection. This new video work—combining a remix of his original film, Drive-By (2011), that features a wide range of colorful Soundsuits in motion on a white background, and previously unseen footage—provides an introduction to “Forothermore.”
“I think my show is going to be a sort of emotional experience,” he said of the MCA Chicago exhibition. “You will be settled at moments, reflective at others. But again, it’s all housed in a safe space.”