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Antwaun Sargent Rethinks Who Gets to Be an Artist

Antwaun Sergent Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images for Alexander McQueen

As a college student attending Georgetown University, Antwaun Sargent would go to the Barney’s co-op in Washington, D.C., to buy sweaters and shirts from Helmut Lang, wearing them until they essentially unraveled. Now, years later, in a linkup that feels like kismet, the Gagosian director, writer, and curator is collaborating with the brand for its winter 2023 fashion presentation, which will be an exhibition titled “Helmut Lang As Seen by Antwaun Sargent,” opening today and showing through February 23 at the Hannah Traore Gallery in the Lower East Side.

The collaboration plays with the idea of Helmut Lang’s “COWBOY” T-shirt, a hallmark of the brand since it debuted in the line back in 2004, but instead it will read “ART.”

“I responded to that design gesture in particular because basically, you put on the shirt and you’re being labeled — whoever you are in this world, whatever position that you occupy — as a cowboy,” said Sargent. “I wanted to use that same logic and apply it to the word art. We’re in an interesting moment where we have an opportunity to continue expanding our notions around what artistic practice is, who is an artist, and who has value in that space.”

Sargent has called on a roster of artists such as Turiya Adkins, Awol Erizku, Devin B. Johnson, and more to interpret the meaning of the word cowboy through their own personal associations with the term. It was important to Sargent that the artists had free rein to respond to the Helmut Lang collection staple rather than taking an existing work of theirs and slapping it across the front of a T-shirt. The results of that process will bring a months-in-the-making collaboration to life.

Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Traore Gallery

Sargent chatted with the Cut about bringing his latest exhibition together and how his curatorial background informed his first foray into fashion design.

What has your first foray into fashion design been like?
I came in with an idea and asked, “Do you think that I could design a shirt?” And they said, “Sure!” I love the idea of the T-shirt being a basic garment. I wanted to make sure that it was accessible to folks. Sometimes you wear fashion and you can feel intimidated or it feels silly or it doesn’t feel like you, but all of us wear T-shirts.

And I want folks to get a different perspective on whatever they might think of the word cowboy and the image. What’s so genius about using text in artwork and fashion in general is that it’s allowing the reader or the audience to create the picture. I want folks to populate the image of the cowboy in their mind and then see how the image has populated in the artist’s mind and how it has led them to the objects that they’ve made. In having all those images, there’s a new meaning that is created from the experience.

You spent many years working as an art critic for places like the New York Times, and now you are creating the art. How has your perspective shifted now that you’ve done both? 
I’ve been a critic, I’ve written books, I’ve curated a countless amount of shows, but I’ve never been a creator in that way. I have worked very closely with artists for my entire adult life and so I know what the creative process is and I know how exhilarating and frustrating it is. But to be in the space of a “maker”? You can’t approximate it. I’m getting a new perspective on what it means to create an object, which I hope will in turn inform the work that I do back on the other side as a curator and as a writer.

Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Traore Gallery

The collaboration will also include a 40-page zine. Why did you want it to be a part of this exhibition?
There’s sort of an ephemeral quality to exhibitions and fashion shows, and so I wanted to do something that could exist beyond both of those things. As someone who has a background in writing and loves printed matter and print culture, I wanted to make something that will show the artists’ works and also how they get there and also show some of the behind the scenes of how the collection came to be. In the zine, you have the artist’s thoughts on the symbol of the cowboy and then you have some BTS notes around the building of the collection with images of the limited-edition artist tees, images of the artworks, and text that includes interviews that I’ve done with the artists.

Did you have any reservations when you were initially approached by Helmut Lang?
When I’m approached by any gallery, museum, or potential collaborator, I always ask, “Do you have the resources and team that’s going to be able to make the best version of what we’re trying to do?” So if we’re trying to make an exhibition, I need to make sure that we have people that are really committed because I’m basically tapping into their team. So I become a team member to complete a project and I work in a very particular way that is very fast-paced. If something isn’t working, and we need to have 90 phone calls to make it happen, then you better be ready for those, people. Before I even agreed to this project, I had several conversations with the brand about what it means to commission artwork and what it means to create a zine and they were just really fantastic and really committed. When I wanted to add another artist and we needed another artist fee, they stepped up. When I wanted to make my own design, they stepped up. In some ways, it was really refreshing, because oftentimes creativity is killed in the budget.

Will you continue to pursue design in the future?
I’m a lot more open to creating and expanding my own creative process beyond curating and writing. If the shirt bombs, all bets are off and I’m going back to my little box.

Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Traore Gallery
Antwaun Sargent Rethinks Who Gets to Be an Artist