21 September 2021

Fred Wilson: The Museum Is The Message

"I trust the visual to communicate my ideas. I try to unlock the meaning of objects and eliciting a conversation by juxtaposing between them that creates an unexpected, but essential, thought." - Fred Wilson

"I get everything that satisfies my soul from bringing together objects in the world, manipulating them, working with spatial arrangements, and having them presented in the way I want to see them." - Fred Wilson

Five busts of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti that question what we think we know about the ancient world. The original bust by an anonymous artist has long been a  staple of art history texts. Grey Area (above) by the American artist Fred Wilson makes visible our changing understanding of who historical figures actually were.

Born in the Bronx in 1954, Fred Wilson describes himself as African, Native American, Amerindian, and European, a background ....While studying for his Fine Arts degree at SUNY Purchase, he worked as a guard at the Neuberger Museum on campus.  As I know from talking with museum guards, they spend enough time with works of art to make astute comments about how art is presented and how that shapes the viewer's reception.  From that experience Wilson drew a lesson: change the context and you change the meaning.  So it was that he made a version of the mythological character Atlas weighed down by art history books with a book on black artists at the bottom of the pile.

After stints at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Natural History (on opposite sides of Central Park) Wilson realized that the two institutions presented similar objects in widely divergent ways. He has come to  specialize in presenting objects based on considerations that may be unimportant to most curators or that have gone unnoticed until Wilson put things together.  Mining the Museum he called it when he restaged galleries at the Maryland Historical Society in 1991. In a technique he has often used, Wilson renamed a painting Country Life that showed a plantation family at leisured Frederick Serving Fruit  for a young black slave boy in the picture. This  In a nearby vitrine, Wilson paired a stark set of slave shackles surrounded by  an .... adorned silver tea service, the embodiment of wealth produced by slave labor.

Fred Wilson was the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2003. with  the exhibit Speak Of Me As I Am (a reference to Shakespeare's character Othello, the Moor of Venice). So popular was Wilson's exhibition thatt there were waiting lins outside the American pavilion.  For Venice, a city where black people had been present for centuries, Wilson created a project that included an awareness of the city surroundings.

A last minute addition, Wanderer was a black-face courtier figure Wilson saw in the lobby of the hotel he was staying at. He replaced the face with a globe whose black oceans were crisscrossed by by white dotted lines that trace the routes of ships used in the slave trade.

Simone Leigh will be the first black American woman to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 2022.

For more about Fred Wilson


 1. Fred Wilson - Grey Area - pant, plaster, and wood, 1998, Brooklyn Museum.  2. Fred Wilson - Atlas, 1992, paint, plaster, and wood, Denver Museum of Art.  3. Fred Wilson - Wanderer, 2003, painted wood and printed paper, Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA.


Tania said...

An artist who questions our perception of art - but the work of art is so much more than a message.

Jane said...

Tania, I love the way Fred Wilson rearranges familiar objects to create new stories.

Rouchswalwe said...

I love this! Brings me back to days spent with my Mamma (we both thought that Nefertiti was the bomb). Thank you so much for introducing me to Fred Wilson!

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe, I'm so happy to know that you enjoy Fred Wilson's work. He is ingenious.