After all these years, Fred Wilson still smirks when he talks about the time he wore a security guard uniform to give a tour of New York's Whitney Museum.
It was 1991, and Wilson had already achieved a certain level of fame in New York as a conceptual artist whose work often critiqued the environments where they were showcased.
Yet, as he waited at the museum's entrance, people who had signed up for his tour ignored the uniformed man or failed to recognize him.
"They kept waiting for me to show up," said Wilson, whose quick grin makes him seem like he's perpetually on the verge of telling a joke.
The Whitney had invited him as part of a program in which visiting artists were giving tours of its exhibitions. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Wilson decided to wear the uniform to prove the point that guards are invisible.
It was something he knew from experience, and it would be a recurring theme in his life.
He'd worn a guard's uniform for real as a college student earning cash patrolling a campus museum. Later in 1991, for his first solo gallery exhibition in New York, he featured four headless black mannequins wearing guard's uniforms from New York's major cultural institutions. "Guarded View" would eventually land in the Whitney as part of its 1994 show, "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art."
The 57-year-old artist, whose graying beard and curly hair only add to his aura of buoyant energy, shared the story at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, where a roomful of students and art enthusiasts gathered earlier this year to hear Wilson talk about his work.
Riffs on race, perception and power are recurring motifs in his career, which spans nearly four decades. His most recent "artistic intervention" (as his installations are often called) in SCAD's new Museum of Art in Savannah is no exception.
The show, "Life's Link," is his latest in a long line of site-specific collaborations with museums and cultural institutions throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The native New Yorker has spent much of his career rooting around museum basements and reshuffling items within display cases to breathe new meaning into what we see on the museum floor.
The resulting installations have created unexpected juxtapositions: an antique silver tea service next to a pair of rusted metal shackles; a child-sized klan hood resting in a Victorian pram; a faux African-style tribal mask bearing the label "stolen from the Zonge tribe, 1899, private collection."
"Fred's work, at its very center, asks you to really think about what is art, what is history, what is an art museum," said Isolde Brielmaier, chief curator of exhibitions at SCAD.
"He really is very much about turning everything upside down and putting things in places where you don't think they should go," Brielmaier said. "He asks museums-goers, visitors, the general public to rethink history and truth and the so-called official story; to think about what is missing from museums and institutions and what changes could be made."
'Smart, funny and loves learning'
His personal biography imbues his work, as the security guard variations demonstrate. The son of an African-American father and a mother with roots in the West Indies, Wilson grew up in Westchester County, north of New York City, and then the Bronx. He found he was too dark-skinned for the suburbs but too light-skinned for the inner city. He tried to blend in with varying degrees of success, managing instead to find his way through art. Later on, he would break ground as an artist who was given a seat in the curator's office -- not just to share his ideas, but to execute them in a way that essentially called out museums on their own turf.
Along the way, admirers say, he has changed how museums interact with audiences. In doing so, he has amassed a long list of distinctions, including a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." He often takes weeks, if not months, researching a subject with the fervor of an academic, attracting proposals from world-renowned cultural institutions like the British Museum.
"He's smart, he's funny, he's thoughtful and he loves learning," said Louise Mirrer, director of the New York Historical Society.
"He has a real appreciation for how you can have the same story told in many different ways to make many different points," she said. "And, he really understands museums. Lots of people have long careers in museums; he's not a museum insider but he has better understanding of museums than most people will ever have."
After spending nearly 30 years as a self-identified "museum therapist," Wilson's approach is slowly evolving from critical to poetic. He's more interested now in drawing out beauty and intimacy from objects than using them to issue indictments against societal norms or highlight injustices.
"A lot of us artists who have been engaging with the apparatus of the institution for years have said all we have to say," he said. "I think we're moving on."
As a gay African-American artist, Wilson has helped open doors to the art world for minority groups. Works by African-Americans, women and others are frequent subjects of shows and exhibits; minorities also are just as likely to be working behind the scenes on staff or on a museum board today. Wilson himself is one of three African-Americans on the board of the Whitney Museum.
Immersing himself in research is still central to his practice. For his exhibit in Savannah, which runs through July 8, he spent months traveling between his studio in New York and the Savannah home of Dr. Walter O. Evans, where he spent weeks poring over Evans' collection of African-American art and artifacts.
Using documents from Evans' vast personal collection and items the retired surgeon donated to the SCAD museum, Wilson created an exhibit that seeks to connect the official version of African-American history with the intimate lives of its most celebrated figures.
"My interest with this intervention wasn't actually about the institution of SCAD or its program," Wilson said in a lecture in February for the show's opening. "I just wanted to tease out fresh relationships between the artworks in the collection and the historic documents I found, and to encourage you all to see things in a new way."
In the exhibit, a drawing of Frederick Douglass hangs near a letter from his grandson thanking him for a flute. A letter from Malcolm X to Alex Haley laments the time-consuming ordeal of composing a memoir.