The Golden Age

An Interview with the Studio Museum’s Thelma Golden

Though she's not a rhyme-sayer, Thelma Golden is a stone cold player. A highbrow mack-diva of the first magnitude. And that's on her slow days. Now at the Studio Museum in Harlem as deputy director for exhibitions and programs (with ex-Metropolitan Museum curator Lowery Sims as director), Golden is fast becoming recognized as one of those pivotal centrist figures in African American life. The kind of iconic character (like Cornel West) we would have to invent if they hadn't invented themselves first: an art world zephyr who seems to know everyone and be everywhere at the same time, a Black postmodernist with race-woman drive and what used to be called the popular touch. For the venerable, invaluable but formerly staid Studio Museum, she and Sims are performing not just a makeover but a resurrection. Some of the changes are cosmetic—a renovated tinted-glass facade and airy lobby that embraces rather than repels passersby—but the more significant ones are philosophical, and the philosophy bears Golden's unmistakable stamp.

Since taking an assistant curator position at the Whitney during David Ross's pluripotent tenure there in the late '80s, Golden has been climbing to doyennedom—nurturing star figures Gary Simmons, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker, guiding the patronage of her friends Peter and Eileen Norton to emergent African American modernists, spearheading the Whitney's Bob Thompson retrospective, and curating the controversial 1994 "Black Male" show. Along the way Golden has also become a fixture on the New York Times social page, caught on camera at the sort of chichi, froufrou fundraisers that inform the rest of us as to who's really running things in Gotham. Wining and cheesing comes with the gig—a daily multitasking marathon—and Golden handles it all with an especially deft combination of diplomacy, intellect, cheek, and dazzle. Museum administration, like university administration, requires a rare panoply of social, managerial, and scholarly skills. You have to be as conversant with the mood swings of the avant-garde as any cutting-edge critic, as at ease in lily-white corporate suites as in grungy Williamsburg lofts, as ready to debate community activists on your museum's mission as you are to stave off the ghettoizing tendencies of that other art world. Thelma Golden in a nutshell.

Golden gives a breathless interview, answering all of your questions à la George Clinton before you ever have to ask them. When we sit down she's got good reason to be rapidly expansive: In two hours is the opening of "Freestyle." It's her most exuberant exhibition yet, a hip and witty survey of 28 emergent African American postmodernists, replete with a stylish catalog by young writers and curators of a ƒ generational bent. Golden found her way to these artists through her usual curatorial process, more random than methodical, which privileges the recommendations and opinions of artists she respects. "Freestyle" catches Golden glimpsing who's coming around the bend in contemporary African American art for artistic and professional reasons. " 'Freestyle' is me trying to begin the process of finding the next group of artists I'd be working with for the next 10 years. It's nostalgia in a way, going back to the first project I did with Gary Simmons in '91, 'The Garden Of Hate,' trying to go back to a way of working I had with so many of those '90s artists at the beginning of their rise."

Art world mack-diva Thelma Golden gives the studio museum a makeover.
Photograph by Robin Holland
Art world mack-diva Thelma Golden gives the studio museum a makeover.

In the '80s and '90s, Golden says, "Black artists and those of us presenting them were . . . trying to make work informed by culture, race, gender, ethnicity, nations, and trying to define it in ways that were a very complex combination of content and form. On the one hand, people were trying to work away from this idea that identity-based work was work without formal quality; on the other hand, people were trying to work away from the notion that formal quality was the only thing. That generation of artists formed in the late '80s who came into their own in the '90s were the ones who very distinctly wrote the book on what I would call a postmulticultural art-making practice.

"The moment of multiculturalism was one where that was the way people formed exhibitions—a moment of discovery when people said, Let's explore; let's discover and expand. It had this real frontier quality. But then that became, thank goodness, the norm, and many Black artists moved to the forefront of our consciousness in terms of contemporary art practice in ways that didn't have to be explained through a Black History Month label. So there was no longer any need to have all those paragraphs before you got to the work on why you were showing the work and what this means and da da da pluralism we are the world hold hands kumbaya. The artists in 'Freestyle' are the beneficiaries of the '90s artists' breakthroughs. But they were also formed more out of the theoretical and aesthetic arguments of the late '90s that were both a result of millennial madness and the need to look back on the whole century."

One '90s artist whose imprint Golden believes is quite legible in the show is Kara Walker, whose distinct place among the '90s artists opened a path to the future of postmodernist Black art. "There is a Before-and-After-Kara quality to the show for me because Kara emerged in the late '90s, descended from the group that includes Adrian Piper, David Hammons and Robert Colescott and later Simmons, Simpson, Ligon, and Greene. But her work created an opening for a lot of stuff happening now because of its historical quality. "The other thing I find in talking to these artists—and this is where I began to feel really old—is I feel as if the great promise of the multicultural rhetoric of the '80s is true. These artists very easily cite references across very huge lines with no need for justification on any side; one artist the other day cited Robert Colescott and Sigmar Polke in the same sentence and it wasn't about one being better than the other or the need for one more than the other—like I need to cite Polke so you'll know I'm a serious artist working in the Western tradition or I need to cite Colescott so you'll know I'm down. No, it was like, polkecolescott."

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