The Golden Age

An Interview with the Studio Museum’s Thelma Golden

The mark of hip-hop is everywhere in "Freestyle"—formally, semiotically, referentially, from the name on. From Sanford Biggers's fat lace-blanketed Buddhas to Julie Mehretu's topographic riots to Camille Norment's sonic headrush stripper asylum, this show unloads an obsession with reforming, reframing, and unbranding nomadic urban space. Golden, who can be charmingly, disarmingly, unhip when she chooses, has qualms about "Freestyle" being read as drawn from the boom-bip. "The one thing I was adamant about was not creating a hip-hop show. Because I am the holdout that believes there is no hip-hop corollary in visual art. I know this is where the Hilton Kramer in me comes out. One thing I thought was, What happens in a moment when popular culture is so present—and within popular culture hip-hop is ever present—when you do a show of emerging African American artists? I'm waiting to see the tag lines and headlines because I guarantee one of them is going to say, 'Hip-hop Generation.' "

A Smith graduate who took a double major in art history and African American studies, Golden found that Smith's Afro-Am people didn't bother with visual art while their art history people didn't discuss African Americans. For this reason she has had to create her own bridges between her two guiding passions. Her history with the Studio Museum dates back to college days when she interned there and a 1986 stint as an associate curator. It was during the latter that she figured out that the historical-artifact-based program of the museum was at odds with her own desire to work in an environment where the ideas and opinions of artists were valued and where installation aesthetic was a priority.

"When I worked at the Studio Museum in the '80s for a year as an assistant curator this felt like my parents' museum. When I went to the Whitney it felt exactly like what I thought or imagined working in the contemporary art world would be like. Coming back here after 10 years at the Whitney was really a challenge. I have issues around the idea of a culturally specific institution. When I was at the Whitney I never wanted the title curator of Afro-American art—but what I wanted to do was only African American artists. What was beautiful about the Whitney was David Ross understood that I didn't want the title but the privilege and the power. I feel very strongly that there should be a museum for African American art and for artists of African descent that is sophisticated and intellectually formed in very profound ways. During my time at the Whitney I thought, What if there was a Black museum that was at the vanguard? What if there was a black museum that was ahead of the curve, like Linda Bryant's Just Above Midtown was in the '70s and '80s, that was at the very beginning of things, out there and doing it and forming dialogues and arguments? It was a fantasy, because in so many other genres—film, literature,music—we're light-years ahead."

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.

Golden cites Henry Louis Gates Jr. as someone who has done the kind of institution building she would like to incite at the Studio Museum. As Gates needed not just Harvard's deep pockets but a cadre of renowned African American scholars to make his visions of an ebony tower at Cambridge a reality, Golden can use her artists to conjure a MOMA for the hood.

"This is a moment when it could happen because the artists are already there. Even without a structure the artists have emerged as some of the most significant working in the world now, right? So half of my job is done. I don't have to legitimize and justify the artists. I'm almost in an opposite position. I need these artists to help me move this institution perhaps more than they need me to help move their careers."

Ironically, Golden is most excited about an upcoming show for the 2002 season involving African American artists who have no use for her or the Studio Museum at all. "The work that has dogged me from afar has been this hyperfigurative black popular art that's being sold in the 125th street mart and in upscale malls in Denver and Houston. I call it Black Romantic because I believe there is something equivalent to romanticism in all the subgenres of this work—the Southern nostalgia work of an idealized past, the Positive Black man work, the erotica, the images of a royal African past."

Golden cites as a huge inspiration Ernie Barnes, whose paintings for TV's Good Times and for Marvin Gaye's I Want You album raised the bar for Black vernacular painters. Professional pride is also involved: Golden is uneasy knowing there's a mammoth, well-endowed Black art world out that she is ignorant of.

"When I go around the country to present a lecture and show all my slides of all my nice freaky artists like Gary and Glenn and Lorna, someone will inevitably raise a hand and ask about 'Cynthia Saint James' or whoever—and I don't even know the names. These popular Black artists rarely approach me because for the most part I don't really have anything they want. So whereas in an equivalent situation with a bunch of young Black artists who just got out of Yale's M.F.A. program and I've felt like I was in a den of wolves, these artists have Web sites, syndicated cards, and wrapping paper. They don't need a Whitney show or a Studio Museum show. I've always felt like I had to come to terms with this work, like either get therapy or do a show. Some of the images make my skin crawl, like of these naked Black women with these 38 DDDD breasts and 40-inch hips sitting on stools with stars and Africa coming between their legs, but when I get beyond that I am interested in the space these artists operate in because it's not kitsch or flea market art. The funny thing is this show will be the bane of my existence because I'm sure it will be the most well-attended show I've ever done in my career. But this is what I want to do here, projects that test the boundaries. Even my own."

Related article:

Jerry Saltz reviews "Freestyle."

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