The Art of Attention

'Crossroads', 2012, digital c-print and plexi with Lumisty film, in collaboration with Sanford Biggers. Image: Hank Willis Thomas; Text: Playboy.

Dec 17, 2019    11 min read

From injecting a sharecropper into a college kickoff to turning the Nike swoosh on its head, Hank Willis Thomas uses staples of America’s ethos to comment on its inequities

Written by
Henri Neuendorf
Winter 2020

Hank Willis Thomas is traveling.

This time he’s in Oregon to install the first major retrospective of his work, at the Portland Art Museum. On view through January 12, 2020, the exhibit will travel to Arkansas in February and Cincinnati in July. It’s a major achievement for the 43-year-old artist, a career milestone he has worked up to ever since earning his MFA from California College of the Arts in 2004. Throughout his career, Thomas has developed a reputation as one of America’s most versatile and outspoken artists, using photography, sculpture, video and collaborative public art projects to raise awareness about social justice and civil rights. That range might stem, in part, from what Thomas calls “some form of ADHD.”

“When I look at my survey show, it’s like, Oh wow, that’s definitely a broad spectrum of work,” he says. “I’ve always hoped that people can see the connections.”

A black artist who draws extensively on advertising, nostalgia and other outgrowths of pop culture, Thomas keeps his Brooklyn studio lined with shelves of meticulously organized boxes packed with back issues of iconic black-culture magazines such as Ebony and Jet, as well as retro campaign buttons and other source material. His early photographic work suggests that the collective consciousness of any society is reflected in its advertising. The poignant 2003 series Branded, for example, features photographs of black men marked with the Nike swoosh logo to comment on the relationships among advertising, race and consumerism.

Raise Up, 2014, bronze. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas.

Thomas has also explored popular entertainment, using the spectacle of professional sports as a metaphor for racism, corruption and violence. The Cotton Bowl, from his 2011 photo series Strange Fruit, juxtaposes images of a sharecropper and a black football player. The pairing serves to expose the similarities between African slaves, whose unpaid labor made generations of white Americans wealthy, and the descendants of slaves, whose unpaid work on college football teams enriches the mostly white executives of the billion-dollar sports-entertainment industry.

His sculptural pieces are no less politically charged. We the People, from 2015, uses patterned tapestries woven from decommissioned prison uniforms as a thinly veiled criticism of a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates minorities and people of color. His 2014 sculpture Raise Up, which features cast-bronze figures reaching for the sky, evokes the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of police and is now a permanent part of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. (The Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and, internationally, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia have also acquired his work.)

Speaking on the phone ahead of the Portland exhibit’s opening, Thomas explains that he felt compelled to be an artist, and it’s easy to see why. His mother, Deborah Willis, is a renowned photographer, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, a Guggenheim Fellow and current professor and chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. “I can only imagine that the conversations around the dinner table must have been really interesting,” says Jack Shainman, Thomas’s New York dealer. “I think Hank is much further along in terms of evolution and race than a lot of us, just because he grew up in a household that was always discussing that.”

The Cotton Bowl, 2011, digital c-print. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas.

Influenced by his mother’s exploration of truth and reality, the artist’s early work, such as his 1997 photo series A Thousand Words…, focuses on how the framing of images can influence context and how their meaning changes depending on what’s included or left out of the frame.

A terrifying crime proved to be a turning point in Thomas’s life and career. The artist’s cousin, Songha Willis, was murdered during a violent robbery in Philadelphia in February 2000. In the aftermath, Thomas’s resolve crystallized. “When my cousin was murdered, I felt I needed to make art that could change the world in a more intentional way,” he says.

At a time when civic engagement can be fashionable, Thomas has proven himself a uniquely active participant.

The killing inspired Thomas to focus his energy on addressing social issues. At the same time, a rapidly changing technological landscape encouraged the trained photographer to broaden his perspective. “Most of the technical things I learned, like processing film and printing, became irrelevant,” he says. “All I was left with was a way of looking at and critiquing images, so a lot of my work moved away from taking the perfect picture and toward reconsidering and reframing historical images. It has kind of taken me from photography to painting to video to sculpture to social practice.”

The importance of Thomas’s work, according to Julia Dolan, co-curator of the Portland show, lies in the way he excavates the past to make sense of the present. “The way he addresses the founding issues of this country is so critical to the dialogue we’re having on a national scale today,” she says. “We are often surprised by how his work dealing with race and bias becomes more and more relevant. He really thinks about structures in society that hold folks down, hold folks back and privilege some over others.”

We the People, 2015, quilt made out of decommissioned prison uniforms. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas.

At a time when activism and civic engagement can be fashionable and superficial, Thomas has proven himself a uniquely active participant in the civic life within and beyond his own community. “I realized there are a lot of noncreative people shaping our reality and designing policies and laws that aren’t creative,” Thomas says. “And there are a lot of creative people who have abdicated their responsibility in shaping the narratives that our culture is founded on.”

In 2018, For Freedoms, a super PAC Thomas founded in 2016 with his friend and collaborator Eric Gottesman, worked with more than 100 artists—including JR, Marilyn Minter, Rashid Johnson, Tania Bruguera and Theaster Gates—to take over nearly 200 billboards across all 50 states, as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico. Artists were asked to pick an issue they cared about and make a statement that could help viewers see the world in a new light.

“Working with artists is like herding feral cats, and I say that as an artist myself,” Gottesman jokes. “It was ambitious, exciting and on a scale nobody has ever really done before.”

Thomas also serves on the New York City Public Design Commission, an 11-member panel of experts appointed by the mayor, which reviews permanent architecture, landscape architecture and art proposals for city-owned property. According to the New York Post, Thomas was a vocal advocate for replacing a number of Central Park public monuments of men with those of women. “These decisions that have shaped our lives have been made by urban planners and policy makers for centuries,” he says. “Who is important? Who deserves to be seen, and who doesn’t?”

Your Skin Has the Power to Protect You, 2008, LightJet print. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas.

The same questions are being raised by art institutions and a fine art industry that has excluded minorities and women for decades. This is starting to change. But like most change in the rigidly conservative art world, it’s happening slowly.

A 2018 study conducted by Artnet News and the art blog In Other Words found that just 2.3 percent of all artwork acquired (either by purchase or through donation) by 30 U.S. museums from 2008 to 2018 has been by African Americans, and that African American artists make up a mere 1.2 percent of global auction sales. These startling figures illustrate the critical role artists such as Thomas play in increasing the visibility of black artists—within both the American institutional landscape and the international marketplace for contemporary art.

Thomas’s personal stance toward equality in the art world is not quite what his politically charged work suggests. “There are always people who are excluded and exploited,” he acknowledges, “and we all need to be wide awake to our participation in ignoring important things and people.” However, he continues, “the more interesting stuff always happens outside the mainstream conversation, and so I don’t think we should all be rushing so quickly to be accepted by the status quo. I do recognize that I am now part of the status quo, and I have a responsibility to improve it. That includes working hard toward greater inclusion and knowing that the work is never over.”

I Am. Amen., 2009, Liquitex on canvas. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas.
Branded Head, 2003, Lambda photograph. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas.

For all his enthusiasm for civic engagement and civil rights—both in his work and in his activism—Thomas’s chosen mediums and conceptually rigorous approach translate into market prices that fall below those of many other artists of his generation.

In the art world, an artist’s auction record can be a reliable barometer of the market’s demand for their work. Artists who work across fewer mediums and approach their craft from a more decorative or colorful perspective—such as Johnson, Kehinde Wiley (who painted Barack Obama’s official portrait) and Mickalene Thomas—have all achieved higher auction prices than Thomas. The highest-ever price paid for a work by Wiley is $300,000; Mickalene Thomas’s top price is nearly $700,000; and Johnson’s high mark stands at $1.16 million. In contrast, Thomas’s auction record is $75,000.

Shainman points out that sales aren’t necessarily an indicator of quality or importance, explaining that photographs and editions, which account for the majority of Thomas’s work, tend to be priced lower than original paintings.

“In order for an artist to be successful today, the work has to be about ideas and also be interesting aesthetically,” Shainman says. “Hank is able to balance these two things and merge them to make pieces that don’t look like anybody else’s—which is really important today too, since there have been so many artists who have come before us.”

Jungle Fever, 1991–2007, LightJet print, original photographer unknown. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas.
Love Over Rules, 2018, neon. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas.

Grammy-winning hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz has been a collector of Thomas’s work since 2018. “I first saw his amazing work online, and it was so epic,” he says via e-mail. “At first sight, what grabbed me was the bold and artistic expressions in his work. Hank is a leader, a teacher, and super forward-thinking when it comes to culture and politics. I’ve seen Hank’s growth; he’s made many new big steps, and I’m super proud of him in so many ways. I feel that Hank is reflective of the future of the arts now.”

Thomas’s busy upcoming year is likely to give his market a boost. Asked about the demand for his work, he’s ambivalent, explaining that prices “are not an actual tangible indicator of value per se.” But, he admits, “we’ve been trained to value things that are more expensive, so when you make something people think is expensive, it automatically becomes historic and important.”

Much of Thomas’s work puts its metaphorical finger directly into the wound and urges its viewers to engage in difficult conversations; presumably this particular brand of candor doesn’t sit well with many art collectors, who are disproportionately white. But the artist has no plans to make his work more palatable for the market. “I only know how to be me,” he says. “I don’t separate my art from my life.”

While Thomas’s outspokenness is a key part of his role as an artist, it has gotten him into trouble too. In September 2018, South African photographer Graeme Williams accused the American artist of copying his photograph of black school children and white police officers, an image that became a symbol of the end of apartheid. Speaking to The Guardian, Williams insisted that the changes in Thomas’s piece were “minimal” and accused the artist of “theft, plagiarism [and] appropriation.”

Guernica, 2016, mixed media with sports jerseys. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas.

Responding to the accusations, Thomas asks, “How do we in the age of mass and digital reproduction talk about history and visual culture?” He adds, “In books you can put quotation marks around words, attribute it to someone, and it’s okay.” In visual art, he argues, notions of authorship and the lines between appropriation and plagiarism are much harder to trace.

Perhaps this blurring of authorial boundaries is related to his willingness to collaborate. Thomas readily admits that much of his creative process is brainstormed, delegated and outsourced to historians, fabricators, writers, graphic designers and illustrators. “I think of myself more like an art director than a traditional fine artist,” he says. This is more common than it sounds. Like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and many of the masters who came before them, contemporary artists including Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama maintain large workshops and studios in order to meet market demand.

Dolan says Thomas’s collaborative instinct stems from his essential human curiosity. “He’s very interested in what other people think,” she says. “He really wants to hear others and understand how they see the world to explore how his perceptions might be helped, changed or enhanced by listening and collaborating.”

Thomas’s inquisitive nature and dizzying range ultimately serve a dual purpose perfectly summed up by Gottesman, his friend for almost 20 years.

“I think he’s aware of the power of attention. That’s really what his work is all about,” Gottesman says. “It’s about criticizing how attention is garnered by larger forces in society. So on a personal level he’s always trying to bring other people in and bring new voices into the conversation.”

The Equality Issue

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