PRINT January 2019


Nari Ward, Glory (detail), 2004, oil barrel, fluorescent tubes, ultraviolet tubes, computer parts, DVD, parrot,  audio recording, Plexiglas, fan, camera-casing elements, paint cans, cement, towels, rubber roofing membrane, dimensions variable.

Curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari, Massimiliano Gioni, and Helga Christoffersen

IT’S A STRUCTURING CONTRADICTION of American politics that the opening “we” of the preamble to the US Constitution effectively dissimulates the manifest contempt for even the concept of “the people” expressed at the 1787 convention that led to its drafting. Behind locked doors, Alexander Hamilton sought to give the rich a “distinct, permanent share in the government” and James Madison to enshrine them as a protected minority. Political economist J. Allen Smith argued as early as 1907 that those seeking to grapple with the “nature and origin” of modern political evil had first better possess a “general recognition” of the antidemocratic character of the Constitution. Such public reckoning is one aim of Nari Ward’s midcareer survey at the New Museum in New York. In the show’s eponymous 2015 sculpture, We the People, Ward activates what’s inert and hollow in its titular phrase by rendering the script of the founding document with a mass of dangling varicolored shoelaces that confront viewers first as lines and textures before settling into those three overdetermined words.

A similar defamiliarization through accumulation characterizes many of Ward’s immersive installations, including his breakout work Amazing Grace, 1993, a monumental hull-like arrangement of damaged fire hoses and discarded baby strollers culled from Harlem’s vacant lots and abandoned buildings at the height of the aids crisis. Originally presented in an empty fire station, the piece will be re-created in the museum and shown alongside more than thirty other large-scale installations, paintings, sculptures, and videos spanning twenty-five years of work.

The accompanying catalogue promises to reveal new layers of Ward’s artistic career through two parallel but relatively autonomous New York City narratives: that of its art world—with particular attention to the influence of architectural intervention and post-Minimalist painting—and that of the history of development and displacement in Harlem since the 1970s. This approach poses a welcome challenge to readings that situate the Jamaica-born, Harlem-based artist either primarily in the context of West Coast African American assemblage or among a cadre of international artists working on immigration. Rather than narrowing the scope of Ward’s influence, “We the People” sharpens the internationalism of his practice by reading the whole through the part.