Lester Hayes (1936-2004), is an American artist of African descent who was a vital force in the downtown New York art scene during the 1960s and early 1970s. Working primarily in sculpture and installation, Hayes pioneered a form of racially conscious abstraction that in his earliest works recalls the sculpture of Mel Edwards and Mark DiSuvero, and later echoes that of his post-minimalist colleagues (e.g. Bruce Nauman and Richard Tuttle). His assemblage sculptures from the mid-1970s made from shopping carts, tattered rugs, and old furniture-
with their witty provocations on race-presage the sculpture of David Hammons, as well as that of younger artists working today, include Los Angeles-based Rodney McMillian (who had his first New York solo show at Triple Candie two years ago). Hayes exhibited in the 1967 Whitney Annual, had solo exhibitions at Richard Feigen Gallery (1968) and Just Above Midtown Gallery (1975), and exhibited at Horace and Holly Solomon’s 98 Greene Street (1973).
The fact that Hayes’ work has remained unknown is in no small part due to his disappearance from the New York art scene in the mid-1970s when he took a teaching position at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Friends and colleagues describe his departure as fueled by disappointment at the lack of critical and commercial interest in his work. In 1986, when the majority of his artwork was destroyed in a studio fire, he stopped making art altogether. He retired from teaching in 1984 and died of complications from diabetes in 2004. All of the work in this exhibition has been recreated based on information provided to Triple Candie by the artist’s estate.
The trajectory of Hayes career is similar to that of many other artists, who are momentarily tempted by the promise of a successful commercial career that never materializes. In the mid-to-late 1960s, it seemed as though Hayes would have it all: following his inclusion in the Whitney Annual, he was besieged by exhibition opportunities and studio visits by some of the most prestigious gallerists of the time, including Richard Feigen, Leo Castelli, and Betty Parsons. But his solo exhibition at Feigen Gallery in 1968 was a commercial flop—not a single piece sold. Moreover, the rise of a new Black Aesthetic in the late 1960s/early 1970s marginalized his work for several decades. By the 1980s, Hayes was exhibiting exclusively at university galleries or venues in Pennsylvania.
This exhibition focuses on Hayes’ most important body of work and seeks to highlight some of his important contributions to post-minimalism. For example, Hayes was among the first artists to work on unstretched canvas, and his Elegy in Seven Parts (For Lena Horne) (1965) prefigures Richard Tuttle’s unstretched canvas works of 1967. Hayes, in fact, worked as Tuttle’s studio assistant for eight months at the time he was making this work. His Bound To Fail (1966)
-two institutional folding tables tied together with a yellow rope-predates Bruce Nauman’s Henry Moore Bound to Fail (1967-70) by one year. Both of Hayes’ works in these examples deal implicitly with racial or ethnic themes, the former touching on Horne’s bi-racial identity (Hayes’ own mother was Caucasian) and the latter conjuring up notions of a collective African-American struggle against all odds; the works they inspired (by Tuttle and Nauman) are drained of this content, though the line of formal influence is clear.
This exhibition provides evidence of promising career that sadly never came into full bloom.
Note: The artist Lester Hayes is a fictitious creation of Triple Candie. When the exhibition closes, all the “artworks” will be destroyed, never to be recreated.