For Chakaia Booker, Whose Medium Is Tires, the Art Is in the Journey

Siddhartha Mitter, The New York Times, May 7, 2021

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Chakaia Booker’s studio here is 20,000 square feet of unheated space, with a roof that leaks and a squirrel problem. Its floor is grooved in places with tracks from its past life as a trolley maintenance shed.

Now there is a woodworking area, a metal shop, a ceramics room. There are power tools, precision cutters and a forklift, as Booker’s materials are heavy and her sculptures large. And there are tires — stacked high on shelving; sliced in rounds, shredded, heaped pell-mell.


For over 30 years, Booker has worked mainly with automotive rubber. In the 1980s, she retrieved blown-out tires in Manhattan’s pregentrified East Village, where she still lives. Now, her sources include Michelin, which sends her used tires from racecars and motorcycles.


Distinctive and idiosyncratic, her oeuvre transcends the material’s utilitarian vocation and belies its uniformity. The sculptures can be robust and monumental, or finely detailed and uncannily tender. Some are almost figurative, the rubber cut, flexed and positioned in layers or strands to evoke the human body or more cryptic forms.


“It’s infinite in its possibilities,” Booker said. “It just depends on your imagination.”


The artist’s commitment to rubber prompts comparison to other signatures — John Chamberlain’s crushed car parts, Melvin Edwards’s metal lyricism — but is deeply individual.


“She’s singular,” said Valerie Cassel Oliver, one of the curators of the 2000 Whitney Biennial, which included a sculpture by Booker. Cassel Oliver then featured her in “Double Consciousness,” a 2005 survey of Black conceptual art at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. “She’s committed to exploring the material to the point of exhaustion — and clearly there’s no end.”


Booker’s first survey show in a decade, and the largest by her estimate, has opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami and runs through October. It is, in part, an in-depth presentation of her work in rubber that invites consideration of her range and technique in the medium. Mixing landmark works in her career with lesser-known ones, it includes her wall-size Whitney Biennial sculpture, “It’s So Hard to Be Green,” and a newly made version of “The Observance,” an elaborate walk-through installation of suspended rubber that premiered at York College in Queens in 1995, and that lends its title to the show.


But the exhibition expands the view as well, including Booker’s painting, photography and printmaking, and her first love, ceramics. In doing so, it upends the perception of Booker as a single-medium (albeit spectacular) artist, and instead presents a full practice, one anchored in craft-based Black abstraction and an urban-roots ethos, principles that persist in her work today.


“There’s so much love in her work,” said Alex Gartenfeld, artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, who organized the Miami exhibition with the curator Stephanie Seidel. “It’s the story of a life.”


Booker’s art begins in the morning, when she dresses. “I sculpt myself every day,” she said.


Her appearance is both memorable and integral to the work. She wore a turban-like headpiece, made of dozens of fabric strips and squares in many patterns, wrapped, knotted and stitched. It encircled her face and cascaded past her shoulders. Her shirt was enhanced — the precise architecture was hard to ascertain — in a similar vein. Just the bottom of Dickies work pants appeared, over sneakers.


This body-worn integration of art and life predates her formal practice. “It was always there,” she said. “It grew and evolved with the work.” She likened assembling her outfits to composition. “Those are the things on my palette that help me to create what I do.”


The regalia can add practical difficulty to Booker’s work, which involves plenty of heavy lifting. Its effect is protective, as she is somewhat shy, and reluctant to speak about herself. But its more important, intended result is to direct the focus to her craft.


“It’s like, let the work go,” she said. “That’s what you want to pay attention to. It’s all one.”


Two early series of photographs document a young Booker traversing urban wastelands, collecting items. “The Graveyard Series” is reprinted as a wallpaper section in the Miami show. “Foundling Warrior Quest” appears in the form of photogravures that she later made from those images in 2010.


Seidel, the curator, said that the element of performance that reaches from Booker’s gathering of materials into the studio conveys an ethical, even spiritual orientation.

“It’s not just her doing something to the rubber tires,” she said. “It’s a much broader meditation on interacting with your environment.”


Booker moved to New York City in the late 1970s — a short distance, but at the time worlds apart, from her native New Jersey. Born in Newark in 1953, she grew up there and in East Orange in what she shrugged off in our interview, as a “regular dysfunctional family.” Coming of age in a time of social turmoil — including the Newark riots and repression of 1967 — and Black liberation politics, she studied sociology at Rutgers University, then taught in a Black alternative school in New Brunswick, coming into the city to study African dance.


When she settled near Tompkins Square Park, the area was in bohemian blossom. “It was a combination of everybody,” she said. “Even people who weren’t necessarily artists, everyone was just extremely creative, whether in their physical appearance or what they did."


Her own transition was gradual, exploring different mediums and exhibiting her art only twice in the 1980s, at a local gallery, including in a show of textile works with Faith Ringgold and Howardena Pindell. But her long-term project was germinating in the street, where she collected the tires and treads that accumulated in the scruffy neighborhood, and in the experiments she made from them at home.


“The material was just there,” she said. “I was looking, like everybody else, trying various things. When the tires came in, it was like, I gotcha! And I didn’t look back.”


In the early 1990s, Booker earned an M.F.A. at City College — a pragmatic decision, as she figured she needed a degree to teach and survive as an artist. She connected there with a key mentor, the Black abstractionist Al Loving, who had moved away from painting to make works accumulating torn paper and canvas. She also found space to stretch out.


 Anthony Archibald J., who was to become her first private dealer and a close friend, recalled their first meeting, on the campus, and asking to visit her studio. She instructed him to look her up one year later. He kept the appointment, and found she had taken over part of a building the college had vacated (and would later demolish), filling it with sculptures made from tires and wallboard.


“It was not about her talking about art history or theory,” Archibald said. “She had the capacity, but she refused to prove herself to anyone. It was always about the work.”


By 2000, Booker had been an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem and participated in the Whitney Biennial — a path that might have ushered in stardom. She joined the roster of Marlborough, a commercial gallery, for a decade. But both her unorthodox medium and her creative priorities kept her from the limelight when it beckoned.


She was not one to alter her art for approval. “People have their likes, that’s the bottom line,” she said. Interest in her work has grown over the years as a younger curatorial generation gains influence, she said.


In setting up her studio in Allentown, around 2005, Booker doubled down, creating distance from the New York scene while securing a work space at a scale she could not afford in the city. Her first studio in Allentown was even larger than the current one.


Her work with tires has prompted many lines of interpretation — to do with industrial decline, the ecology of salvage, the material legacies of Black labor. In Allentown, itself an industrial remain, those themes need little explication. “Just look at this place,” she said, gesturing around her.


Today, Booker has works in many museum and sculpture-park collections; her commissions for public art, meanwhile, are more broadly accessible. A 2019 installation in Military Park in downtown Newark attracted young people who climbed and sat in the work and used it as a setting for group poetry performances, said Salamishah Tillet, a scholar at Rutgers-Newark (and a contributing critic at large for The New York Times) who was a co-curator of the project.


Though reuse is a longstanding art concern, the Black Lives Matter movement has foregrounded the notion that no human being is disposable, Tillet said, injecting Booker’s work with a fresh relevance. “If that’s the key to liberation, there’s something exciting when an artist manifests that in their practice.”


In the studio, Booker exuded the impression of someone who chose freedom long ago.


She works with her longtime partner and fabricator, Alston van Putten Jr., and rarely anyone else. The operation is self-contained: The studio is also the storage facility, where many works live wrapped when they are not being lent out for exhibitions. In Manhattan, she inhabits the same apartment she had in the 1980s. She travels in van Putten’s truck, or rides the bus.


Presented with arguments scholars have made about her art — its ecological mission, its connections to rubber’s exploitative cultivation, the affinity of her figurative work and personal presentation with African masking — she neither confirms nor denies, inviting viewers to form their own interpretations.


Craft is her axis of progress. “It’s the technique of getting it to go,” she said. “It’s the tools, putting my hands in position. It’s like wanting something and letting go. You have to go beyond in order to keep it going.”


The investment, in proper 1970s spirit, is in the journey.


“They even have tires on the moon,” she said. “Didn’t they leave some equipment up there? They just have to send me up!”


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