Thu 23 Feb 2023 to Sat 22 Apr 2023
Artist: Winfred Rembert
Hauser & Wirth presents ‘All of Me,’ its first exhibition of works by late American artist Winfred Rembert (1945-2021), in collaboration with Fort Gansevoort. Occupying all three floors of the gallery’s 69th Street location, this immersive tribute to Rembert’s incredible life and artistry includes more than 40 works made in his signature medium of carved, tooled and painted leather, including several never before seen.
Produced during the last three decades of his life, the objects on view offer a striking visual memoir and will take visitors on a journey through key chapters of the artist’s personal history. Rembert’s paintings recognize the people and places––from pool halls, juke joints, and civil rights protests, to cotton fields and chain gangs––that shaped his worldview, uniquely rendered through technical mastery of his chosen medium into something arresting and astonishing.
Born in 1945 in Americus, Georgia, Winfred Rembert was a son of the ‘Jim Crow’ American South. In 1965, he was thrown in jail after a Civil Rights demonstration, and two years later survived a near lynching. This pivotal, harrowing experience was followed by seven years in the Georgia prison system. During this time, Rembert was taught how to tool leather from a fellow inmate named ‘T. J. the Tooler,’ who was allowed to create small functional leather items such as wallets. After his release from prison, Rembert moved North, eventually settling in New Haven, Connecticut where he lived for the remainder of his life. In 1996, at the age of 51, and with encouragement from his wife Patsy, he began to document his memories of life in Georgia in an outpouring of incredible narrative paintings.
‘All of Me’ opens with two powerful depictions of the immense cruelty of the America Rembert experienced during his time in the segregated South. This pair of works introduces viewers to motifs the artist deployed repeatedly over the years, and which became icons of his oeuvre. ‘Cain’t to Cain’t II’ (2016) is one of many works that evoke the long hours Rembert toiled picking cotton. In this vibrantly colored landscape, workers on the left and right sides of the composition are obscured by dark bands of dye representing dawn and dusk, because as Rembert said, ‘You can’t see when you go, and you can’t see when you come back.’ Adjacent to this painting, ‘All of Me’ (Date unknown), is one of the most complex of Rembert’s entire body of work. Recalling his time on a chain gang, this daring work teems with the bent bodies of men in black-and-white striped prison uniforms while working on a chain gang. Collectively the figures in ‘All of Me’ represent the multiple personae he adopted to survive the inhumane treatment he experienced while incarcerated. As Rembert stated, ‘Each person in the picture has a role to play. I didn’t want to play any of the parts, but I had to be somebody. I couldn’t walk around and be nobody, so I became all of them. It’s like I was more than one person inside myself. In fact, I think if I hadn’t decided to play the All Me role on the chain gang, I wouldn’t have made it. Taking that stance—All Me—saved me.’
The painting titled ‘Civil Rights – I Have A Dream’ (1999) recounts an experience from 1965, that marked the beginning of the most devastating period of Rembert’s life. Attacked during a peaceful demonstration in Georgia, he fled in a stolen car, only to be arrested and thrown into jail. After a year without charges, Rembert managed to escape, but was caught and put inside the trunk of a police car, a chilling scene that the artist revisited in the work titled, ‘Inside the Trunk’ (2014). ‘When they opened the trunk, I saw all these white people and I see these ropes hanging in the tree.’ Rembert recalled in his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography ‘Chasing Me To My Grave’ (2021), ‘I thought that was the end of my life.’ ‘Wingtips’ (2001–02) depicts the near-lynching of Rembert by the mob who abducted him. This work takes its title from a tiny detail––the shoes of the man who stepped forward to object to Rembert’s torture––observed by the artist while hanging upside down from a tree. The trauma of surviving this incident is then recreated in ‘Almost Me’ (1997), which shows the viewer what might have been, had Rembert’s life not been spared.
While these gorgeous yet heart-wrenching works tell the story of life in an America hobbled by racism and bigotry, the exhibition also presents the artist’s celebration of the joyful moments from his youth and warm memories of family and community. Paintings such as ‘Jeff’s Pool Room’ (2003) and ‘Soda Shop’ (2007) commemorate many of the people and social settings Rembert knew and loved from his birthplace of Cuthbert, Georgia. In ‘Doll’s Head Baseball’ (c. 1990), Rembert paid homage to a game he loved watching the locals play, in which a rubber doll’s head and paper bags replaced the customary baseball and catcher’s gloves, and the doll heads were named after plantation owners.
One section of the exhibition focuses exclusively upon Rembert’s paintings of the women in his life, whose love and companionship shaped his spirit. ‘Flour Bread’ (1998) is a tribute to Lillian Rembert, the artist’s great-aunt and adoptive mother, also known as Mama. In this work, she is shown as the epitome of familial dedication, wearing a mask that allowed her to bake for her family in spite of an acute allergy to flour. Rembert’s wife Patsy is affectionately portrayed in the double portrait ‘Patsy and Me’ (2000), a testament to their enduring love and a recognition of Patsy’s unwavering encouragement of his talents, as it was Patsy who encouraged Rembert to begin tooling and painting the story of his life on leather, thereby transforming his pain into redemption.
All quotations from the artist included in the exhibition’s wall text have been excerpted from ‘Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South,’ by Winfred Rembert, as told to Erin I. Kelly, published in September 2021 by Bloomsbury.