Artists Space

Till They Listen:
Bill Gunn Directs America

June 5 – August 15

Organized by Artists Space, Hilton Als and Jake Perlin, in collaboration with Sam Waymon, Nicholas Forster, Awoye Timpo, Chiz Schultz, and Ishmael Reed

A person sits on a wooden chair and looks off into the distance. His right elbow rests on a table partially visible in the photograph.
Portrait of Bill Gunn. [A person sits on a wooden chair and looks off into the distance. His right elbow rests on a table partially visible in the photograph.]

Artists Space, in collaboration with an organizing committee comprised of Bill Gunn collaborators and scholars, presents a comprehensive gallery exhibition and a series of public programs celebrating the life and towering, multi-faceted work of the filmmaker, playwright, novelist, and actor Bill Gunn (1929–1989). As a Black artist working simultaneously in Hollywood and the New York theatre world, Gunn persistently struggled to produce his work as a writer and filmmaker, and these hardships are reflected in both his art and his archive. In a 1973 letter to the New York Times, Gunn states: “It is a terrible thing to be a black artist in this country. If I were white, I would probably be called ‘fresh and different.’ If I were European, Ganja & Hess might be ‘that little film you must see.’ Because I am black, I do not even deserve the pride that one American feels for another when he discovers that a fellow countryman’s film has been selected as the only American film to be shown during Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival… Not one white critic from any of the major newspapers even mentioned it.”

Three decades after his death, Bill Gunn’s work has begun to gain long overdue visibility through film retrospectives, restorations and increased availability of his published writings. Adding to the recent scholarship around Gunn’s work, this exhibition opening will elucidate Gunn’s profound artistic vision through an unprecedented gathering of archival materials from both private collections and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s unparalleled holdings, most exhibited for the first time. This curated selection of ephemera, media, literature, and original artworks offers a complex and intimate portrait of Gunn’s seminal output, with a focus on his many unrealized projects. In conjunction with the exhibition, Artists Space will present a series of public programs, including film screenings, conversations, live musical performances, staged readings, and a publication of newly commissioned and previously uncollected writing.

Throughout the month of June, Artists Space hosts a series of public programs in conjunction with Till They Listen: Bill Gunn Directs America.

June 8, 2021

Sam Waymon in Concert

June 11 – June 25, 2021

The Films of Bill Gunn

June 13, 2021

Black Picture Show

June 22, 2021

Ishmael Reed in Conversation

Bill Gunn began his career in the 1950s as a stage actor, making his Broadway debut in The Immoralist (1954) with James Dean. He wrote his first play, Marcus in the High Grass, in 1959. He entered the film and television world as an actor in the 1960s with roles on many series including The Fugitive (1965) and Outer Limits (1963). A prolific screenwriter, he was commissioned to write The Landlord (1970), adapted from the novel by Kristen Hunter and directed by Hal Ashby, and The Angel Levine (1970), adapted from a story by Bernard Malamud and directed by Ján Kadár. His many unproduced screenwriting credits include: Fame Game (1968) and Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome (1970). One of the first Black filmmakers to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio, Gunn made Stop! in 1970, which remains to this day unreleased by Warner Bros. He went on to direct the masterpiece Ganja & Hess (1973) and the conceived for television series Personal Problems (1980) in collaboration with Ishmael Reed and Steve Cannon. His most notable screen role as an actor was in Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground (1982). His teleplay Johnnas, produced for NBC, received an Emmy Award in 1972. Gunn’s theatrical productions include his plays Celebration (1967), Black Picture Show (1975), and the musical Rhinestone (1982). Bill Gunn died in 1989 at the age of 59, the day before the premiere of his final play The Forbidden City at the Public Theater.

Exhibition support is provided by Marieluise Hessel.

Additional support is provided by Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, The Cy Twombly Foundation, The David Teiger Foundation, The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The New York Community Trust, The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, Imperfect Family Foundation, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, The Willem de Kooning Foundation, The Danielson Foundation, The Fox Aarons Foundation, Herman Goldman Foundation, The Destina Foundation, The Luce Foundation, May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, VIA Art Fund, Arison Arts Foundation, The Chicago Community Fund, The David Rockefeller Fund, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation, The Jill and Peter Kraus Foundation, The Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation.