A pivotal figure in the field of conceptual art, Charles Gaines’ body of work engages formulas and systems that interrogate relationships between the objective and the subjective realms. Using a generative approach to create a series of works in a variety of mediums, he has built a bridge between the early conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s and subsequent generations of artists pushing the limits of conceptualism today.
Born in 1944 in Charleston, South Carolina, Gaines began his career as a painter, earning his M.F.A. from the School of Art and Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1967. In the 1970s, Gaines’s art shifted dramatically in response to what he would later call ‘the awakening.’ Gaines’s epiphany materialized in a series called Regression (1973 – 1974), in which he explored the use of mathematical and numeric systems to create soft, numbered marks in ink on a grid, with each drawing built upon the calculations of the last. This methodical approach would carry the artist into the subsequent decades of his artistic journey.
Working both within the system and against it, Gaines points to the tensions between the empirical objective and the viewers’ subjective response. The concept of identity politics has played a central role within Gaines’s oeuvre, and the radical approach he employs addresses issues of race in ways that transcend the limits of representation.
Gaines lives and works in Los Angeles. He recently retired from the CalArts School of Art, where he was on faculty for over 30 years and established a fellowship to provide critical scholarship support for Black students in the M.F.A. program. In the fall of 2023, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, will open a major survey of Gaines’s work from 1992 to the present, tracing the complex interrelation of formal innovation, conceptual rigor and political content that has characterized the second half of his career. Gaines has also been the subject of numerous other exhibitions in the United States and around the world, most notably at Dia Beacon, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
Gaines’s work is included in prominent public collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York NY; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York NY; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago IL; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles CA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles CA; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles CA; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco CA; and Tate, London, UK. His work has also been presented at the 1975 Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale in 2007 and 2015.
In 2022 Gaines launched his most ambitious public art project yet, ‘The American Manifest,’ presented by Creative Time, Governors Island Arts and Times Square Arts. Unfolding in three parts over the course of two years and across three sites, the work features both performance and large-scale sculptural works to tell the complicated story of the over 400-year settlement of the United States, focusing on the country’s foundations of colonialism, racial capitalism, democracy, and the legacy of Manifest Destiny.
In addition to his artistic practice, Gaines has published several essays on contemporary art, including ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism’ (University of California, Irvine, 1993) and ‘The New Cosmopolitanism’ (California State University, Fullerton, 2008). In 2019, Gaines received the 60th Edward MacDowell Medal. He was inducted into the National Academy of Design’s 2020 class of National Academicians and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in May 2022. In 2023, he received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
Awards & Grants
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