‘I’m Just Using the Museum as My Palette’: How Artist Fred Wilson Uses Venerable Art Collections to Re-imagine History

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Fred Wilson in "Art in the Twenty-First Century: Structures." © Art21, Inc. 2005.

What happens when the museum becomes the medium? That is a question that the Bronx-born artist Fred Wilson has dedicated his career to answer. For two decades, the artist has used objects in museum art collections to both confront and re-imagine history.

In his landmark 1992 exhibition “Mining the Museum,” Wilson selected objects from the Maryland Historical Society’s collection that wouldn’t ordinarily be arranged side-by-side. The show featured provocative tableaux—slave shackles alongside a silver tea set, for example—highlighting racial and social tensions that are often overlooked within the institutional framework.

Fred Wilson in “Art in the Twenty-First Century: Structures.” © Art21, Inc. 2005.

Wilson reflected on his artistic practice in a 2005 interview for Art21: Structures“I get everything that satisfies my soul from bringing objects that are in the world and manipulating them—working with spatial arrangements—and then having things produced the way I want to see them.”

In addition to designing museum spaces, the artist also uses existing historical objects as a springboard to new work, as in his most recent installation, Afro Kismet. The installation was originally conceived for the 2017 Istanbul Biennial and has been updated for a show on view now at Pace Gallery’s Chelsea outpost. In the piece, the artist uses traditional Iznik tile walls, painting them black and adding blue Arabic lettering that reads “Black is beautiful” and “Mother Africa.” The installation highlights the long-overlooked history of African communities who settled in Turkey and the confluence of the two cultures in art and design.

By calling attention to the discrepancies in historical narratives, Wilson is “shifting the gaze” and probing the often invisible processes that gird institutional curation. “I’m just using the museum as my palette, basically,” he says. With that canvas, he aims to explore “how juxtaposition of very different objects can bring up a new idea, a new thought.” 

To see the artist at work and to hear more about his unique approach, watch the full clip from Art21’s “Structures” below. “Fred Wilson: Afro Kismet” is on view at Pace Gallery in Chelsea through August 17.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists throughout the summer. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series premieres this September on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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