Savannah, Georgia (CNN) -- 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.
Antique bricks known as "Savannah Grays" are woven throughout the room in a visual nod to the city's past. The bricks, named for their color, were made by slave labor at the Hermitage Plantation outside Savannah. They're still visible in the city's historic architecture, including the museum, which is housed in a restored antebellum train depot.
Within the exhibit, Wilson arranged the bricks with the help of architecture students, creating tiered steps leading to paintings by influential Harlem Renaissance artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Other configurations create walls around sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett and Richmond Barthe.
Working on the project left Wilson feeling invigorated and awestruck, he said. Such experiences bolster his enthusiasm and humble him, he said, underscoring his reputation as someone with a modest, perpetually cheerful demeanor.
The completion of one exhibit merely signals the start of new projects. He spends most of his "free" time in his Brooklyn studio, where he works through several mediums: glass, painting, sculpture. He hopes to visit Venice this year so he can make glass artworks on the island of Murano.
"I don't want to believe I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread," he said. "With that little extra bit of fat on my belly, I get a little comfortable and then I'm not really hungry for the experience of coming up with something new."
Frederick Douglas Wilson III was born in 1954 in the Bronx, the oldest of two children. When his family moved to Westchester while he was in elementary school, they didn't receive the warmest welcome. First, the neighborhood circulated a petition to buy their land; then, the windows of their house were knocked out before they moved in.
As the only black student in his elementary school, students teased him, he recalls. He also struggled with academics. Were it not for his mother nurturing his artistic inclinations, he would have had no self-confidence, he said. One of his earliest art projects was a diorama depicting Vietnam War "army men" fighting, with bodies strewn across a battlefield. His diorama was placed at the bottom of the display, but his mother switched it with another on a higher shelf, he recalled, giggling.
"I quickly began to understand that people see you from how they see you and it's not necessarily you," he said. "I was always trying to negotiate those things growing up."
His parents divorced while the family was living in Westchester. Afterward, his mother started taking night classes and teaching in the Bronx, eventually moving the family there when Wilson was in junior high. The move afforded Wilson the opportunity to attend the High School of Music & Art in Harlem, yet he still stood out in the Hispanic and African-American neighborhood as the "brown-skinned white boy" from the suburbs whose pop culture influences were The Beatles and London's Carnaby Street.
"I had to relearn everything and got very into the Supremes and Motown and all that quite quickly. But I was much happier in the Bronx, even though it was a much more difficult environment," he said. "A lot of people have difficult childhoods, and mine, certainly as an African-American, I'll take it compared to what other people went through."
Learning to be a "chameleon," he said, would inform his approach as an artist who goes from one setting to the next, always dealing with something new.
"When I do these projects I'm trying to be a sponge to the environment so who I am comes through, but enough of my environment comes through, too. So what comes out is a sincere kind of idea affected by where I am."
Despite childhood challenges, Wilson and his sister share memories of happy times spent mostly with their mother, a teacher by profession and a "Sunday painter" by inclination.
"She always had an art project for us," said Wilson's younger sister, Donna, now a teacher in California. "We could be making a papier mache dog or scratch paintings, and my brother's things were always so much better than mine."
Wilson went on to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree from Purchase College, State University of New York, in 1976. After graduation, he moved to New York City and became a freelance educator at the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Crafts Museum. He moved into an East Village loft where artist Larry Rivers was his landlord and neighbors included beat poet Allen Ginsberg and artist John Chamberlain, who made a career of transforming scrap metal from cars into imposing art forms.
He landed a job as director of the Longwood Arts Project in the Bronx, located in a defunct public school that had been converted into a mixed use facility. There, he started creating "fake exhibitions" to explore his fascination with manipulating environments.
For his show, "Rooms with a View," he took the empty classrooms and filled them with artwork by 30 contemporary artists, disguising the spaces as three different kinds of cultural institutions: a historic house, with velvet walls, drapes and gold-framed paintings; a contemporary gallery, with images of sparsely displayed abstract art contrasting against stark white walls; and an anthropological museum, its walls bedecked in masks and artifacts inspired by the art of other cultures, he said.
Even though the artwork was not made specifically for the exhibit or designed with those themes in mind, placing them in those environments gave them new meaning.
"The installation opened my eyes to the power of the display of objects," Wilson said.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Wilson had worked on numerous solo and group exhibitions, including "Guarded View." His big breakthrough came in 1992 with "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, which The New York Times hailed as "an improbable marriage of artist and museum."
Curator Lisa Corrin approached Wilson for the project after hearing him speak about his experience with "mock museums." At the time, museums were struggling with how to reflect a broader view of history, she said, "but most museum insiders didn't have the perspective to ask those questions."
The show earned Wilson praise for revealing how the Historical Society had previously excluded the experiences of blacks and Native Americans from its halls of history. The museum board members were also praised for gamely turning the museum over to Wilson so he could shine a spotlight on the agendas that informed the way it did business.
Much of that exhibit's imagery has become Wilson's calling card, which his sister and friends use to explain his work: the klan hood in the carriage; a whipping post that resembles a crucifix in front of several salon chairs; a row of pedestals displaying busts of Napoleon, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin across from a row of empty pedestals with the names of famous African-Americans from Maryland such as Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
"We don't want to think about these things in the same breath," Corrin said, "but putting them in the same [case] shows that to separate them was to deny history and that the ugly lived alongside the beautiful."
Wilson also changed museums by being invited into the curator's office and given license to do what he wanted.
"Twenty years ago, the idea of an artist being given the authority of a curator and historian was very unusual, so to confer upon him the authoritative voice of a museum was a radical thing to do," she said.
"I think he has been very effective in picking up the gauntlet thrown down by the role. The role of artists in traditional museums has evolved, and I think Fred was one pioneer that opened the gateway for artists to have voices at many levels."
It also opened the door to more high-profile collaborations and projects around the world, including his representation of the United States in the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. True to his practice, Wilson spent a year abroad researching and preparing his installation.
Outside the U-shaped pavilion that housed his exhibit, a Senegalese vendor sold fake designer handbags created by Wilson. The vendor, part of the exhibit, roamed in front of a plate-glass window with mannequins depicting black characters from famous paintings in museums throughout Venice.
Inside, arias from Verdi's "Otello" played as four monitors showed staged performances of the opera in reverse order -- from the death scene finale to the first encounter between the opera's ill-fated couple.
While the exhibit was met with acclaim even from the Venetians, some American critics seemed unsure of the treatment, Wilson recalled.
"The Europeans understood it, but it wasn't American. I had been living in Venice for a year so it was about Venice," he said. "It becomes exotic for somebody else, but I'd rather it not be exotic for the place that I'm in."
The work ended up uniting two admirers of Wilson's work. Years later, Shakespeare scholar and author Peter Erickson contacted Corrin, Wilson's colleague from "Mining the Museum." Erickson was working on a book about revisionings of "Otello" and wanted to speak to Corrin about Wilson's practice.
Erickson and Corrin met for dinner, and from there a relationship blossomed. When they married in 2007, Wilson gave one of the toasts.
For their wedding gift, he created a piece of art: two small globes on a black plastic base torqued in so they appear to be kissing.
"Both these people were incredibly important to me but they also have careers that spread to three different continents," he said. "I wanted to do something that represented who they were in the world and what they meant to me."
Facing the critics
Wilson said he does not court controversy, but it seems to find him nonetheless. His work has been known to cause confusion among critics and the public, who by turns say his work is either too accessible or too obscure.
Such was the case when the New York Historical Society enlisted Wilson to create an installation for its renovated gallery last year that highlighted the city's often unspoken dealings with slavery.
"Liberty/Liberté" featured two busts of George Washington -- one, in Romanesque robes, representing Washington the statesman; the other, with a more sinister countenance, representing Washington the slaveholder -- both behind the balustrade from which Washington spoke during his New York inauguration.
Next to them rests a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte. Below, a cigar-store "Negro" holding a red French liberty cap looks up at the busts. On the backs of the pedestals hang slave shackles, metal tags used to label enslaved African-Americans and a coin representing the abolition movement. Nearby, he displayed a miniature portrait of Haitian liberator Toussaint L'Ouverture.
Critics panned it for not having a clear explanation of its meaning and for lacking the nuance of previous works other artists created for the museum. But Wilson's explanation seems rather straightforward.
"By bringing together the slave shackles and George Washington, Napoleon and Toussaint L'Ouverture, we can talk about the complexities of our history, the problems and the greatness, in one place," Wilson said in a video made by the Historical Society. "And, that's what I think the Historical Society is trying to do in general."
A bigger controversy arose when he was asked to create a monument for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an eight-mile path connecting the city's neighborhoods. His proposed piece, "E Pluribus Unum," was inspired by the city's Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which features an ex-slave -- his torso bare, his chains and shackles broken -- among dramatically posed war heroes. Wilson proposed creating a second sculpture of the freed slave across from the city's biggest municipal building -- this time completely free of shackles, holding a flag representing the African Diaspora.
Months of community debate in 2011 surrounded the project. Some people saw the proposal as a way to honor the African-American community while serving as reminder of the nation's experience with slavery. Others saw it as potentially divisive and said that such a prominent structure would reopen old wounds.
Its detractors ultimately prevailed, and the project was discontinued by the charity that was funding it.
Wilson's demeanor shifts like a light switch when asked about the controversy. His rapid-fire dialogue slows to a measured pace, and he stares off into the distance as he searches for the words he wants to use.
"It happened as it happened," he said.
"When controversy surrounds an art exhibit, it reduces complexity. It gets down to sound bites and oversimplifications. ... Art is just not about that; it's not made for that. It has to have a space to exist in ambiguity and personal connections."
Yet he soldiers on, taking pleasure that each day affords him an opportunity to do what he loves.
"I could never have dreamed of this career. It's just amazing," he said. "To me there's no ladder of success in art. You do what you do and if a door of opportunity opens you go through it."