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."

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."

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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