‘These Works Demand You to Confront Them’: How Artist Kevin Beasley Transforms Cotton Into Social Commentary

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

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Kevin Beasley's Raw Materials." © Art21, Inc. 2019.

As Kevin Beasley drove down the long, twisting driveway up to a farmhouse in Valentines, Virginia, for a family reunion back in 2011, he was just getting started on a journey that has finally culminated in a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. What triggered the artist’s years-long project was encountering fields planted, as far as the eye could see, with cotton.

The plant is more than just a crop. It has infiltrated every aspect of capitalism, social interaction, cultural history, and identity in America. When Beasley saw the white-tufted stalks, it was a moment of reckoning. In an exclusive interview with Art21 for the series “New York Close Up“, the artist explains his initial reaction. “I was like, ‘Why am I so mad at this plant?’ This plant is not doing anything other than growing and being beautiful. I felt like, okay, there’s a lot of unpacking that has to happen.”

Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials.” © Art21, Inc. 2019.

The results of his investigations are three large sculptural works on view in “Kevin Beasley: A View of a Landscape” at the Whitney. Each installation explores how cotton is processed, reconstituted, and manufactured in its various forms. A large, rust-colored cotton gin motor is the anchor of the trio—a massive object that stands for innovation and technology, and of course, for its impact on slavery.

“It separates the fibers from the seeds, which was the most time-consuming part for slaves” Beasley tells Art21, explaining that, although some initially believed the machine would lessen the need for slaves, “it had the opposite effect, because more land was acquired, plantations got larger.” 

The exhibition explores how raw bales of cotton are literally the building blocks of so many industries, which Beasley represents as a sculptural mass. And the final section of the show is dedicated to the many products made from the plant—everything from a Yale University Letterman sweater, to a handful of mass-produced blue durags. “Cotton, it takes me everywhere,” Beasely says. “Politics, social relationships you have, you think about economics…reparations. It all just unfolds.”

Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials.” © Art21, Inc. 2019.

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. Kevin Beasley: A View of a Landscape” is on view at the Whitney through March 10, 2019. 

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

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