PRINT September 1998

US News

Thelma Golden

IF THELMA GOLDEN IS NERVOUS, it doesn’t show. In May, she was named curator of the next Whitney Biennial—the bellwether art event that is always the source of juicy speculation followed by nonstop bitching—just as the institution became rudderless, with director David Ross leaving to head the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Then there’s the lingering memory of the 1993 edition, of which Golden was one of three cocurators. Some crabby critics are still attacking that biennial, which was packed with overly political work that helped put race- and gender-based identity art on the map.

If Golden’s past record is anything to go by, expect a lively show full of emerging talent. A native New Yorker, Golden began working at the Whitney in 1988 after graduation from Smith College; after a stint at the Studio Museum in Harlem, she returned to the Whitney in 1991. Golden is one of a handful of African—Americans in prestigious positions at American museums.“Most of what the Whitney has been able to do to diversify its program that is successful is attributable to Thelma,” says Susan Cahan, curator for the collection of Eileen and Peter Norton. Since Golden’s first series of single—artist projects at the Whitney’s Philip Morris branch, she has organized twenty—seven other shows, including 1994’s controversial “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.”

Golden has already begun the selection—or rather elimination—process by talking to curators, critics, and artists across the country. “I have always been dependent on artists’ opinions,” she says. “I can think of few times when I’ve ever gone wrong after an artist has said to me, ’Go see so-and-so’s work.’ ” Nerve—racking studio visits will follow. The whole show must come together by the fall of 1999 for its unveiling in March 2000.

Not surprisingly, Golden won’t drop names, although she does offer some hints. She claims, "I don’t have any particular idea for a theme at this point, I’m just looking. But there are certainly things that are informing my thinking. Right after this spate of big international exhibitions—Venice, Documenta, Sydney, and Johannesburg—I am deeply invested in trying to define how ’American art’ [the Whitney’s mandate] fits within an overwhelming international context.

“One of the things I think this show will point to is the notion of immigration,” she continues, “and the way it has now profoundly changed how we even define ’American,’ in political, economic, and social terms. There’s a whole generation of younger artists who have a completely different immigrant experience in terms of assimilation and how they define themselves.”

Clearly, the biennial is the centerpiece of the Whitney’s programming—and, as the ultimate you-can’t-please-everyone exhibition, is inevitably slammed. Golden couldn’t care less. “I have never received a good review,” she shrugs. “Besides, this isn’t the Middle East peace process, it’s just an exhibition.”

William Harris coordinates the news briefs for this section of Artforum.