Right now, as soon as the elevator doors open onto the Flag Art Foundation’s ninth-floor space in the Chelsea Arts Tower, you’re confronted with what at first seems like an unusual pairing: a 2019 hard-edged abstraction in green, blue, and orange by Carmen Herrera next to an undated wall-hung sculpture by Sonia Gomes. The two artist’s approach to art-making in many ways couldn’t be further apart, but when seen side by side, the affinities become clear.
This pairing is revelatory, and it’s one of many worth noting in an exhibition curated by former NFL player Keith Rivers, who is himself a collector. Titled “Courage Before Expectation,” the show opened last Friday. While the show doesn’t draw on the former linebacker’s own holdings, it does speak to his values—in life and in art.
“The show’s title, ‘Courage Before Expectation,’ is about taking a chance,” Rivers said in an interview at Flag. “It’s not necessarily about the accolades they acquired, it’s more about who they become in the process of making this work that just has to come out of them: just go to work and let the chips fall where they may. There’s always an opportunity to change your course and do what you’re passionate about.”
The show grew out of a series of conversations with Flag founder Glenn Fuhrman that began in 2020, when the Baer Faxt put the two in touch after an article on Rivers’s collection at Fuhrman’s request. Just as important, however, were a number of inspirational quotes that Rivers said he keeps in mind, from ones said to him by coaches to mantras printed on the walls of sports training centers. “I always have a saying or an -ism handy,” Rivers said, “so when I was thinking about the show, what I needed was a little motivation, and these artists’ stories, which I find inspirational, just kept popping up in my mind.”
In terms of the art on view, Rivers is especially tied to the materiality of the works, whether it be the intricately stitched-together textiles by Gomes, the intimate pastel crosshatches in works on paper by Etel Adnan, or the smooth wood in a sculpture by Thaddeus Mosley. What ties the show together, Rivers said, is the biographical nature of some of the artist’s lives: Gomes and Mosley who had previously had careers as a lawyer and a postal worker, respectively, before committing themselves to art.
Rivers also contrasted the stories of artists like Herrera and Adnan, who were recognized by the mainstream art world late in life, with how the press might frame the story of a “backup quarterback who rises from obscurity to become the starting quarterback in a major championship,” he said. That canned arc, he continued, is “microwaved”—it fails to portray the fact that these artists diligently honed their craft throughout their careers, not just in the final stages of them. He wanted “to celebrate these artists who have worked so hard to bring beautiful objects into the world and create intellectual conversations through their art that aren’t being had.” While Rivers is hesitant to say these artists’ careers mirror his own arc, he said the people included in the show “epitomize everything I believe in.”
Also included in the exhibition, which runs through June 4, are two works on paper by Philip Guston, one from 1963 done in abstraction and one from 1972 done in a figurative mode. The latter features Guston’s controversial renderings of hooded Klan figures. Rivers sees Guston’s switch to figuration from abstraction in the 1970s as an inspiring example for “when have you ever tried to attempt something you couldn’t do. He had already mastered abstraction and when he went to figuration, it was seen as a betrayal.”
Other works on view, like those by Laura Owens and Kerry James Marshall, are loans from their respective studios. Owens responded to the exhibition’s curatorial concept by sending over a modest-size Flashe on linen work from 2014. It shows a boy and a dog on a rope next to text that reads “When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot, and hang on.” Marshall contributed three inkjet photographs—of an artist in his studio, a woman showing off her jacket’s interior, and a man in front of a neon-lit motorcycle—in which blue and black tones meld together from 2002, 2018, and 2021, respectively.
Still other works are borrowed directly from the artists’ estates or come courtesy of Fuhrman’s private collection, which has earned him a spot on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list each year since 2010. Among those works owned by Fuhrman are the Herrera and an On Kawara painting from his “Today Series.”
Rivers has been collecting since 2010; he began to commit more seriously to this practice starting in 2017 after watching a documentary on Albert C. Barnes, the collector who founded the Barnes Foundation. The works in the Flag show aren’t from Rivers’s personal collection, though he did collect other works by Gomes after a trip to the SP-Arte fair in 2018. A voracious reader of texts about contemporary art, Rivers only recently learned about the work of Mosley, which he came across while perusing a 2020 issue of Apartamento magazine that also included an article on Adnan.
“What’s lovely about a group show like this is that none of these pieces will ever be seen together again, so for three months you have an epic, 25-foot Mark Bradford piece that has such a great conversation with two Gustons,” said Jonathan Rider, Flag’s artistic director. “We’ve never shown Carmen or Sonia or Thaddeus, so we get to know different artists through the process see mutual affinities in their work.”
Rivers’s exhibition is accompanied by two other exhibitions at Flag. The first shares the space with “Courage” and is a one-work outing of Brooklyn-based painter Shara Hughes, launching the Foundation’s new rotating “Spotlight” series, featuring works fresh from artists’ studios and that will change about every month. Upstairs is a solo show of Cologne-based artist Peter Uka, marking his first solo show in New York.
“Every exhibition is really its own universe,” Rider said. “Keith has a certain sensibility when it comes to art that he likes. From that conversation of all these folks who share similar biographical stories, they also share overlaps in their practices.”
Rivers agreed, saying he sees the works as having a literal dialogue with one another. “I think these artists, at night when the lights of off and everybody’s gone, they’re talking to each other about their journey to art stardom.”