Art, Darling – The New York Times

Antwaun Sargent wanted to change the art world. He already has.
Credit…Nate Palmer for The New York Times
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Antwaun Sargent sat nursing a Negroni at Frankies Spuntino, his haunt in Brooklyn, as he described the perks of his multilayered career.
“I had dinner with Madonna,” he said on a recent Friday. “Coming of age as a gay man in Chicago in the ’90s, you can imagine, I was excited. I was obsessed with her.”
But within moments of their encounter last year, Mr. Sargent hit earth. Pulling out her iPhone, his erstwhile idol proceeded to show him artworks by Rocco Ritchie, her 21-year-old son with the filmmaker Guy Ritchie, regaling him for nearly an hour about her hopes for the boy.
“That made things real,” Mr. Sargent said. “Here was Madonna — a legend, an icon — asking for guidance, just being mom.”
It seems the pop diva had known where to turn.
Mr. Sargent, 33, a former kindergarten teacher turned artist and curator and vociferous champion of Black artists, had been appointed in January 2021 as a director at Gagosian, the blue-chip mega-gallery, with a mandate to make waves.
His first show, “Social Works,” in 2021, highlighted a multidisciplinary roster including Theaster Gates, the architect David Adjaye and the filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant, who installed a small, working farm in the gallery space. The show also highlighted Mr. Sargent’s mission: to give Black artists, who had been only haphazardly represented in leading art-world institutions, a highly visible seat at the table.
It was a mission Mr. Sargent happened to share with the cultural polymath Virgil Abloh, each bent on conveying a commitment and sense of community to artists of every stripe — painters, architects, sculptors, musicians and fashion designers.
So it was all but inevitable that Mr. Abloh, whose work encompassed fashion, music, architecture and art, would invite Mr. Sargent to curate his retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. The show was to be a crowning event in his career — Mr. Abloh died last year after a long illness — and certainly a feather in Mr. Sargent’s cap.
The exhibition, “Figures of Speech,” opens on July 1, with works arranged along tables, not walls, displaying artifacts and artworks from Mr. Abloh’s archive. The show departs significantly from its first incarnation, which was on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2019 and was curated by Michael Darling.
The Brooklyn installation opens with early school projects by Mr. Abloh, including a graffiti notebook from 1999 and a master’s program architectural model, and includes his early fashion drawings, artworks and clothing. It goes on to showcase items from influential collaborations with Takashi Murakami, Kanye West and Rem Koolhaas, as well as pieces from the designer’s fashion labels: Pyrex Vision, Off-White and Louis Vuitton men’s wear.
The show’s imposing centerpiece, a rustic looking schoolhouse clad in pine, is built to function as a real-life classroom offering visitors “cheat sheets” lessons, in disciplines that include industrial design, music, architecture and fashion design. “Everything in short that Virgil touched,” Mr. Sargent said. The structure will occupy 1,400 square feet of the museum’s Great Hall.
Yes, it takes up space and that is the point. “Space is the thread that connects all the work I do,” Mr. Sargent said. Space can connote power, he said. “The question is: ‘What are you going to do with that space?’”
If an artist is hoping simply to advance himself, “I’ve no interest in that,” Mr. Sargent said. “But if you are taking up space to create more space for other people, for other Black artists, I have a profound interest in that.”
Mr. Sargent himself means to take up wide swaths of people’s consciousness. He writes prolifically and has published critical essays in The New York Times and The New Yorker, among other places. Last year he served as a guest editor of Art in America, turning the magazine’s new talent issue in May into a platform for Black critics, painters and photographers. He has published a series of house catalogs — zines, he calls them — at Gagosian.
“He has a great kind of work ethic and is a team player,” Larry Gagosian said. “He deserves the attention he’s been getting, but it’s not like he is wanting a lot of attention for himself. You’re not working with somebody who is on a constant ego trip.”
Mr. Gagosian added: “A lot of galleries have been paying attention to underrepresented artists of color. But Antwaun really pushed it much more effectively.”
Part art nerd, part crusader, Mr. Sargent has gathered the works of Black artists in two books, “Young, Gifted and Black: A New Generation of Artists” and “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion.” He continues to oversee exhibitions and publish critical commentary on, among others, Kehinde Wiley, Alexandria Smith, Nick Cave and Amanda Williams.
Ms. Williams’s show of vibrantly colorful canvases is on view through July 8 at Park & 75, a Gagosian space, one of 10 projects that Mr. Sargent will juggle this summer.
Ms. Williams’s faith in the curator is longstanding. “Antwaun will see works I’ve done and sense why I’ve arranged things the way I have, without us having to talk about it,” she said. “I trust that he knows my eye.” She is but the latest in a string of artists and designers Mr. Sargent sedulously promotes on @sirsargent, his Instagram, with close to 100,000 followers.
But it isn’t all grind. Well connected in social and fashion circles, he has popped up in the front rows of Thom Browne and Gucci shows, and dropped in at the Bottega Veneta store opening in SoHo last fall. Art is his métier, but he takes an inclusive position. He is partial to designers like Grace Wales Bonner, Raf Simons at Prada and Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss.
He has modeled for GQ and was recently spotted on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, his lean 5-foot-11 frame and signature cuffed Russian karakul hat rendering him visible in a crowd that included Kanye West, Megan Thee Stallion and the photographer Tyler Mitchell (a friend), all craning for a view of the Balenciaga spring 2023 show.
In the relative calm of Frankies, Mr. Sargent talked fast, fingers tracing arabesques in the air as he reminisced about the highlights of his spring social season.
Earlier this year while in Positano on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, he was invited to a party in Capri at the fabled Casa Malaparte, a Modernist villa on a high cliff and strictly off limits to the general public.
“I had no idea how I was going to get there,” Mr. Sargent said, noting that he also looked like a “broke” writer. He rented a boat and headed uncertainly for a dock marked on Google Maps with nothing but an arrow. “I had to keep telling myself, ‘It’s OK, I’m going to this crazy house that no one gets to go to.’”
He rattled on, reveling like a child in his good fortune. The evening was eye-opening. “We had dinner on the roof, and there was opera singing,” he said. “It was also the night that I realized, ‘Wow, this world — it's not the world I come from.’”
There were other indelible moments. Arriving in March at an Oscars after-party given by Madonna and her agent, the entertainment mogul Guy Oseary, Mr. Sargent was star-struck. Sean Combs, Jessica Chastain, Robert De Niro, Kim Kardashian and “just about every name you could drop, they were there,” he said. Even the waiters were tarted up, he said, “wearing blond wigs like Madonna.”
He rocked with the crowd, moving on to a party given by Beyoncé and Jay-Z but exiting promptly at dawn to board a flight to New York. He was not about to miss his meeting that day with the artist Rick Lowe.
Mr. Sargent cultivated his fierce sense of commitment early on. A Chicago native, he grew up in the notoriously blighted Cabrini-Green Homes, which have since been razed. “You know what that scenario was,” he said coolly. “You know frankly that a lot of people never made it out of there.”
That he did he owes in part to his mother, he said, who sent him to a Catholic school and managed, while working at a Walgreens, to subsidize his youthful ambitions.
“We were under-resourced,” as he put it. But his mother did not balk when he asked to join a student exchange program in Germany, reassuring him simply, “we’ll figure it out.”
Bent on a career in foreign service, he entered Georgetown University in 2007, volunteered for the Obama campaign and served as an intern with Hillary Clinton before accepting a post with Teach for America, assigned to teach reading and writing to a classroom of 30 rambunctious 4- and 5-year-olds in Brooklyn.
“I was getting up at 5:45 every day to take the C train to East New York, teaching by day and writing, partying, doing all those things that a 21-year-old does by night,” he said. He was beguiled by the art world, making gallery rounds with his friend and housemate JiaJia Fei, a digital strategist for the arts.
“We went to every possible show, to every party, to whatever was happening,” Mr. Sargent said. “When I’m fascinated, I need to meet everyone. I need to read everything.”
He determined to contribute in some way. “Writing became that way,” he said.
He was shaken at first. “Nobody likes to face a blank screen,” he said. But neither was teaching a stroll in the park.
“This was not some tony Upper East Side scenario,” he said. “You had to really believe in those kids, to support them.” Children, like artists, he came to learn, “can sniff out a bad idea. They are the toughest critics. But if you are there for them, they know it.”
He is well aware that the art world may not prove as steadfast. “We’ve had moments where Black artists are ascendant in the culture, and then several years later, they’re gone,” he said. “Without any structural changes from institutions, what you have is fashion, a trend.”
He raced to keep up with his thoughts, words darting in a fusillade. “I want to make sure, yeah, yeah, yeah, that this current enthusiasm for artists of color is not just a moment,” he said.
“For me, it’s about not being the director at a gallery or the curator at a museum but about figuring out ways to have companies invest in creative communities. It’s about writing, making exhibitions — all these different ways of keeping the door open for people of color, pushing people through.”
Earnest but not solemn, Mr. Sargent paused midstream to field a text from his friend, Mr. Mitchell, who wanted his opinion on some silver eyeglass frames he planned to buy. Mr. Sargent signaled his approval, then looked up and broke into a grin. “Yeah, I’m spinning a lot of plates in the air,” he said.
Does all that energy, sustained in part by vegan protein-and-berry smoothies and a regimen of cycling, leave room for a private life? Not much, it seems. He shares an apartment in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn with Ms. Fei, who is often photographed with him at art world gatherings.
“We used to say that we are each others’ selfies,” Mr. Sargent said.
They go back a dozen years. The apartment is large enough that one of the rooms doubles as a walk-in closet because, Mr. Sargent said, without a trace of embarrassment, “we have so many clothes.”
He remembers those years as a string of sketchily improvised celebrations. “In our 20s, we would throw these crazy parties in our backyard,” he said. There were impromptu mini film festivals. “We would have our friends bring blankets and project movies onto the wall.”
His schedule these days leaves little time for entertaining, much less romance. He recently ended a three-year relationship with a performance artist. “It’s hard in a relationship to find balance, especially when you’re in a hyper-productive moment in your career,” he said. “Right now I’m thinking it might be nice to have that moment to focus on work.”
Still, he was due for a rest. About to depart for a long weekend at GoldenEye, a luxury resort on the northern coast of Jamaica, he betrayed a touch of anxiety.
Disconnecting? Well, that was going to be an experiment. “I’ve never taken vacation, not even for four days,” he said. “I’m afraid to stay much longer.
“Already, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, what if I get bored?’”
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