The MacArthur “genius” fellows this year include two art-world figures whose work is entrancing and unclassifiable: Ralph Lemon and Fred Moten, both of whom have exerted significant influence on the artistic output of many over the past two decades.
Each will receive $625,000 in unrestricted funds, with the sum distributed over the course of five years. The fellowship is given out each year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for “extraordinary originality and dedication.” Also among the 21 fellows awarded this year for work in multiple disciplines are the writer N. K. Jemisin and the filmmaker Nanfu Wang.
Lemon’s work has been variously labeled dance, performance art, theater, and other things in between, and has often dealt with race, memory, and the exchange of ideas and histories across time and countries. Often highly abstract and difficult to describe, the 68-year-old artist’s work has become a mainstay at museums and art spaces across the world, and it frequently enlists a range of collaborators, most notably the dancer, choreographer, and artist Okwui Okpokwasili, who has appeared in many of his performances.
His most famous body of work remains his “Geography Trilogy,” which drew on his travels in Africa and Asia, and marked an attempt to consider how audiences could understand his research process based on performance. “A principal question to this process is: how can an intensive artistic research and immediate art-making practice translate to the staged realm of the spectator?” Lemon, who serves as artistic director of the company Cross Performance, has said. “This ongoing struggle between process and production creates a tension that is a vital element in all of my artistic work.”
Moten has written some of the most significant theoretical texts in recent memory as well as numerous books of poetry that just are as distinguished. His 2013 book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, co-authored with Stefano Harvey, has proven to be an essential text to many, as have other titles such as In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003) and Black and Blur (2017). Moten is also a noted educator in the field of Black studies and performance studies; he currently teaches at New York University.
In dense and evocative texts that bridge the gap between art theory, philosophy, musicology, and many other modes, the 58-year-old Moten homes in on abstract and humanistic notions of Blackness and queerness that have been instrumental for many artists, including Wu Tsang, Kevin Beasley, Arthur Jafa, and American Artist. In an ARTnews profile of Moten in 2018, Tsang remembered being “blown away” by Moten’s library upon first meeting him after an event at Duke University in North Carolina. “He had this smoking room, and the library had rows of books two layers deep,” Tsang recalled. “On a desk nearby were a couple of volumes by the science-fiction writer Octavia Butler and the gender theorist Judith Butler. I asked him about it and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to teach a class called ‘Butler Squared.’ That was it.”