To Die upon a Kiss, by Fred Wilson, 2011

Fred Wilson reinterprets material objects to expose the cultural and racial hierarchies that subtend their acquisition, treatment, and display. Wilson's experiences as a black man living in America and working in the education departments of New York City museums "led [him] to question not only the artist's relation­ship to the museum but also how museums present information and how the cultural production of various peoples gets presented in very different ways."# In his artwork he has sought to draw attention to the role of museums and their visual and spatial rhetoric in construct­ing meaning. In the early 1990s he began work­ing with museums' permanent collections to create site-specific installations that revealed institutional points of view and offered alterna­tive narratives.# Part of a larger curatorial turn in conceptual artistic practice, Wilson's critical recontextualizations attend, in particular, to the representation of cultural difference, colonial­ism, and race.

Wilson, who has been referred to as a "Foucauldian archeologist," questions the "already-said" by using preexisting objects to reveal ingrained points of view and to explore "that which has heretofore escaped systematic analysis within a particular discursive domain."# He began to amass "black collectibles"—cookie jars, dolls, butter urns, and other objects featur­ing stereotypical images of African Americans—out of both disdain for these objects and a fascination with how they signify differently for different people.#Slit (1995) is a large-scale photographic portrait of a four-inch-tall wax figurine of a black-faced and red-lipped character gazing upward past the broken edge of his hat with round, doleful eyes. Wilson discov­ered the figurine at the Museum of Early South­ern Decorative Arts in a stored box of dolls that were broken, damaged, or considered to be no longer appropriate for the museum's program. He singled out the image of the figurine—origi­nally exhibited with twenty other photographs in a family tree–like arrangement (a lineage of racism and forgetting)—and enlarged it to reveal a crack along the figure's neck, a symbolic and chance embodiment of a real history.# 

Foreground: Fred Wilson, "Love and Loss in the Milky Way," 2005; rear wall, from left to right: Glenn Ligon, "Condition Report," 2000, and Nayland Blake, "Dual Restraint," 1990. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Foreground: Fred Wilson, Love and Loss in the Milky Way, 2005; rear wall, from left to right: Glenn Ligon, Condition Report, 2000, and Nayland Blake, Dual Restraint, 1990. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. February 9–May 18, 2014. Photography by Brian Forrest
In Love and Loss in the Milky Way (2005), Wilson constructed an evocative tableau of found sculptures amid a spread of milk glass on a kitchen table. Three sculptures—a standing female Greek figure, the elongated bust of a black woman, and a cookie jar with a mammy-type figure, which Wilson describes as embody­ing different viewpoints (outsider, authority, involved, and so forth)—gaze toward a broken plaster bust of a classical Roman male figure lying in the center.# The spatial arrangement of the objects induces interactions between them and invites viewers to play out myriad scenarios that reveal their own psychosocial conditioning. For instance, with its broken white male and a black woman implicated by proximity, the assemblage is replete with symbols and possible histories.

In 2003, while representing the United States at the Venice Biennale, Wilson began his trilogy of Murano glass chandeliers to examine the history and presence of Africans in Venice. Into the ornate forms of seventeenth-century Venetian chandeliers, he introduced unexpected emotions and narratives. To Die upon a Kiss (2011) evokes a transformative process through its title, which comes from Shakespeare's Othello, and its gradation of color. The deep black at the bottom leaches to an ethereal clear at the top, conjuring the dissolution of the body in death. While notably more open-ended than his earlier work, Wilson's recent work in glass generates stunning visual experiences of black­ness, heightening our awareness of the myriad ways in which this color operates in society.#

—Ruth Erickson