Profile: Gregory Coates (1961-)

Gregory Coates is an African-American artist known for working in the realm of social abstraction. Coates also works in three-dimensional formats including wall sculpture, sculpture in the round, installation art and public sculpture, and less frequently in video and performance.

Early Life

Coates was born in Washington D.C. on March 5, 1961 and grew up in the inner city’s Federal Park district near the National Arboretum.One of eight children, Coates had a working-class upbringing and his mother worked to support him, his brother and six sisters. 


Gregory Coates attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C. from 1980 to 1984 where he earned a bachelor’s degree, and the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany from 1985 to 1987. He later attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine (1990).


During the 1980s Coates traveled to Germany between his undergraduate and graduate studies, where he began studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. While in the country Coates experienced events leading up the fall of the Iron Curtain and the impact of those changes. Upon returning from Europe, Coates began living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Coates met artist Al Loving during the late 1980s, through his (now) wife Kiki Nienaber. He was working primarily as a figurative painter and Loving encouraged Coates to extend his practice into assemblage. Coates credits this as a breakthrough that allowed him to embrace the physical aspect of painting and to mature as an artist.

He later took an artist residency in Capetown, South Africa during the late 1990s. In 1996 Coates witnessed the end of apartheid and encountered extreme poverty, which resulted in another shift in his work via the use of repurposed materials. He saw this as a moral imperative in response the gross wastefulness of industrialized societies and the economic inequities he witnessed while living in Cape Town. As a result, Coates began using almost exclusively, recycled materials to create his work. Materials used included feathers, bike tubes, cardboard, crumpled papers, dirt, vinyl records and the heads of push brooms, which he pairs with provocative titles to address topics such as the problematics of Cold-War politics, poverty, racism, domestic labor and Black aesthetics.

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