As a young artist getting started in Houston, Rick Lowe sought to address in his paintings the violence and poverty he saw in the city where he lived, especially in those historically black neighborhoods like the Third Ward that had been buffeted by decades of policy neglect. But in 1990, during a visit to his studio by high school students, a young man approached Lowe. He wanted to know why, rather than making work that represented the daily reality of the inhabitants of the Third Ward, Lowe didn’t try to instead affect that reality.
The question spoke to the fundamental problem of political art, which had traditionally stayed inside the studio or gallery rather than becoming an active presence in the lives of the people it was meant to champion. For Lowe, now 54, it was also the question that led him to embark on a new way of creating art. And it would ultimately — though Lowe didn’t know it at the time — inspire two fellow artists and eventual friends, Theaster Gates and Mark Bradford, to think more expansively about their own art: what its purpose was, how it should be seen, even where it should live.