Fred Wilson’s Williamsburg studio is across the street from a school, which is fitting, because Wilson, 58, first entered the art world as a freelance educator at the Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Crafts Museum.
Since then, the installation artist, whose mother is of Caribbean descent and whose father was African American, has been creating works that teach people about the history of slavery and racism buried in the vaults of some of the world’s leading museums. Wilson, who was awarded the prestigious MacArthur grant in 1999 and represented the United States at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, has never stopped finding new meaning in the color “black,” as both a sociopolitical concept and an esthetic entity.
Wilson bought his studio, formerly a garage, in 2001 and renovated it to look very much like a Chelsea gallery, with a facade of frosted windows, pristine white walls, and a poured-cement floor. “I wanted it to be this way because this is my gallery,” says Wilson, whose interventions in museum collections are often site-specific, though in recent years he has also developed a strong studio practice. His tidy, well-organized space is punctuated by objects that offer clues to his mind at work: a bulletin board filled with a patchwork of pictures of the flags of Africa and a pair of plaster casts, one of a white classical Greek statue and the other of an ebony Egyptian mummy case, standing guard over his assistants’ desks.
“When I’m in my studio, I sit here, I go through my books and ideas that have hit me while I’m on my travels, and I have this collection in the back,” says Wilson, an inveterate collector of ephemera and kitsch. “When I’m walking the street, I’ll see something that intrigues me, and I will photograph it or keep it in my head.”
Entering his backroom storage unit is like walking into a combined history museum and thrift shop. The shelves are lined floor to ceiling with mammy cookie jars, glass clowns, and liquor bottles with the word “black” in their labels. Wilson has been collecting objects for a future installation to be called Black Now. It will contain several hundred items that are black or have the word “black” in their titles.
His lead assistant, Jason Irwin, pulls down a cardboard box from a shelf filled with B-movie DVDs and cheap paperbacks. “At one point, we saved every song on iTunes, and, before the store closed, we scoured the catalogue at Virgin for every film that had ‘black’ in its name,” Wilson says. “With movies, it turned out, of course, to be mostly horror movies and thrillers, though I did find Black Beauty in the children’s section.”
“Bring some of those,” Wilson asks Irwin and his other assistant, Karl Miller Espinoza, pointing to a shelf of opaque glass forms that look like oversize teardrops. “I’m into environments and situations, but like every other artist, I like things coming out of my head from nowhere, so that’s how the glass started happening.” The black, glistening drips, now a signature device in his installations, date back to Wilson’s stint as an artist-in-residence at the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle in 2001, where he worked with master glass blowers to come up with a three-dimensional equivalent of black drops on an etching plate. They devised a method of blowing red glass so dense it looks black.
“I learned to blow glass, but I will never be able to do it like these guys,” says Wilson, who returns to Seattle twice a year to supervise and collaborate in teardrop production. The drops are sometimes based on drawings he provides but more often on trial and error. “When I work with artisans, I make things their hands feel comfortable making and that they feel comfortable making, because that’s when it’s their best output,” he says, holding up an extremely delicate drip, less than a foot long with an elongated neck, as if to prove his point.
Wilson returns to the front room of the studio and studies the drips laid out on the table. “I look in my things and think about what I want to play with, and I bring them out and start playing with them,” he says, moving around the table as he talks. He looks striking, with gentle features framed by a salt-and-pepper Afro and a full beard.
He asks his assistant to pull out a painting of a flag—one of 68 he made for every country in Africa—and hang it on the wall in front of him. This painting, black paint applied to raw canvas, looks like a coloring-book drawing of the flag of Angola, awaiting the application of color. It is frightening, with a bold machete as its central icon above a wide black stripe at the base. Wilson picks up a glass drip and holds it with his right hand beneath the canvas. The painting suddenly seems to be bleeding black blood or spilling black oil. He likes the effect but is not sure of which drip to use, so he steps back and watches as his assistants pick up one or another and test them for his approval.
Before creating the flags, which he showed in an installation at Karsten Schubert Gallery in London last year, Wilson researched the history behind each one. The Angolan flag, initiated by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola when the country achieved independence in 1975, has a red and black field, the red referring both to the blood shed during the colonial period and the independence struggle and to socialism, and the black symbolizing African culture. The machete (representing the peasantry) is crossed with a cog wheel (representing workers and industry) and a gold star. In 2003, a new, more “optimistic” flag was proposed, featuring a radiant sun, but it has not been formally adopted.
“I was thinking about the nature of these countries—that they are unfinished and sometimes they change,” says Wilson, explaining why the work is in fact not black-and-white but black on raw canvas.
Indeed, Malawi adopted a new flag in 2010, after the series had been completed. Wilson had already shipped the 68 flags to London, but he made a new one for Malawi in time for the show. Tate Modern bought the entire installation, but that didn’t end the project. Wilson made a flag for South Sudan after it became independent last year.
“Putting them out in the world as paintings was initially kind of scary for me because I am not a painter,” says Wilson, who relied on his assistant to fabricate the flags. Testing additional drips beneath the painting, he adds, “It makes sense for me to juxtapose things, which is what I always do.”
Born in the Bronx, Wilson received a B.F.A. from SUNY Purchase in 1976. Beginning in the late 1980s, he created a series of “mock museums” intended to reveal how museums unthinkingly reinforce racist assumptions. The work that brought him wide attention, in 1992, was “Mining the Museum,” for which he rearranged the collection of the Maryland Historical Society to illuminate the neglected history of Native and African Americans in the state. Since 2004, he has been represented by Pace Gallery.
Looking hard at the Angolan flag painting, Wilson decides that he approves of the way the teardrops hang below it. “I like that. Let’s get a photograph,” he tells his assistants, almost shouting over the music in the studio, a recording of Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass. He quickly reaches for his iPhone and snaps a picture of the arrangement: two drips beneath the flag, one pointing left and the other right.
“I treat the painting as just another object, but when actually seeing them together, all these thoughts go through my head. These look to me like some liquid dripping. It refers to oil but also to race. There’s a cartoon element in it that kind of intrigues me.”
Satisfied with the result, Wilson relaxes. “So, that’s kind of how it works,” he says. He imagines a room filled with the flags, with drips punctuating the walls. It seems like a simple process, surprisingly free of blueprints or planning. “I don’t really work from drawings,” he adds. “My way is very direct.”
Two weeks later, I return to see Wilson complete the piece, but, in fact, it was complete from the moment he found the right combination of elements. Working from his snapshot, blown up and printed large, two assistants reposition the drips beneath the painting on the wall. “Move to the right . . . not that much . . . a little higher,” says Wilson, until he thinks the elements are in the right position. Screws are drilled into the wall, and the drips, which have concave holes in their backs, hang in place for a few minutes as Wilson surveys the scene. Then the glass objects are removed and the assistants take measurements, creating a simple blueprint of the arrangement that will accompany the piece wherever it travels. The work is done.
“I always say insecurity is a good thing when you are making art,” concludes Wilson, though he seems confident about his choices this time. “It makes you ask things, like, ‘What is this? Have I seen this before?’ Or, ‘Why is this coming out of me at this moment?’”
He finds it amusing that his process consists mostly of researching and reflecting on these questions, and only later working with material elements.
“Generally,” he says, “those are things that make me push myself. I just think I have not seen it before, and so it turns out to be okay.”