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Objects and Identities:
An Interview with Fred Wilson

I use beauty as a way of helping people to receive difficult or upsetting ideas,” fred wilson has noted.1 Throughout his career, the New York City-based artist has explored the relations between race and representation, counterpointing objective and subjective portrayals of history and exposing how institutional rhetorics support and repress structural racism. Early in his career, for example, Wilson’s mining the museum exhibition (1992-1993) at the Maryland Historical Society asked visitors to reexamine historical objects and their histories.2 Given access to the entire Historical Society collection and invited to re-install objects from its archive, wilson reinterpreted the collection by juxtaposing its holdings in new tableaux, thereby producing commentary on slavery, forgotten histories, and preconceived ideas about race. In installations such as “Metalwork,” which situated rusted slave shackles amidst a formal display of sterling silver tea services and goblets (see Fig. 9), he asked museum-goers not [End Page 3] only to reconsider the history of a specific place (Maryland’s own history of slavery) but also to ponder broader questions about the politics of collecting and display within institutional contexts—what gets collected, what gets displayed, and how curatorial choices shape our perceptions of both objects and their social and political contexts. He noted later, “I try to bring out the meanings that I see in the objects, often the ones that, for one reason or another, are hidden in plain sight.”3 Visitors to the Maryland Historical Society were provoked to weigh the “truth” and “lies” of historical narratives aligned with objects, now arranged in new dialogues with one another as well as with the institution that housed and displayed them.

. Fred Wilson. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery.
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Fred Wilson. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Born in 1954, Fred Wilson spent his formative years in the Bronx and in Westchester County, New York. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from SUNY Purchase in 1976 and moved to New York City after graduation, finding employment in the education departments of the American Museum of Natural History, the American Crafts Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These early experiences laid the foundations for his provocative work with institutions and museum objects. The many honors and awards Wilson has received include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1999) and the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award (2003); in 2008 he became a Trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Numerous studies of his work are now appearing in print, and in 2011 the British art press Ridinghouse published Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, containing key statements by the artist about his work.4

Over the course of his career, Wilson’s art has taken a variety of forms. Rather than working in a discrete visual or plastic medium, he juxtaposes mediums, artistic modes, and historical events in order to estrange habits of perception and valuation. On the one hand, by staging new, arresting encounters between objects and viewers in museum and exhibition venues, his work unmasks unacknowledged legacies of the past and exposes unspoken cultural assumptions in the present. For instance, he has interrogated the logics of collection and display in both popular and institutional contexts by arranging objects such as mammy dolls, globes, uniforms, and porcelain figurines into dramatic confrontations with objets d’art, thereby constructing installations that comment on race and institutional power. Wilson is widely recognized for this kind of work within [End Page 4] cultural institutions such as the Maryland Historical Society (the site of his 1993 Mining the Museum exhibition), the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College (the site of his 2006 exhibition So Much Trouble in the World–Believe It or Not!), and the Institute of Jamaica Gallery (the site of his 2007 installation An Account of a Voyage to the Island Jamaica with the Un-Natural History of That Place).5 In Mining the Museum, for example, an installation titled “Cabinet Making 1820-1910” displayed a tableau consisting of an actual wooden whipping post (last used in 1838 and long consigned to storage in the Historical Society) ringed by a mix of beautiful, well crafted Victorian armchairs. Bringing these objects of violence and genteel cosmopolitanism together not only asked visitors to consider their own complicity in state violence; it also widened the implications of the installation to encompass questions about biopolitics as well as the violence of all colonial encounters in a global context.

On the other hand, and often simultaneously, Wilson has pursued a broad spectrum of original artistic projects beyond the museological that range through paintings on cotton canvas, metal etchings, video installations, and sculpture. Since the early 2000s, for instance, Wilson has worked with glassmakers to produce the animate liquid forms of Drip, Drop, Plop (2001)—a series of enigmatic, shiny, black bulb-and-teardrop forms, some with cartoon-like eyes—as well as public arts projects. As he teams up with skilled crafts artists working in different mediums, Wilson’s collabulary work unmasks politics of race through a neo-conceptualist aesthetic. For example, in Venice, Wilson constructed the “Sala Longhi” installation in which a white glass wall sconce resembling a chandelier emerged from a wall-mounted picture frame; this was surrounded by smaller frames filled with black glass out of which circles had been cut. These circles showed through to the white gallery walls and corresponded to the faces of figures in Pietro Longhi’s “Sala Longhi” eighteenth-century painting cycle. At the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, Wilson’s Speak of Me As I Am referenced Shakespeare’s Othello in the work’s title but also through a video of the play, screened backwards, and in a specially designed black chandelier from the Murano glass studio meant to embody the presence of Othello as an overdetermined, raced, character. Moreover, Othello becomes an index of the contradictory historical presence [End Page 5] and erasure of “Moors” in Venice as well as the current status of Africans in Italian cities. But Othello, as a figure of both masculine power and racial disenfranchisement, was drawn into a conversation about the modes of racial and ethnic representation that operate in post-millennial global culture, for Wilson’s mixed-media installation also included a “department store” window display that featured dark-skinned mannequins sporting fashions from Venetian Renaissance paintings; a live Senegalese vendor from Venice who, stationed just outside the Pavilion, displaying faux designer bags as if for sale to passing spectators; decorative Moorish statues skillfully reengineered to carry objects—as would slave labor—or to emit light; and the assemblage Safe House II, a large, black, spherical earthenware sculpture mimicking a Venetian storage vessel and freestanding in a dizzying black-and-white checkerboard room. Meant to provoke meditation on “safe spaces” after 9/11, and recalling both a futuristic space pod and a makeshift refugee shelter, the vessel revealed an interior living space containing reading materials on Moorish architecture, the Dogon of West Africa, and “Desideri Resistance” (“the desire for resistance” generally or the specific antifascist Italian Resistance movement after WWII)—powerfully connecting and complicating the relation between past and present, blackness and whiteness, privilege and poverty, global and local, passivity and resistance.

“Objects have complex histories,” Wilson contends. His work defamiliarizes the ways in which objects and places are sedimented with socio-historical meaning, class hierarchies, and racial signification, and it radically challenges us to take responsibility for, and change, the import of those signifiers. On July 2, 2015, we visited with Fred Wilson at his studio in Brooklyn. After our arrival, he gave a tour of his studio and some of his current projects and then sat down with us to discuss his work, the power of objects, his own life experiences that affect his artistic perspective, and the responsibilities attendant upon his role as an artist.

—Amy J. Elias and Jered Sprecher, University of Tennessee

js/

Seeing the objects that you use—the gibbet and grillwork in the Kingston, Jamaica installation “An Account of a Voyage to the Island of Jamaica with the Un-Natural History of that Place” or the mammy dolls in “Collectibles”—it’s clear that you have a real, visceral reaction to objects.

fw/

Yes.

js/

We were wondering how you decide to put the objects together, but also whether there are ever moments when you’re tempted to destroy them, so that they’re no longer in the world. [End Page 6]

fw/

These problematic things?

js/

Yes.

fw/

Well, that was my initial response when I first started seeing the black collectibles. Of course one knows about them. I’ll tell you one story. I was the only black child in an all-white suburban neighborhood, and the class trip went to Washington D.C., but on the way, we went to Colonial Williamsburg. And I really enjoyed it, but I was just a fifth or sixth grader. (In the back of my head I knew it was a little weird that I had on a three-cornered hat and a white wig just like the other kids, but of course back then, nobody in our school wanted to talk about slavery or black people. They just sort of blanked, so I did, too.) I was going through an old drawer, maybe twenty years ago, and I remembered that I brought home different things from that trip, and one of the things was money, which I showed to my mom at the time. What I did not remember was that it was Confederate money. I had no idea what this was when I bought it. And another thing was a little black mammy doll made of a black rubber bottle stopper or bottle nipple, and these were the things I brought back.

So much of what I do is about reclaiming myself. Analyzing things that nobody was analyzing but that I was taking in completely, without any criticality. As a child, you take these things in and they stay there. And that’s a lot of why I started with collectible things in my art. The more I saw them around, the more I wondered what were they doing to me and why I felt so antagonistic toward them—they were just little things—and so I wanted to unpack that. I wondered why people collect them. And why do they still exist?

I think every object provokes these questions, but these are very particular questions—really, American questions that extend all around the world because of America’s reach and the Anglophile viewpoint about race. The objects existed, and I found them everywhere, and that was the lodestone of this way of thinking, but it extends to everything for me. You have questions about what I collect; I would collect everything. Anything that interests me and is kind of curious—but I’ve had to stop doing that. You know, the phone camera is really useful [laughs]. But I do have collection projects that feed that side of me. But let’s get back to the original question.

js/

The intensity of some of these objects. In the Art21 piece, you seemed to have this attitude: “I’m going to make something from this, because I’m going to get this bad mojo out of here.”

fw/

Yes, that’s right. That’s right.

js/

I was struck by how there could be the impulse to say, “This thing. I want to destroy it.”

fw/

Well initially, I walked by a store—in the late ‘80s I suppose—that was a trendy store with a lot of trendy, vintage things. And in the [End Page 7] window was this “Ubangi” candy dish, you know, the head of a Congolese woman with huge lips stretched by putting plates in them. (See Fig. 1.) Just sitting amidst everything else. I don’t mind these things existing in the world. They are from another time. What gets to me is that people aren’t thinking about them. They exist, they’re going to be there. But if you ignore them, there’s a larger issue, a larger problem. So I said, “I could smash this thing, or I could make an artwork,” which I thought was entirely more productive for me personally. And so that’s where it began.

For me, often things sit around for a long, long time, and then all of a sudden I’ll make something from them. It’s ruminating, germinating for a long time, and then it just all comes out. That’s why the show Collectibles was so complete, because I’d thought about this for a really long time, for at least ten years.

ae/

So when the objects sit on the shelf, do they eventually end up talking to other objects, as well as to the audience? Maybe they create a juxtaposition?

fw/

Well, what’s quite fascinating is that a former assistant of mine arranged the objects in my studio by race. That was an interesting thought, but it didn’t really engender any questioning on my part. I separated from them because he did that. When I’m out in the world, and I see these juxtapositions, they jump out at me, these conversations that happen between things. But in my studio, not so much. However, objects do strike me. It can happen out there in the world, by accident. If I see it, I know it’s mine because nobody else is seeing it, but it’s also about who I am, and why am I seeing that particular thing, so that I can grab onto that and claim it.

js/

You have projects like Mining the Museum, and then your own collecting of objects, and then the direction of the making of projects, such as the glasswork. How do you think about those things differently?

fw/

The different ways of working?

js/

Yes.

fw/

[pause] When I’m working in a museum, I’m completing someone else’s thought. The collection is a thought that has been created over a period of years, depending on how old the museum is—so it’s linked to no one person’s identity. It’s basically the museum’s identity, created over years of collecting. [End Page 8]

And at someplace like a historical society, it becomes very clear what that identity started as and built up to be. This is why I can work with museums and say to the curators, “Look, this is not about you, you did not make this collection. You have been using it but not seeing it. You may be continuing its identity without knowing it, but this is not your identity.”

ae/

Do the objects also have identities that way?

fw/

Objects are like people. They have identities. They’ve gone through a sort of formation. They’ve been moved around. And identities shift and change, and people see them the way they see them.

I’m very aware that when you see something or someone, you make a quick read. People “read” you according to their previous experiences—embedded experiences—and then if they’re thinking, sincere, sensitive people, that “read” breaks down and they see who you really are. It just takes a long time for some people, if they can’t get beyond certain things such as what one looks like. It is really useful when I’m working in collections and with people, because I let it sit and wait for them to adjust to me, while I learn who they are because of what their adjustment period is. I’m sympathetic to the situation, because we all do this to a certain degree.

So objects are not “thinking”—they collect meaning through time. That meaning is shifting because of who’s looking at them, and what that person’s worldview is. However, they still have a particular history that stays with them.

Figure 1. Fred Wilson, By Degree, 1995. Glazed ceramic and porcelain found objects, 8 x 7 x 11-1/4” (20.3 x 17.8 x 28.6 cm). Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Figure 1.

Fred Wilson, By Degree, 1995. Glazed ceramic and porcelain found objects, 8 x 7 x 11-1/4” (20.3 x 17.8 x 28.6 cm). Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.

ae/

I hear a fascinating tension in what you’re saying. On the one hand, you have this object that is what it is because of the history that it’s gone through. It’s got this historical trace attached to it, and that gives it meaning. But it’s also a material object that looks and signifies a certain way. I can imagine your [End Page 9] being completely repulsed by the material object, and yet fascinated with the historical trace that surrounds it. How do you negotiate that?

fw/

It just depends on what part of it I want to deal with. I’m aware of all the ramifications of particular objects such as Black collectibles—someone called them “degradaria”—

ae/

That’s excellent

fw/

Black collectibles: that’s really degradaria. An object is a material object, and it’s inert until you engage with it. It matters what you bring to it, and what you do with it. Ignoring it—the denial side of things—is what really freaks me out. Not acknowledging its meanings even when they’re in your face.

ae/

Does it change now that you’re making more objects?

fw/

Making objects is a different thing. Making the glass drips with the eyes was really a shock to me. I went to Pilchuk, a glass school, where I was an artist-in-residence. I didn’t know what I was going to make. I had been working with drops on paper with different materials, such as ink and paint—personifying them—and so I figured, let’s make a glass drop. And I put eyes on it. Then I realized, oh my God, this is just straight from the cartoons of my childhood. That was very upsetting, but there it was, and so I had to make more of them until I decided it’s not about that anymore for me. And at a certain point I stopped including eyes. However, I was in Barbados once, and most folks there thought the drips were humorous, cute—especially young people. It’s a black country, so it’s a different reality. Wangechi Mutu was my student at Cooper Union. She told me then that when she was a little girl in Kenya she had a doll that was a gollywog. She loved that doll. She said that in the African context it did not have the pejorative meaning that it does in the white, Anglophone countries. Context is everything.

I never used a whole wall of glass drips with eyes; there would just be one or two. (See Fig. 2.) This was so viewers wouldn’t miss the cultural aspect of the drips, their reference to Blackness, if also intuiting the material, geopolitical reference to oil—that geopolitical kind of history, which I’m interested in also.

The glass was working for me, so I kept with it. I still like the drip form. I gave the works titles that didn’t relate to any particular subject. I wanted to allow viewers to come up with references that make sense to them. However, [End Page 10] my first glass works of art from Venice were responding to Venice. I used historic forms to create something new. The mirrors? These were actually Venetian designs and I stacked them, changed the scale, and did other things to the form.6 Usually the Venetians etch these beautiful mirrors with designs on the back; with the silvering on the back, the designs are very bright and shiny, making the mirrors look very baroque. And I didn’t want them to do that, because I thought it would stand out too much. I had them etch a design on the front of the glass, so that it would be more ghostly. And they’re like, “Fred Wilson invented a whole new style—etching on the front of the glass!” It was hysterical. And that’s why they enjoy working with me, because a simple change takes them way out of their box, though they know how to make things. I like working with people who make things that they know how to make.

The glass drips were the first objects that I made, and the form was one that Dante Marioni—the famous American glass blower—really felt comfortable making. I tried to make drips in Venice, but while well made, they were just not as good. They were very Venetian-looking, which was not what I was looking for. And that’s the other thing—they were so embedded with Venetian history that, even though they were drips, they just didn’t make sense. Now, if the glass makers were to do it over and over again, they could make the drips look exactly like my work. But I’m looking for a seamless relationship between an artist/artisan and myself. If the form that I am imagining comes naturally through their hands, just like the idea naturally comes out of me, we create with abandon.

Figure 2. Fred Wilson, Drip, Drop, Plop, 2001. Blown glass overall installed: 99 x 72 x 62” (251.5 x 182.9 x 157.5 cm); 10 drip elements, each 14 x 4 x 2-1/2” (35.6 x 10.2 x 6.4 cm) to 24 x 5-1/2 x 4” (61 x 14 x 10.2 cm); 11 drop elements, each 1-3/4” diameter x 6” high (4.4 x 15.2 cm) to 3” diameter x 11-1/2” high (7.6 x 29.2 cm). Photograph by Ellen Labenski, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Figure 2.

Fred Wilson, Drip, Drop, Plop, 2001. Blown glass overall installed: 99 x 72 x 62” (251.5 x 182.9 x 157.5 cm); 10 drip elements, each 14 x 4 x 2-1/2” (35.6 x 10.2 x 6.4 cm) to 24 x 5-1/2 x 4” (61 x 14 x 10.2 cm); 11 drop elements, each 1-3/4” diameter x 6” high (4.4 x 15.2 cm) to 3” diameter x 11-1/2” high (7.6 x 29.2 cm). Photograph by Ellen Labenski, courtesy Pace Gallery.

js/

In preparing to come here, I was thinking about your work, and then I encountered the flag paintings.7 Those were a real shock to my system— [End Page 11]

fw/

I bet, I bet—

js/

Especially as a painter

fw/

As a painter! I was more than a little concerned about what was going to happen when I did the Pace show. But again, I had been thinking about making these paintings for about ten years.

js/

I want to go to beauty. In terms of the paintings, it’s interesting—there’s the Beaux Arts tradition, where color is painting, and line is drawing or design, yet I think about your flag paintings, where the color is stripped away. It’s down to the idea of the flag, the graphic of it, and there’s in some ways an equalizing that happens.

fw/

Umm.

js/

The color’s not completely stripped away—there’s black

Figures 3 and 4. Fred Wilson, M (Group 4), 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 8 panels ranging from 7-3/4 x 15-1/2” (19.7 x 39.4 cm) to 9-1/2 x 13-5/8” (24.1 x 34.6 cm). Overall installation dimensions variable. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Figures 3 and 4.

Fred Wilson, M (Group 4), 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 8 panels ranging from 7-3/4 x 15-1/2” (19.7 x 39.4 cm) to 9-1/2 x 13-5/8” (24.1 x 34.6 cm). Overall installation dimensions variable. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.

fw/

And the canvas—

js/

And the canvas. The raw canvas. But there’s also a clinical gesture to it [End Page 12] as well. Because of that stripped down line. Really, I’m struggling with them, with how to reconcile them, especially in contrast to the seductiveness and the beauty of the glass, as well as the seductive history that’s in the museum pieces that you work with. …

fw/

And this is something entirely different.

js/

It’s like a different voice, really.

fw/

It’s a head scratcher. I come to it as an idea and don’t think so much how it fits in my oeuvre. I came of age in conceptualism and minimalism; this notion of bringing it down to the bare bones of something has always stuck with me. But I could never be a minimalist, my personality is not that, and I could never be a conceptualist of the 1970s. I’m just much too interested in image, in beauty. I don’t have the rigor. Both those groups created a vocabulary. I’m not that person. My cultural background is completely different; I’m not going to make those things. However, those things are in me, and so I feel very comfortable with the paring down of something. I am always peeling back the known or blindly accepted, to find meaning behind it—the hidden, the taboo.

I’m interested in notions of blackness—the color black, and what it means, and how it’s developed around the world in all its guises. What about outside the United States, what about national culture, and what are the colors of “blackness” within a national setting? I began to research what the colors of African flags meant. It was a huge research project, and I created plaques with all that I’ve learned about the flag colors. Removing the color was a way to ask a question: it’s not there, why is that? What does the absence of color mean? As you say, some of the flag paintings are almost exactly the same without the color. (Also, some of the countries represented were being constituted and changing their flags at the time that I created the paintings.) Basically the absence of something raises questions about what is absent, as in Mining the Museum, where there were no busts on the pedestals presented in the exhibition space.

js/

So absence becomes really, really important. There is stuff to be stripped away. [End Page 13]

fw/

Stuff to be stripped away, and beyond color. Meaning is what the paintings are stripping away, but for me, this elicits precisely the question of the meaning. So I feel very comfortable with these stripped-down paintings.

ae/

If you take the national color out, is the black and white the palimpsest that was always there that you never saw? Or does the national elide, or cover over, the real color issue that is there?

fw/

Well … Hmmm. It was very specific to have raw canvas rather than white, because it’s not about the known binary; it’s about the absence. I don’t think that without the color there’s anything there, including the meaning of the country. Because I’m interested in the color, what the color means. And as I said, some of the flags are exactly the same as the originals, except perhaps the scale has slightly changed. Because it’s so complicated, colors and flags. Our flags have been the same for so long, we’ve lost the fluidity, the “agitation,” the rub. These colors seem very simple but there’s really a lot of tension within these flags and we gloss over of what these colors mean, especially in Africa where the colors often mean the blood of the people, the blue of the sea or the sky, the green of the land—but they’re also tribal meanings, tribes represented in colors. Some of the flags are still recognizable because of the images—the images also have their meanings—but I’m not really thinking about the objects in the image.

There’s sculpture and there’s painting, and as Barnett Newman said, sculpture “is what you back into”—but I take that as a very positive thing.8 The thing—sculpture—is actually there, it’s actually affecting you, you can’t ignore it, even if you want to, and painting is

… cerebral, in some ways an ego thing where you are deciding that this is important. And so I was thinking “I can make paintings too.” I could have made a flag, but I wanted to make a representation of a flag rather than a flag itself, because the work is about flags, not of flags. I also wanted to emphasize that the material of paintings is a fabric—canvas, just as flags are canvas. So I liked not making the flag as an object, but making the flag as a “thinking thing”—a thing that you think about, and can look at within the frame. Then you’re aware that the materiality is the thing as well.

ae/

Perhaps we could talk a moment, then, about abstraction? For instance, what did you contribute to the Pace Gallery’s summer 2016 group exhibition “Blackness in Abstraction,” and how would you distinguish your understanding of “blackness in abstraction” from that of some of the other artists?9

fw/

Well, the curator, Adrienne Edwards, chose The “M” Series to represent my work in the exhibition. It was not my decision, though I was certainly fine with it. The “M” in the title was a reference to Malevich and his “Black Square” paintings. In Saint Petersburg, I realized that “The Black Square” was sometimes hung in the corner of the room—replacing a religious icon painting, which normally hung in people’s homes, with [End Page 14] an abstract one. In my “M” paintings, hung in the corner are the black stripes and images from the flags of Africa, the Diaspora, and the Pacific—in all of which the color black references “the people.” Perhaps Adrienne chose it because Malevich’s Black Square was recently challenged and charged with racism, which I knew nothing about at the time. I wanted to point out that Malevich’s revolutionary painting was of its time, whether replacing the sacred spot of the saint with a racist joke or with “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling.” The world was a mess. Competing ideologies led to horrific war. Removing ideology was revolutionary. My paintings are similarly of my time, when the overlooked and undervalued “black” world promotes transnational pride right under the noses of the rich and powerful nations.

Unfortunately, abstraction, lauded as a great equalizer because it signaled the universal, was in the end a conversation between men of European heritage. Never having had the prominence that power brings to state what was important to them, other peoples and colonized nations had to get on board and stay invisible. It was only through independence and nationhood that the people of other nations could express what was important to them. The fact that around the globe the color black was a baseline for understanding oneself was, and is, an abstract concept overlooked by the art world.

By the way, Malevich’s placing the painting site specifically in a corner may be about abstraction, but it also engages with history, and asserts itself as a “thing”—an “object.”

js/

In terms of beauty …

fw/

Yes, let’s get back to beauty, that thing I love.

js/

… in relation to the glassworks: I know you’ve spoken about the seductive nature of the glass. But how does beauty function in your other works?

fw/

Yes, well, it started with Mining the Museum.

js/

Yes, because some of those things in that exhibition are seductive, but they have a really troubled history, and the beauty does not always tell us the truth. Amy, you had mentioned a quote from Keats.

ae/

The last line of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which is, interestingly, an object-oriented poem: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”10

js/

And beauty has fallen out of fashion

fw/

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah—

js/

So how do you contend with beauty? How do you not get consumed by it?

fw/

It’s just about awareness, trying to be as aware as you can be about seduction. It’s Homer and the Sirens out there, and you can [End Page 15] enjoy them for what they are, or what they’re not, but just don’t go up to them. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Because it’s deadly.

And for me, I love the idea of using beauty. I love using objects that elicit people’s expectations and preconceptions, because in sort of an anthropological way, it’s been decided for them and for us that it’s no longer important consciously to consider the history of the object or its cultural meaning. And I like mixing that up. Now obviously, there are going to be those within a bubble of the art world who will not believe that rationale. They’ll just see beauty. I’ve had some … slightly contentious discussions with certain modernist art critics and art writers—not a lot, but one or two—where I realize that we are not on the same page.

Figure 5. Fred Wilson, The Mete of the Muse, 2006. Bronze with black patina and bronze with white paint. African figure: 65 x 26 x 14” (165.1 x 66 x 35.6 cm); European figure: 61 x 18 x 20” (154.9 x 45.7 x 50.8 cm). Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Figure 5.

Fred Wilson, The Mete of the Muse, 2006. Bronze with black patina and bronze with white paint. African figure: 65 x 26 x 14” (165.1 x 66 x 35.6 cm); European figure: 61 x 18 x 20” (154.9 x 45.7 x 50.8 cm). Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.

ae/

Why? What do they want from you?

fw/

Well, this issue that I’m talking about with beauty in service to meaning—that complicates what beauty means.11 But beauty for some critics is just beauty, and it’s not complicated at all. Also, when I’m putting beauty in dialogue with blackness, some don’t see it—black is black, a color, and not culturally inscribed in a strong way. I have said, on occasion, to a white art historian and a curator that a black artist cannot use the color black without referencing (or at least being cognizant of potentially referencing) African-ness, and they’re just like, “No!” And I’m like, “Yeah!” They’ve stripped themselves away from the world and have constructed an unreality because of the power base they inhabit. But it’s impossible in the United States for black artists not to reference African-ness; in the diaspora, it’s really not possible, and it’s not of our doing. Which ultimately is the most fascinating thing for me.

So the combination of using beauty and saying there’s meaning in it, and using blackness and saying there’s meaning in it—different people might see it differently, but there’s a variety of very strong meanings, and I’m interested [End Page 16] in all of those meanings. This is what gets some people in the art world … beauty and blackness. It’s really a career killer, I think (chuckles).

ae/

When you put them together?

fw/

For certain people.

ae/

But the chandeliers are so … beautiful.12

fw/

Yeah, exactly, and some rarefied few who have been in the ivory tower a long time—though some of them are quite knowledgeable, thinking people—don’t get it. I like being on the fringe in that way, where I can tease out the slip that shows there is something behind the curtain that they’re not even aware of, or they won’t allow themselves to be aware of.

ae/

But you also avoid didacticism. There’s a wonderful tension in the chandelier that is filled to the top with meaning. It’s resplendently beautiful, but at the same time, it’s just vibrating with meaning.

js/

And melancholy.

ae/

And melancholy. But I’m not sure what the meaning is. It constantly forces me back to it, and I have to keep talking to it, and looking at it, and listening to it, and I’d ask you what does the chandelier mean, and you can tell me Othello, or you can tell me whatever, but you’re not giving me, “It means XYZ.”

fw/

Yes, but that’s what artists do. We are asking a lot of questions: they’re open questions, and we produce these things that come out of us, and we sit back and look at it too, and then say, “What the hell, what is that?” And you’re forever trying to understand it. And sometimes, things come from a particularly strong idea, but if you let it go through your system, it’ll come out a much more complex thing. That’s Art 101, really. So if you’re not doing that, then you’re doing something else, like illustration or something. But I can tell you all my thoughts about these various pieces. It’s not like I’m hiding anything.

js/

Within the museum, there are of course a lot of didactic tags and language, but for me, you construct Mining the Museum and these other institutional projects almost in a prophetic voice. I was thinking of Cornel West’s idea of tragicomic hope—what he sees going through the Jewish prophets and the Diaspora. The question I’m trying to form here concerns the role of the poetic, pulled from the didactic.

fw/

When I’m trying to be poetic, it doesn’t work. Because you need to be in the moment and fully present, not premeditated, when you are engaging an object. Its presence with you is most important. It’s like people, in that they don’t tell you everything about themselves right away. You come with your own preconceived notions, and then if you stay with them, perhaps you get something more. That’s how I would like to think that artworks operate. The chandeliers in particular, because they are the [End Page 17] Rezzonico style of chandelier, very specific in its history, its place in time—and I’m tweaking it. I’m not pushing it, not changing the form so much that I’m writing a narrative for it. I tweak the form within the idiom of the history of glass. But it’s very subtle, it’s not a huge leap. This restraint: for some reason I need to do it.

ae/

But when it’s coming out of a frame, when the chandelier is mounted on the wall, it’s more than a tweak, right?

fw/

I have a couple of those, don’t I? Yes, I wanted to do a couple more things like that, but that’s a whole other ball of wax. The thing about those is that they’re sconces. It’s within the idiom. Nobody would make a sconce like that, but it’s within a particular idiom. Actually, you know, the longer I work, the looser I am with allowing myself to do things like this, because you have your alphabet, and then you start using the words, and then it becomes something. I like the new ones just as much as I like the old ones, but they’re starting to do different things.

Figure 6. Fred Wilson, To Die Upon A K iss, 2011. Murano glass, 70 x 68-1/2 x 68-1/2, (177.8 x 174 x 174 cm). Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Figure 6.

Fred Wilson, To Die Upon A K iss, 2011. Murano glass, 70 x 68-1/2 x 68-1/2, (177.8 x 174 x 174 cm). Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.

ae/

There seems to be a real shift for you toward making more objects. I’m looking at your earlier work, and it was all about juxtaposition, and in my field we talk about that as metaphor. Metaphor is putting two things together that do not belong together, and then something happens that pops. Thomas Pynchon writes that metaphor is “the thrust at truth and a lie, depending on whether you’re inside or outside.”13

fw/

That’s interesting.

ae/

But I’m particularly fascinated with the crown, Regina Atra. I’m fascinated with that [End Page 18] because that’s not metaphor.14 In my field that would be metonymy, that is, a part to whole relationship, where something small starts to represent something large. So I’m seeing this movement from metaphor to metonymy in your work, from juxtaposition to part-to-whole relationships, but it’s happening at the same time that you’re making more objects.

fw/

I think for some reason the making brings that out more, for me. Certainly with the crown, there’s a lot of different meanings, and I was using black as with the chandelier, the first black chandelier, this sort of melancholy, as well as this notion of blackness related to people. Melancholy, goth, whatever you bring to it, it’s there, and people see it. I’m really interested in that, and so it becomes really subtle, but for me that’s more interesting than adding more onto it.

The crown is one piece, in its own little case, that spins. If it doesn’t spin, you just miss all the bling. The bling is just crazy. And it’s the queen’s crown, Queen Elizabeth’s crown, what was originally Queen Victoria’s crown, which was really for the king, and then she changed it to make it hers—it has its long history. I was also interested in oil, and BP, and African heritage in Barbados.

ae/

Blackness as oil comes up in a number of your comments here. Do you find there’s a trajectory, a movement somehow, toward oil politics?

fw/

That was always involved in it, with the globe.15 I like one piece in particular [The Unnatural Movement of Blackness], and it’s now in a private collection. (I hope they take care of it—it’s a favorite of mine.) It’s a globe of the world with chandelier parts [black pendalogues] that map the slave trade of the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and the consumers and producers of oil—the international movement of blackness. I was interested in how color means many things, and that these are also two very corrupt industries from different centuries. But I think the racial issue is still maintained with the use of the color black, so that I don’t need to add these other signifiers onto it but just make the thing, and then let people come to this color directly from their points of view.

ae/

You don’t want to be Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus: you don’t want to just keep looking backward and being thrust into the future backwards

fw/

Right.

ae/

You want to move toward the future somehow yet want to educate about history. You do have to confront the problem of simulation—you mentioned Colonial Williamsburg, history as Disney World. How do you get past that?

fw/

They’ve been struggling with that. To their credit, they have been struggling with these issues for a long time. So that’s a whole different conversation—they’ve made blunders, they’ve retracted and stopped doing forward thinking things—and then they’ve made other blunders. These places are really [End Page 19] difficult to deal with because it’s about history but also about entertainment. They’re in difficult straits because the public doesn’t necessarily want to—

js/

They don’t want to be shaken to their core.

fw/

Because it’s entertainment. Apparently, to hear them tell it, both white and black visitors did not want to engage with the slave history. Of course without knowledge of how they actually interpreted it, who was involved with creating the interpretation, and how they promoted the then-new storyline, it is hard for me to assess the failure. Today, the people who run Colonial Williamsburg—much to their credit—have taken measures to recognize and correct these sorts of unintentional blindnesses.

ae/

What’s the limit, though? What’s the limit of showing them something real? One of the things you don’t seem to do is show actual bodies or photographs of trauma.

fw/

For me, making is all about who you are, your personality. You speak your truth the way that you speak your truth, and when you get outside of that, then you’re not doing your best work. Therefore there are those who have to do that. And if it’s really in them to do that, then they’re making their best work. For me, it’s not the way I learn things, it’s not the way I make my way in the world.

With Mining the Museum, one of the things I was very aware of—because I wasn’t from Baltimore—was that I wanted people to [End Page 20] receive the information and not shut down immediately, because it was a trope that they thought they knew. I wanted them to be open to it, maybe side-swiped, but open to take it in and deal with it. So I generally don’t deal with these strong images because I think people can either shut down or get lodged in them and then don’t go further with the bigger subject about how they are responding. The horrific image provokes them to think, “Oh my God that’s horrible.” I don’t want them to shut down before they realize that they, if they are white, are implicated; I don’t want to hear “I would never do that, that’s not me, that’s horrible!” What I’m trying to get to is some self-critical place, some self-questioning that’s private.

Mining the Museum doesn’t change the world, necessarily—though it has had an incredible life. Artworks change people because they address individual experience. And you have to be in a safe place in order to change and take it in.

Figures 7 and 8. Fred Wilson, Regina Atra, 2006. Silver and black diamonds installed in wood and glass vitrine, 7-1/2” diameter (19 cm) x 2-15/16” high (7.5 cm). Overall installed: 60 x 23 x 23” (152.4 x 58.4 x 58.4 cm), No. 38467.01. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Figures 7 and 8.

Fred Wilson, Regina Atra, 2006. Silver and black diamonds installed in wood and glass vitrine, 7-1/2” diameter (19 cm) x 2-15/16” high (7.5 cm). Overall installed: 60 x 23 x 23” (152.4 x 58.4 x 58.4 cm), No. 38467.01. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.

ae/

Is that why you were nervous about the gibbet that was part of your installation An Account of a Voyage to the Island Jamaica, given that up to the late eighteenth century, these were used horribly—caging condemned prisoners alive and leaving them to die of thirst?16

fw/

Oh, in Jamaica. It was shocking—but I wanted people to get to it slowly, so they have time to think about going back in history, with all the historic diary quotes I placed adjacent to the decorative grillwork. Grillwork—metal fencing and window gates, ever present not only in Jamaica but throughout the Caribbean and Latin America as well—has a familiarity that is unexamined. Hopefully the viewer would ask: What could these quotes and objects have in common? And what is the legacy of that? What does it all mean? It was not lost on me that the gibbet and the grillwork are made of metal. So I tried to keep the present involved with the past. By the time you got back there, at the end of the maze where the gibbet was hung, it still seemed horrific, but you have had time to acclimate yourself. Shock with meaningful context and content, not just shock for shock’s sake. I wanted it to be a process.

js/

I’m really astounded by these gestures that you make. Whether it’s covering up a name, or putting objects in relationship to each other, turning the figure in one direction. Your gestures help me slow down and experience that unfolding. Can you just tell us a little more about the gestures?

fw/

For me, the slight gesture is as strong, stronger, than major force. There are images from which you can easily recoil and separate yourself, but these gestures get into you, [End Page 21] and you have to think, “Why am I thinking about it this way, what is this?” For me, and I think for other African Americans and for immigrants, this is something akin to microaggression: you’re not getting constant slaps in the face, people aren’t constantly calling you the n-word. It’s the little things. It’s a gesture, it’s a comment, it’s an aside, it’s a tone of voice, it’s a body movement. And so those all build up, and those are the things you cannot explain to people, and they think you’re making it up, but if you haven’t had the experience. … So I like working with these little things, revealing that we can relate to little things. That’s why gestures interest me so much, because it was hard for me to explain what was going wrong in words. I mean, there are things that really were bad, but the small things, it’s also the small things that are problematic.

ae/

In the critical reader, you wrote a postscript to an interview in which you said, “Looking back, I feel I was a bit damaged by the research I did in Jamaica. It was much more of a traumatic experience than I had imagined at the time. […] The centuries between slavery and the present evaporated. I was haunted by the image of them as participant in the horrors of history. And I was wide awake. It was really disturbing.”17

fw/

Oh yeah, that was an incredible experience that stayed with me. But that wasn’t subtle; that was something that really hit me like a ton of bricks, which I didn’t realize was going to happen, and stayed with me for a long time after. Coming back to the United States, it was going to be a long time to shake out of that. So that was much more emotional than what we’re talking about.

ae/

But you don’t have the desire to inflict that on an audience.

fw/

No. I mean, it can be a learning experience for me. You make these bad experiences learning experiences. But I don’t want to—no, I want to treat people as I want to be treated. We all live in this world, we live in this world where we make mistakes around sensitivities of one sort or another. And sometimes you are aware of it, sometimes you are not aware of it at all. You just pass it by.

ae/

You know, I’m thinking about the avant-garde gesture. There’s a whole thing in academia now that you shouldn’t have consensus, you should have dissensus, you should have shock. It’s that old avant-garde idea.

fw/

The rupture.

js/

You show ruptures from the inside.

fw/

Yes. I think I deal with rupture in this way a lot. I think the silver and the slave shackles installation in Mining the Museum was a rupture.18 I mean, look at the reverberations. If it was something really blunt, I think it would have been gone by now, but it just has stuck. If you look at art history from outside its bubble, it looks as though it’s stuck between the Wars. It’s stuck where artists realized that their lives [End Page 22] were controlled by these idiots, and there’s just status quo, and they had to bust through it in the best way they could.

ae/

Modernism, right?

fw/

Ta-da! Exactly. So why would something that worked then, in the same way work now? Of course, in the 1960s, there was rupture that connected with a lot of revolutionary moments. But rupture doesn’t make sense as an art trope all the time. It doesn’t have to be in the glossary. If for example you look at artists from Eastern Europe during the Soviet bloc, or at artists from Indonesia when there was much stronger oppression there than now, it was not about rupture with a capital “R.” They would be dead. It was about working at this in other ways. They figured out a way, and it wasn’t necessarily the big rupture because they couldn’t do that. I understand the desire for it, but the preoccupation with the historic aesthetics of rupture, at this place and time, is perhaps misplaced. Perhaps, in our global art world, dissensus or rupture will look very different from place to place, region to region, country to country. [End Page 23]

Figure 9. Fred Wilson, Metalwork 1793-1880. Silver vessels in Baltimore Repoussé style, 1830-80, maker unknown; slave shackles, c. 1793-1872, maker unknown, made in Baltimore. Installation view, Mining the Museum by Fred Wilson, The Contemporary Museum and Maryland Historical Society, April 4, 1992–February 28, 1993. Photograph courtesy Maryland Historical Society collection.
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Figure 9.

Fred Wilson, Metalwork 1793-1880. Silver vessels in Baltimore Repoussé style, 1830-80, maker unknown; slave shackles, c. 1793-1872, maker unknown, made in Baltimore. Installation view, Mining the Museum by Fred Wilson, The Contemporary Museum and Maryland Historical Society, April 4, 1992–February 28, 1993. Photograph courtesy Maryland Historical Society collection.

ae/

How do all the literary references in your artworks play into this? Othello, Pride and Prejudice?

fw/

I’m really interested in what everybody else knows. I’m interested in that key that will unlock a door to something. Not to make it scary for scary’s sake, not to make it foreign just to be obtuse. Things that have multiple meanings. So using Pride and Prejudice—it’s not a phrase that anybody would say, whether they know the reference or not—and the words taken out of context makes sense for my work. Using Othello’s story was perfect for my Venice Biennale project because he was the ultimate African of Venice, and the chandelier was really the full embodiment of him, even though he’s a fiction and never existed. I use Othello, as opposed to the Invisible Man, because, as you’ve noticed in your notes to me, I’m not using anything by black writers.

ae/

I did notice that. I was curious.

fw/

I’m interested in the constructions of race by others. In my Crown Point Press etchings with the ink spots and the comments in thought bubbles, the comments are all written by white authors. I’m creating conversations between the (mostly marginal) black characters from various books and films. This idea is a result of recent realizations I have had about the way I grew up. As the only black child in an all-white suburb, I was exposed to few examples of highly developed characters in popular literature, film, and television. So

I am interested in revealing and re-assigning interpretations of race in the works of white authors who gave voice to black characters that they created. Freeing the imaginary black characters from their storylines and letting them talk to each other is my way of exploring these complexities.

Now there was another aspect of that. The title of my first work in black Murano glass was a line from Othello—”Speak of Me as I Am”—because after seeing my chandelier hanging in the U.S. pavilion, I thought it was really emblematic of him as this magnificent but monstrous and mournful character. The chandelier was perfect for this. (Of course, without a knowledge of Shakespeare, audiences might think that the work was about me.) There’s no specific narrative to these sculptures; they’re abstract. I like to think about aspects of the play Othello, but it’s not like I’m illustrating; my titles aren’t illustrations of what’s there. In fact, all of my titles come to me after seeing the new work. Iago’s Mirror, which is an elaborate black mirror, references Iago’s obsession with Othello, and I think it’s really beautiful. But in my estimation, Iago has just gone whacko about this black character, and his jealousy has gotten huge.

However, his kind of indignant jealousy has repeated itself in history over and over again. Whether it is directed at Jack Johnson the boxer or President Barack Obama, obsessive jealousy of a powerful black man has persisted. There are three big chandeliers, and they have titles that reference Othello—and so I do have [End Page 24] in my head a narrative. After the first chandelier came back to the U.S. and was hung lower at Pace Gallery, I realized it was like a figure, a body, and so that was interesting to me. After I made the second one, “To Die Upon a Kiss,” with the gradation of color from clear glass to grey, to black, I viewed it as the blackness sinking down out of the body. The year I made this work my father was dying, so realizing this afterwards made me see that it was all wrapped up in my own story, though at the onset, it was the farthest from my mind. I saw all the chandeliers as a body at that point—an alien body, Othello’s body, my father’s body, my body? I still think about these works. So the title has to do with Othello; it was about dying, but it’s not specifically Othello’s story.

For me, using something wellknown, such as the play Othello, in the title references is really about the simplicity and the complexity of the obvious. I want to make something to which everybody has some connection. It’s not deep in meaning beyond this sense I’m talking about, but it’s a connector, a key for all to use to enter into my sculpture. And Shakespeare was brilliant, he avoided the pitfalls of so many people after him; it’s just amazing. It fits all the notions of constructed identity. It makes sense to me.

Figure 10. Fred Wilson, Iago’s Mirror, 2009. Murano glass and wood, 80 x 48-3/4 x 10-1/2” (203.2 x 123.8 x 26.7 cm). Photographs by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Figure 10.

Fred Wilson, Iago’s Mirror, 2009. Murano glass and wood, 80 x 48-3/4 x 10-1/2” (203.2 x 123.8 x 26.7 cm). Photographs by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.

[End Page 25]

Figure 11. Fred Wilson, Iago’s Mirror, 2009. Murano glass and wood, 80 x 48-3/4 x 10-1/2” (203.2 x 123.8 x 26.7 cm). Photographs by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Figure 11.

Fred Wilson, Iago’s Mirror, 2009. Murano glass and wood, 80 x 48-3/4 x 10-1/2” (203.2 x 123.8 x 26.7 cm). Photographs by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery.

Fred Wilson

FRED WILSON is an artist living and working in New York who received a BFA from Purchase College, State University of New York. His works include installations that consider and investigate museological, cultural, and historical issues that museums neglect to discuss, in works such as Mining the Museum (The Contemporary and Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1992); Insight: In Site: In Sight: Incite: Memory (South Eastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, 1994); Collectibles (Metro Pictures Gallery, New York, 1995); and An Account of a Voyage to the Island Jamaica with the Un-Natural History of That Place (Institute of Jamaica Gallery, 2007-8). He has spoken and his work has been exhibited at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne, Australia, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth, the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pace Gallery and The Tate, London. Wilson has received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award (1999) and the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award (2003). He is a W hitney Museum trustee and has served as the Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Object, Exhibition, and Knowledge at Skidmore College (2003-6). He represented the United States at the Cairo Biennale (1992) and Venice Biennale (2003). In 2001, he was the subject of a retrospective, Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000, organized by Maurice Berger for the Center for Art and Visual Culture, University of Maryland that traveled to eight venues including the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Chicago Cultural Center, 2001. In 2016, Wilson has a site-specific installation, Wildfire Test Pit and a survey of recent works Black to the Power of Ten at the Allen Memorial Museum of Art, Oberlin College through June 12, 2017. Wilson is represented by The Pace Gallery in New York.

Jered Sprecher

JERED SPRECHER earned his BA at Concordia University and his MFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Iowa. He has taught at Princeton University and Cornell University, and is a Professor of Art at The University of Tennessee. He has had solo exhibitions at Jeff Bailey Gallery in New York, Wendy Cooper Gallery in Chicago, Steven Zevitas Gallery in Boston, Kinkead Contemporary in Los Angeles, and Gallery 16 in San Francisco. His work has been exhibited at The Drawing Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Des Moines Art Center, Hunter Museum of American Art, Espai d’art Contemporani de Castelló, and the Knoxville Museum of Art. Sprecher has been an Artist in Residence at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program, and The Chinati Foundation. In 2009, he was the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

Amy J. Elias

AMY J. ELIAS is Lindsay Young Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, author of numerous articles and books on contemporary literature, media, and culture, and co-editor-in-chief of ASAP/Journal.

Notes

Amy Elias and Jered Sprecher would like to thank Fred Wilson for his generosity in granting us this interview and for the wonderful afternoon we spent with him in his Brooklyn studio, as well as for the vision-altering work that he continues to produce.

1. Fred Wilson, exhibit copy, “Grey Area (Brown Version),” the Brooklyn Museum, as noted by Editor, “Fred Wilson: Were Ancient Egyptians Black, White or Brown? Discuss,” ArtsObserver, January 22, 2012, http://www.artsobserver.com/2012/01/22/fred-wilson-were-egyptians-black-white-or-brown-discuss/

2. The exhibition ran 1992-1993. See the catalog for this exhibition: Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum: An Installation, ed. Lisa G. Corrin (Baltimore: Contemporary Museum; New York: New Press, distributed by W.W. Norton, 1994).

3. Fred Wilson and Mark A. Graham, “An Interview with Artist Fred Wilson,” The Journal of Museum Education 32, no. 3 (Fall, 2007), 214.

4. Fred Wilson: A Critical Introduction, ed. Doro Globus (London: Ridinghouse Press, 2011).

5. “An Account of a Voyage to the Island Jamaica with the Un-Natural History of that Place” was part of the “Materializing Slavery: Art, Artefact, Memory and Identity” exhibition at the Institute of Jamaica, September 16, 2007–February 26, 2008. A useful discussion of this installation can be found in Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson, “Perpetual Returns: New World Slavery and the Matter of the Visual,” Representations 113, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 1-15. “Collectibles” first showed at Metro Pictures Gallery, New York, N, in 1995.

6. Wilson is referring to pieces such as Iago’s Mirror, 2009 (Murano glass, 80 x 48 3/4 x 10 1/2 in., 137 lb.); Iago’s Desdemona, 2013 (Murano glass and wood, 40 1/8 x 25 1/8 x6); and Emilia’s Mirror—Act 5, Scene 2, 2013 (Murano glass and wood, 80 x 48 1/8 x 10 5/8). According to the Toledo Museum of Art, which purchased “Iago’s Mirror” in 2010, in 2009 Wilson “worked with Berengo Studios in Venice to develop a process for layering mirrors together while preserving the intricate details of a traditional 18th-century Murano mirror. To create the dark reflection cast by Iago’s Mirror, the back side is colored black rather than silver. Black glass is the [End Page 26] most difficult to create and always has a colored hue.” Toledo Musuem of Art, “Museum Acquires Stunning Fred Wilson Mirror,” http://www.toledomuseum.org/2010/12/30/museum-acquires-stunning-fred-wilson-mirror/.

7. Fred Wilson, “M” series (2010). The flag series is shown in part, along with pictures of Wilson’s wooden plaques mimicking museum exhibit labels, in Fred Wilson: Sculptures, Paintings, and Installations: 2001-2014 (New York: Pace Gallery, 2014). In that publication, Doro Globus writes in “Shifting Under Our Noses: Appropriation and Layering in the Art of Fred Wilson” that Wilson’s series of flags “celebrate Wilson’s roots in Conceptualism” and recall Jasper Johns’s iconic flags as well as Yinka Shonibare’s Scramble for Africa (2003) (9).

8. The quote is “Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting,” which according to Patrizia Di Bello, Colette E Wilson, and Shamoon Zamir, is attributed both to Barnett Newman in the 1950s (by Rosalind Kraus in her 1988 The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 281) and to Ad Reinhart in the 1960s.

9. Group Exhibition, “Blackness in Abstraction,” June 22, 2016 – Aug 19, Pace Gallery, http://www.pacegallery.com/exhibitions/12802/blackness-in-abstraction

10. John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978).

11. Wilson has spoken about his view of beauty in an Art21 interview, available at Art21, Artists, “Fred Wilson: Beauty and Memory,” http://www.art21.org/texts/fred-wilson/interview-fred-wilson-beauty-and-memory; the video short of this interview, “Short: Fred Wilson, Beauty and Ugliness,” (February 7, 2014), can be seen at http://www.art21.org/videos/short-fred-wilson-beauty-ugliness

12. Wilson worked with glassmakers to create three Murano glass chandeliers referencing Shakespeare’s play Othello: “Chandelier Mori: Speak of Me as I Am” (2003), “Othello’s Light” (2005), and “To Die Upon A Kiss” (2011). The Pace Gallery in New York displayed them as part of its exhibition Venice Suite: Sala Longhi and Related Works, on March 16, 2012 at its 510 West 25th Street location. See Pace, “Fred Wilson Lights Up The Pace Gallery With Venetian Chandeliers,” March 19, 2012 at 7:03 AM, http://www.pacegallery.com/news/330/fred-wilson-lights-up-the-pace-gallery-with-venetian-chandeliers. Wilson has created other chandeliers, such as the all-black Murano glass pieces “Oh! Monstruosa Culpa!” (2013, edition of 6) and “No Way But This” (2013, edition of six), both pictured in the Pace Gallery publication Fred Wilson: Sculptures, Paintings, and Installations: 2001-2014.

13. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966), 129.

14. Regina Atra, 2006 (Crown pearls and black stones in a glass and wooden window, 60 x 23 x 23 in.). Michael White writes of the crown, displayed at the V&A exhibition “1807 Commemorated: The Abolition of the Slave Trade,” that it is “a copy of a diadem made for the coronation of George IV, often worn by Queen Victoria … only this time constructed from black diamonds.” (“Uncomfortable Truths: The Intervention of the Past,” Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past and the Institute of Historical Research, 2007, http://www.history.ac.uk/1807commemorated/exhibitions/art/uncomfortable.html).

15. Wilson is here referencing The Human Spill (2008, plastic globe with light and chandelier crystals, 17 x 12 x 12in.), discussed in Linda Kim, “Art at Colby: Celebrating the Fifitieth Anniversary of the Colby College Museum of Art,” (Waterville, ME: Colby College Museum of Art, 2009): the globe does not rest square on a flat base, but rather [End Page 27] is tilted forward on a triangular base of white wedge “at a precarious angle, making some of the crystals dangle. This world is quite literally off-kilter.” Wilson has done very varied black globes or globes covered with black glass drips or black glass beads, such as The Unnatural Movement of Blackness (2006, PaceWildenstein), Reign (2011, cardboard globe, glass beads, coated steel cable), and Untitled (Zadib, Sokoto, Samori, Veneto, Zanzibar, Dhaka, Macao) (2011; illuminated acrylic painted plastic globe, tassels, steel armature, plaster figure, and powder coated aluminum plate; 28 x 20 x 20 in). A Thousand Points (2009, illuminated plastic globe, die cast steel and enamel paint, 17 x 12 x 11 ½ in) graces the cover of Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader.

16. In a Callaloo interview with Copeland, Wilson noted, “I was really nervous about putting the gibbet in the exhibition—that was on of my initial ideas—and I wondered if it was too strong. […] But after being here and speaking to people, I realized that they could handle it and that I didn’t have to totally over-think the process.” Quoted in Huey Copeland, “How You Look is How you Look: An Interview with Fred Wilson,” Callaloo, 33, no. 4 (2010): 1019. See also Huey Copeland’s and Krista Thompson’s discussion of the gibbet in the installation in “Perpetual Returns,” pages 6-10.

17. Fred Wilson, “Artist’s Postscript,” in Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, ed. Doro Globus (London: Ridinghouse Press, 2011), 315.

18. See discussion of the installation in Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum: An Installation (New York: Folio, 1994). [End Page 28]