Fred Wilson

Born 1954, Bronx, New York

To Die upon a Kiss, by Fred Wilson, 2011
Fred Wilson, To Die upon a Kiss, 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."1 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.2 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."3 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.4 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.5 

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

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.6 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.7

—Ruth Erickson


  • Wilson, in Judith Barry et al., "Serving Institutions," October 80 (Spring 1997): 120. In the mid-1970s Wilson worked at the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Craft Museum.
  • Wilson's well-known project Mining the Museum (1992) at the Maryland Historical Society presented the point of view of the institution as embodied in its display tactics and collection, including the suppres­sion of African American figures and of histories of slavery despite, for instance, the institution's posses­sion of nineteenth-century slave shackles.
  • Jennifer Gonzalez, "Against the Grain: The Artist as Conceptual Materialist," in Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979–2000 (Baltimore: Center for Art and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Balti­more County, 2000), 147. As Gonzalez explains, both she and the historian Irene J. Winter independently suggest that "Wilson operates as a Foucauldian archeologist."
  • Fred Wilson and K. Anthony Appiah, "Fragments of a Conversation," in Fred Wilson: A Conversation with K. Anthony Appiah (New York: Pace Wildenstein, 2006), 293.
  • These were part of Wilson's exhibition Collectibles, which thematized the act of collecting, at Metro Pic­tures in New York in 1995.
  • See Wilson's audio description of Love and Loss in the Milky Way at the Museum of Arts and Design website, http://collections.madmuseum.org/code/emuseum.asp?emu_action=media&id=5417&mediaid=22912.
  • Wilson is currently working on the third chandelier. He discusses the project in Wilson and Appiah, "Frag­ments of a Conversation," 289–91.
Back to Fred Wilson
1
Close

Wilson, in Judith Barry et al., "Serving Institutions," October 80 (Spring 1997): 120. In the mid-1970s Wilson worked at the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Craft Museum.

See all footnotes
Back to Fred Wilson
2
Close

Wilson's well-known project Mining the Museum (1992) at the Maryland Historical Society presented the point of view of the institution as embodied in its display tactics and collection, including the suppres­sion of African American figures and of histories of slavery despite, for instance, the institution's posses­sion of nineteenth-century slave shackles.

See all footnotes
Back to Fred Wilson
3
Close

Jennifer Gonzalez, "Against the Grain: The Artist as Conceptual Materialist," in Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979–2000 (Baltimore: Center for Art and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Balti­more County, 2000), 147. As Gonzalez explains, both she and the historian Irene J. Winter independently suggest that "Wilson operates as a Foucauldian archeologist."

See all footnotes
Back to Fred Wilson
4
Close

Fred Wilson and K. Anthony Appiah, "Fragments of a Conversation," in Fred Wilson: A Conversation with K. Anthony Appiah (New York: Pace Wildenstein, 2006), 293.

See all footnotes
Back to Fred Wilson
5
Close

These were part of Wilson's exhibition Collectibles, which thematized the act of collecting, at Metro Pic­tures in New York in 1995.

See all footnotes
Back to Fred Wilson
6
Close

See Wilson's audio description of Love and Loss in the Milky Way at the Museum of Arts and Design website, http://collections.madmuseum.org/code/emuseum.asp?emu_action=media&id=5417&mediaid=22912.

See all footnotes
Back to Fred Wilson
7
Close

Wilson is currently working on the third chandelier. He discusses the project in Wilson and Appiah, "Frag­ments of a Conversation," 289–91.

See all footnotes
Chicago Manual of Style
citation for this page
"Fred Wilson." Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2017. https://​hammer.ucla.edu/​take-it-or-leave-it/​artists/​fred-wilson/​.