Jeffrey Gibson on Representing the United States and Himself

Jeffrey Gibson on Representing the United States and Himself

From his studio in Hudson, NY, Jeffrey Gibson speaks on his embrace of colour and the limited-edition blanket commissioned by Sotheby’s to support his exhibition in the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Photography by Menelik Puryear
From his studio in Hudson, NY, Jeffrey Gibson speaks on his embrace of colour and the limited-edition blanket commissioned by Sotheby’s to support his exhibition in the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Photography by Menelik Puryear

I n 2022, US artist Jeffrey Gibson sent out an open call to performers from the Rocky Mountain Color Guard Association, a local chapter of the national marching arts movement. Gibson, who is of Cherokee and Choctaw descent, was seeking participants for a flag-spinning performance as part of his exhibition, The Spirits are Laughing, at the Aspen Art Museum in his birthplace of Colorado. In the opening sequence of the live work, the 15-strong team he assembled and choreographed stood in a circle, each holding a different flag designed by Gibson firmly at their side. The group broke formation in a synchronised march, their flags fluttering, before reconvening and smoothly dipping them inside and out of their final circle.

Fifteen flags, used as part of Gibson’s performance for the 2022 exhibition The Spirits are Laughing, on display outside the Aspen Art Museum. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson, Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York, Roberts Projects, LA; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Photo by Tony Prikryl

Now Gibson has reworked the design of one of these flags for a limited-edition artwork – a cashmere blanket – that is being sold by Sotheby’s in partnership with this year’s commissioners, the Portland Art Museum and SITE Santa Fe, to raise funds for Gibson’s landmark presentation for the US Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale. While representing the US on the art world’s biggest stage is sure to be uniquely revealing of the vision Gibson has developed over three decades as an artist, the blanket is a window into his intuitive practice, incorporating his signature use of bold colour in its striking, triangle-dominated design.

I Feel Real When You Hold Me cashmere blanket, signed and numbered in an edition of 60
“Gibson’s feel for colour is like when you hit a tuning fork – everything harmonises”
–Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American Art at Portland Art Museum

“I grew up with a lot of people criticising my use of colour,” Gibson, 51, explains on the line from his studio, a converted schoolhouse in Hudson, New York. “But ultimately, I just kept having this impulse to use it – in a way that hasn’t left me.” He also relies on gut instinct when considering pattern: “I started paying attention to what I was returning to again and again, which is a grid and geometrical shapes – working with horizontals and verticals. At this point the basic grid of triangles can do a lot, and seems to be my return to home base.”

Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American Art at Portland Art Museum, likens Gibson’s feel for colour to “when you hit a tuning fork – everything harmonises” – an effect evidenced in his blanket design. “There is a functional quality to it,” says Sharon Coplan Hurowitz, Sotheby’s liaison for the project. “But it is also a work of art.” The artist Senam Okudzeto, who has known Gibson since the 1990s, says: “What is impressive is that he has been able to work across a number of scales. Some of his most enticing work is intimate, especially the text-based works.”

Gibson often incorporates phrases from song lyrics in his work – IN NUMBERS TOO BIG TO IGNORE, 2016, borrows a line from Helen Reddy’s 1972 song I Am Woman. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio. Photo by Pete Maune

The phrase “I feel real when you hold me” is central to the composition of Gibson’s blanket. “It reflects my thinking about wrapping things, but also my relationship to people and objects,” he explains. “In my experience, working in museums with North American collections, there are objects that have not been ‘held’, because they have been removed from their communities.”

Song lyrics are common references in his work, by artists ranging from Gladys Knight and the Pips to Public Enemy. His choices tend to draw on personal favourites or what he’s listening to at the time, in this case Nina Simone in combination with Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). “I wouldn’t say it’s a mantra, but it is definitely a personal anthem,” he says. Ironically, working with text has taught Gibson about the limits of what he can control as an artist. “My initial fear was that I would be locking a viewer into one meaning, but you soon realise legibility is very slippery.”

Throughout his career he has grappled with how legible to make his influences, which relate as much to aesthetics and an international upbringing in Germany, South Korea and England as to his queer and Native American identity. But across his genre-defying oeuvre – spanning sculpture, printmaking, performance and painting – Gibson has openly integrated all manner of objects and materials commonly associated with Indigenous histories: from baskets and textiles to intricate beadwork, the latter memorably deployed on his series of punching bags.

“If I want to be direct, if I want to be indirect, I have opened up those spaces for myself in my practice”
–Jeffrey Gibson


As a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he didn’t always feel so comfortable bringing in these elements. He worried about “the cliches brought to readings of the work”, recalls Okudzeto. “But he was always so into craft and textiles and costume, even before he started referencing Indigenous histories.” This, the double-bind that artists of colour often face when trying to skirt stereotypes in readings of their work, while still honouring their identity.

“Most of his work is still rooted in his early work as a painter,” says Ash-Milby. The formats he uses “riff on textiles – like some of the wall hangings that incorporate beadwork and other materials – but they aren’t traditional textiles”. She first saw Gibson’s work in 2002, when she was a curator at the American Indian Community House Gallery in New York, and remembers being bowled over by the “very organic, lush and colourful environments” he created. “It was interesting to me how he was drawing on all these histories, even though they were not what he was depicting directly in his painting.” Gibson adds that other people looked at these paintings and thought he was only interested in the formal qualities of art.

The artist’s punching bags on display in his 2022 exhibition New Work by Native American Artist Jeffrey Gibson at the Marc Straus Gallery in New York. Courtesy: Jeffrey Gibson Studio. Photo: Pete Maune

Only after a solo exhibition in 2012 at the non-profit space Participant Inc in New York City did more people start taking notice. The show, titled One Becomes the Other, included geometric paintings on a set of elk-hide drums and other works that incorporated materials and objects used by Indigenous makers. For Gibson, it was the moment he stopped catering to how audiences might fetishise his art and began focusing on creating a “foundation for people to consider the work within”. The shift was liberating. “I don’t feel those limits anymore,” he says. “If I want to be direct, if I want to be indirect, I have opened up those spaces for myself in my practice.” These include “gestural abstraction, which is finding its way back in”.

Gibson also holds up a mirror to the art world, demanding that people recognise their biases. In response to a claim he often hears about colour in relation to classicism in art – “that the abundance of colour distracts” – Gibson prefers to consider this point of view through other cultural vantage points and call it what it is: unfair. The same can be said for his use of craft, which the mainstream art world often relegates to a lower status.

Jeffrey Gibson, My Joy My Joy My Joy, 2021, part of the artist’s solo exhibition, The Body Electric, at SITE Santa Fe, 2022. Photo: Shayla Blatchford

The limited-edition blanket – fabricated by Saved NY and signed and numbered on a hand-painted label – represents a significant moment for Sotheby’s. It is the first time it has commissioned an artist at the height of their visibility for a work that will be immediately available. “This is a milestone for an auction house to be involved in,” says Coplan Hurowitz. “It has been an honour to work with the artist in collaboration with Sotheby’s and the Commissioners on this benefit project.”

Gibson frequently talks about a 1941 exhibition of Native American art at MoMA, Indian Art of the United States. He likes to imagine how his life as an artist would have unfolded had mainstream curators, researchers and academics given its alternative cultural perspectives room to grow. Maybe he would have referenced Indigenous histories earlier, without wrestling as much with what it would mean for his career. Or maybe he would still be the first Native American artist to represent the US at the Venice Biennale with a solo exhibition – but getting there wouldn’t have been so hard.

Cover image: Jeffrey Gibson in his Hudson studio with a prototype of I Feel Real When You Hold Me, 2024. Photo: Menelik Puryear

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