Scene & Herd

Northern Renaissance

New York

Left: SMH Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden and artist Kara Walker. Right: Artist William Villalongo.

If at least one prominent critic carped that “Freestyle,” the Studio Museum in Harlem's 2001 survey of art by young black Americans, fizzled a bit when it came to the works of a few participants who appeared to believe in drab conceptual gravitas for its own sake, the Wednesday night opening of “Frequency” (not “Freestyle II” as the SMH website chides!) brooked no such reservations. It was as effervescent and bright a show as could be hoped for. On my arrival I was immediately crushed in the museum's vestibule with one of the show's lenders, and it was so tightly packed inside that we (as well as the fifty-odd folks behind us) were held in limbo until a few bodies popped out.

“There are two levels of amazement for me,” enthused SMH associate curator Christine Kim, who organized both shows with museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden. “Seeing this diverse work together in a single room after months, if not years, of preparation, and seeing the artists standing together in all their complexities.” “Both are unified,” she added while observing the 8PM photo-call, proud as a den mother. The real amazement was to see gallery owners chatting earnestly with any artist that wanted a word. Jack Shainman kept close to Hank Thomas, one of his two charges in the show, but genially worked the room, and Kelly Taxter (of Taxter & Spengemann) nipped from wall label to wall label, jotting visual notes with her cell-phone camera. “I live a few blocks away, so getting here was easy,” she said, explaining her sprightliness. I had thought she lived in Chelsea, as the gallery made its name while existing in the front room of an apartment on West 22nd Street, to which she retorted, “Not any more,” then added, “thank fucking God.” Collector Rodney Miller, not shopping tonight (“a little too fresh,” he enthused) stood with MoMA curatorial assistant Sarah Lewis. She and I shared a favorite from the show, Zoë Charlton's undainty illustrations, as well as the confidence that many of these artists would soon thrive, if not on (considerable) merit alone, then certainly on enthusiasm. It is not easy to peg the tone of the show—to emphasize its “effervescence” seems like faint praise, as there is much swirling below the surface—but it is clear that these exhibitions have already helped young black artists to persist with methodologies that are neither didactic nor isolated.

Left: Artist Kehinde Wiley. Right: SMH Associate Curator Christine Kim.

As the proceedings migrated from the museum to the after-party at The Harlem Grill, an elegant supper club a few blocks away, the spotlight shifted a bit from the new stars of “Frequency.” Here, a larger community of artists was celebrating itself, as the “Freestyle” old guard offered advice and embraces to the young bucks. Philadelphia-based “Frequency” artist Jina Valentine told me that “the biggest shock has been that they are as impressed with us as we are with them,” while Rashid Johnson, who proudly explained that “Freestyle” launched his career, didn't think it strange at all. “To experience the New York art world so suddenly is alarming and fascinating. We understand what they're going through and we understand what they're going to reap.” “Fraternity” is a word he (and many other artists) reached for, but with a sense of inclusiveness and mood of expansive possibility that was anything but parochial. If “Frequency” allows a group of artists' careers to develop productively instead of forcing them to clutch at market-friendly gimmickry to survive, we are all in luck. A conversation at the end of the evening with video and performance artist Kalup Linzy, who hails from Stuckey, Florida and spoke with a seductive, honeyed drawl, showed this fraternity's power at work. A pleasingly eccentric figure, Linzy spoke of his goals now that all his initial dreams had been fulfilled. “My only hope is that everything will come together before I die,” he said, sincerely, obviously in no big hurry. “If it doesn't, I'm gone. So it doesn't matter.”

Left: Artist Kalup Linzy. Middle: Gallerist Kelly Taxter. Right: Collector Rodney Miller with MoMA curatorial assistant Sarah Lewis.

Left: The 8PM photo call. Right: Golden with artist Julie Mehretu.

Left: Artists Rashid Johnson and Jina Valentine. Right: Artist Zoë Charlton.