Theaster Gates is standing on the dusty floor of his future studio warehouse in the Grand Crossing neighborhood. He’s surrounded by canvasses covered in black tar and melted rubber, a few adorned with Ebony covers from the 1960s, and responding to a (presumedly complimentary) headline about him in New York Magazine last year, which explained his recipe for success as “Be Young, Post-Black, and From Chicago.” It’s almost too perfect; a black artist talking about the importance of his blackness in a room filled with entirely black paintings.

Theaster-Gates

“Oh, they are wrong,” Theaster laughs about the New York headline. “They are wrong, wrong, wrong! Post-black? That’s ridiculous. I am pre-black! I am in the middle of black! I am Black with a capital B! Post-black sort of assumes that the need for talking about race in a pedantic way has passed. But that’s ridiculous. It’s like saying somebody can be post-Jewish. Can you imagine someone saying, ‘I’m post-Holocaust?’ It reduces the tremendous amount of work that still needs to be done.”

It’s been an impressive few years for Gates. Since his work was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial in New York, he’s been on a meteoric rise in the international art community. He’s had solo exhibits everywhere from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (late 2011) to London’s White Cube gallery (fall 2012). He came in at number 56 on ArtReview’s “2012 Power 100″ list, and his fame will only grow with 13th Ballad, his new installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened May 18th. As the New York Times noted last June, this could be his chance to “justify the considerable buzz around his work.”

His fame is undeniable. What isn’t so clear is what he’s famous for. The word used most often to describe Gates is “artist,” but that barely scratches the surface. Over the past five years, he’s dabbled in sculpture, painting, performance art, ceramics, installation, and urban planning, to name just a few of his interests. It’s easy to talk about his individual accomplishments. But what does it all add up to? That’s when things get murkier.

Ask any of his colleagues or supporters and you’re like to get a vastly different answer. “It’s sculpture,” says Michael Darling, the chief curator for MCA who helped organize Gates’ latest exhibition. “But not a traditionally static form of sculpture, as it can often be activated and even changed by audience participation and/or performance.” Jeffrey Deitch, the director of MoCA in Los Angeles, says that Gates “doesn’t make art for the galleries and museums. It’s art that contributes to positive social change. Theaster is making art with social impact.” John Preus, a Chicago artist and designer who’s worked on numerous projects with Gates, is hard-pressed to explain why Gates is an art world superstar. “It all seems very mysterious to me,” he says.

Critics haven’t had much luck dissecting the “many-headed hydra that is Theaster Gates,” says his friend and colleague at the University of Chicago, Hamza Walker. “People look at his work and think they understand what he’s doing,” says Walker. “And that’s great. Go see his show, see him perform, you’ll have a good time. But what he’s about is something else.” When asked to explain what that might be, even Walker has problems articulating it. “He’s a sculptor, an installation artist, a performance artist; he’s nine things at once.”

Gates isn’t oblivious to the uncertainty about what it is exactly he does, and he feels the same ambiguity. “A part of me wants to only live in the art world and move further into whatever that world by itself wants to promise,” he says. “There’s another part of me, the activist dude, who’s like ‘Fuck them, I’m only going to do what has meaning for me and nothing else matters.’ It’s the tension between those two sides where I find the richness and the fire.” He walks through the Grand Crossing studio, plaster and wood crunching under his feet, and ponders how to pigeonhole himself. Everything around him is a work in progress, which seems to be exactly as Gates likes it. “We’re in a moment in art history where modern art is still trying to figure itself out,” he says. “It’s as confused as I am about what it is. So in this moment where everything is up for grabs, it’s like, well, why don’t I have some leadership about that shit? I can be the one to say, ‘This is what it is!'”

For the moment, “what it is” for Gates is 13th Ballad, on display at MCA’s Kovler Atrium till October 6th. Like most of his work, it features old materials and objects reimagined or recontextualized. It’s a sequel of sorts to 12 Ballads For Huguenot House, a show he created last summer for dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, in which two houses—one from Chicago and one from Kassel—were united in what was described as a “poetic exchange of material and music.” 13th Ballad is in a similar vein, although Gates is a little less clear this time about what he’s trying to say. His explanations depend on which pieces (or “indexes” as he calls them) he happens to be talking or thinking about.

He walks quickly through his Grand Crossing studio space, almost at a sprint, pointing to old furniture and crates filled with various objects. There are stacks of school chairs taken from the closed Crispus Attucks Elementary on 38th and Wabash. “This is my big art question,” he says. “How do things accumulate value as they move through the world? These are just school chairs, but now they are school chairs that have been documented and photographed. They’ve become famous.”

He walks into another room, where church pews are piled high, fitted together like puzzle pieces. The pews are from the University of Chicago’s Vaughan Chapel, originally taken away to make room for Muslim worshippers. As part of the 13th Ballad, the pews will represent a “huge big-E ecumenical experience,” Gates says. “We’re going to sing about (German opera composer Giacomo) Meyerbeer and Muddy Waters. We’re going to think about these various kinds of migrations that happen.”

When he gets to the tar paintings, his explanations get personal. He talks about his father, a now retired roofer, and how working for his father gave him “my first experience with the creative.” Mopping tar, he says, required almost dance-like movements. “If you let the tar sit, it could get cold pretty quickly. And because the mops were so heavy, you’ve got to dip it and then ride with it really fast.” He demonstrates his tar-smoothing move, holding an imaginary mop, and it looks like a very funky dance step, like something James Brown would’ve done at the Apollo. He starts clapping and pounding his feet, really getting lost in the spirit of it.

There was a time when Gates thought he might follow in his father’s footsteps. Growing up in East Garfield Park, the youngest of nine kids, Gates spent many weekends working for his father’s business. He was in charge of doing the trim around the windows and doors, Gates says—a responsibility he didn’t take lightly. But even as a kid, his aesthetic interests were markedly different from the rest of his family.

“There were no artists in our family,” says Gates’ cousin, Titus Wonsey. “No one thought about that seriously as a career path.” For Gates, his obsessions were pottery—”some of his pottery would sit in family member’s houses, gathering dust,” Wonsey says—and collecting discarded artifacts. “His mom, my grandmother, would give him money to go to the store and buy clothing,” says Wonsey. “But instead of buying new clothes, he’d go to the thrift shop and buy old clothes, and old materials to make his journals. It made my grandmother so upset. Nobody in the family understood why he did the things he did.”

He graduated from Lane Tech before going on to Iowa State University to study urban planning and ceramics, graduating in 1996 with a BFA. He spent a few years trying to make a living with ceramics—he had a solo exhibition of his work in Tokoname, Japan—before continuing his studies at the University of Cape Town, studying traditional African religions and getting an MA in 1998. He was hired as the CTA’s arts planner in 2000—he helped plan art on the El lines—but soon decided he wanted to pursue his own artistic visions. As Wonsey remembers it, “When he resigned from his CTA position, which was a good job with benefits, a lot of the family was like, ‘Whoa, what is he doing?’ They just didn’t understand. It took some time for them to come around.”

Gates’ childhood fascination with thrift store throwaways has carried over into his artistic career. One theme that comes up time and time again in his work is aesthetic recycling. “Art is about the accumulation of nothings,” he says. “Whether it’s paint pigment or canvas — both are relatively nothing. Nothing materials that are born from nothing, like dirt and flowers and chemical processes. But the accumulations of the nothings start to grow into something that manifests as something. And it’s our willingness to play with nothing long enough until it becomes something.”

The nothing he’s currently standing in—a former Anheuser-Busch distribution facility in Grand Crossing—was, he admits, a bigger gamble than saving a few dozen church pews from the junk yard. He bought the 25,000-square-foot abandoned warehouse for just $150,000, but even then his friends and supporters were dubious. “People were like, ‘You’re crazy. What are you going to do with this big-ass building?'” Gates remembers. He touches the walls lovingly as he walks through passages, gazing at the dark corners like he’s imagining what will live there someday. “I’m trying to make meaning out of places where some people believe that nothing is happening,” he says. “A space like this, which was important once and is now an empty shell, how do you continue to make it important and relevant?”

It’s not the only property he’s bought in recent years. Over the past seven years, he’s been buying buildings in his Grand Crossing neighborhood, along the 6900 block of South Dorchester, as part of something he’s dubbed “The Dorchester Projects.” With the help of neighbors and fellow artists, he’s been converting the buildings into spaces for art and music, among other things. He snagged the first one in 2006 for just $130,000, and since then he’s bought two other properties. They were abandoned family homes and failed businesses and, in one case, a former crack house. Today, they’re used as reading rooms and vinyl record archives and film screening centers and artist residences. The Black Cinema House, which Gates renovated in 2011, was almost completely dismantled and shipped to Germany for 12 Ballads. “The walls, the floors, it all left and went to Germany,” Gates says. “Other people saw them and loved them and coveted them and wrote about them. These things that were in a building that was destined to be torn down, they went to Germany and had an adventure. And then those things came back. They’ve experienced a kind of migration that has made them something.”

The money he’s spent may not be huge numbers by most real estate standards, but a single investor buying several properties, even in a neighborhood where there’s been 137 homicides since 2007, and shipping one of them to Germany and back again, is a pretty massive financial obligation for the son of a roofer whose formal training is in ceramics and religion. But Gates is not exactly counting his pennies anymore.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, his first solo show at Chicago’s Kavi Gupta Gallery in 2011, “An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures,” sold every art piece before the show even opened, with prices ranging from $18,000, for a modified Kohler sink, to $39,000, for an industrial fire hose mounted on wood. The fire hose pieces, a commentary on the civil-rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama who were hosed by police in the early 60s, were especially headline-grabbing at the time—”Fire Hoses for $39,000 Bring Fame to Theaster Gates,” Businessweek declared—and they continue to be a popular item even today, despite the fact that they aren’t actually made by Gates.

John Preus, a designer and builder for 17 years who once ran Gates production shop, says the fire-hose sculptures are created almost exclusively by other artists. “He gives instructions but they’re fairly loose,” he says. “There’s a guy named Tony who makes almost all the fire-hose pieces now. Another guy, Kevin, also does a lot of work on the fire-hoses. It’s a pretty big team. Theaster runs the show mostly from afar.”

If his art is actually created by a team of artists, following “loose instructions,” why is Gates getting sole credit? “He’s a little bit ambivalent on how to properly represent all the different hands that are involved in things,” Preus says. “In some ways, it’s how the art world operates. At the end of a movie, you see a list of everybody who was involved in making it; the key grip and boom mic guy and whatever. But for art, it’s just the artist, even if there’s a huge realm of people behind him.”

An artist hiring an expert team to make his art is nothing new. Michelangelo didn’t paint all of those statues and ceilings by himself. Rembrandt used painting assistants, and Andy Warhol had a crew of silk-screen printmakers. Preus isn’t complaining about being a cog in the Theaster Gates art machine. “I get a fair carpenter’s wage,” he says, “occasional bonuses, and trips to cool places like Germany and California.” Gates finds no issue in the number of hands involved in making his art. “It takes a village, and we’ve got a village,” he says, referring to the “twenty or so” people he employs at his studio. “Each project uses whatever means necessary to account for the particular affect desired.” Walker points out that there’s a difference between collaboration and work for hire. “If X has a skill set and they can make decisions on my behalf, maybe better than the decisions I can make, then fine, here’s $300 an hour or whatever to do this, go for it,” he says.

But it’s not exactly that simple. Another artist who’s worked with Gates—he asked not to be named—claims that Gates gives more creative freedom to his crews. Some artists he’s worked for provide intricate blueprints. “You know exactly where to put the screws,” he says. “It’s a pretty simple agreement and you get paid hourly for what you’re asked to do.” But with Gates, he says, “things are much more complicated.” When artists are allowed to express themselves creatively, the line between work-for-hire and collaboration gets a little hazier.

Being the public face of Theaster Gates Inc may be the best role for Gates. He’s a natural showman and endearing personality, as any of his admirers will attest. Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, who donated hundreds of magazines and books written by black authors to Gates, described him as “sort of irresistible.” Regina Taylor, a playwright and NAACP Image Award winner, told the Chicago Reader last May that Gates was “a soulful Cheshire Cat,” which may or may not be a compliment, depending on how you read Lewis Carroll. MoCA director Deitch fondly remembers Gates’ solo exhibit at his museum in LA, which included a performance by the Black Monks of Mississippi, a gospel group created by Gates. “It was as moving as any church service you might attend,” Deitch says. “Theaster has a remarkable voice. There was an incredible moment when he started moving this heavy sculpture around the gallery. It was an old shoeshine chair, so it was much heavier than he should’ve been able to move. It was like he was possessed.”

Walker remembers the first time he realized Gates’ potential, at a 2009 performance at the University of Chicago called Our Literal Speed Talk. “He managed to upstage Anne Wagner and Hal Foster,” Walker says. “These are two major scholars of postwar art. That was quite the feat. It says a lot about the magnetism of his personality. Everything about him was very energetic and dynamic.” During this same performance, Gates predicted questions about artistic ownership and how much the future art celebrity “Theaster Gates” might be a group effort. “My temporary staff has created a union against me,” he chanted during his performance. “They want healthcare benefits…they want their family members to fly free to Documenta…they made me rich…what do I do?”

“His critics accuse him of being a player and using people to gain power and influence,” says Preus. “I guess where you fall on that has something to do with whether or not you think the ends justifies the means.” Gates’ ends are ambitious, and certainly generous. His master plan for the warehouse, in addition to housing his personal studio, is to open a print shop, a gallery, a pottery studio, rental space for Chicago artists and craftspeople, and a ceramic manufacturing facility. “It’s not just about creating a place for people to learn how to make things with clay and metal,” he says. “If you want to take an art class, you can go to the Hyde Park Art Center. I want to create jobs.”

But what sort of jobs? Jobs in which artists are able to create their own art, or jobs for artists to create more content for Theaster Inc? Titus Wonsey, Gates’ cousin who’s worked in construction for his uncle for several years, says that Theaster has been very clear about the perimeters. “If it’s made here,” he says about Gates’ studio, “then it’s considered part of Theaster’s material. The things that we do outside of Theaster’s shop, those are our own.”

Gates leaves the warehouse and drives the half-mile to the Black Cinema House, where he currently lives. “I’m not interested in contemporary art anymore,” Gates says. “I’m interested in making the thing that makes the thing.” He’s toyed with the idea of opening a concrete manufacturing company in Haiti, where he could help build new houses with a better concrete substrate and aggregate, so the buildings will work better and survive longer. Not that he intends to give up on his artistic ambitions. “I’d use the materials and the tools in that factory to make my works of art,” he says.

It remains to be seen if any of his plots will come to fruition. Gates is still trying to figure out his role in the modern art world, and while he may sometimes miss the forest for the trees, his intentions are undeniably noble. But like many humanitarian efforts, it’s motivated by selfishness. He’s not trying to build a better South Side for future generations; he’s trying to build it for himself. The love and admiration of the global art world is fleeting, but what won’t be disappearing anytime soon is his neighborhood. He owns enough of the real estate on his block, he’s practically a mogul by now. If he intended to leave, he’s made some very, very bad real estate investments.

He walks towards the front window and looks out onto his street, his street, pointing towards the houses in various states of disrepair or renovation, some that he owns, some that he doesn’t, some that he’ll probably own eventually, or at least have a financial stake in. “This is about me,” he admits. “I want to live in a beautiful place. I want to have beautiful neighbors. And I want us to feel neighborly and barbecue together and be romantic in our kingdom.”

As if on cue, a neighbor—or maybe one of Gates’ many worker-bees—walks past on the sidewalk outside, carrying a piece of plywood that’s at least twice his height. He turns and smiles, waving at Gates. Gates taps the glass and waves back.

“I want what anybody else in any other neighborhood wants and I’m willing to not leave the neighborhood to get the ready-made,” Gates says, gazing at the street outside. “I’m willing to build it. With others who want to build it with me.”