PRINT December 2005

Thelma Golden

1 THE AUDIENCE AT “BASQUIAT” (BROOKLYN MUSEUM) I had an irrepressible desire to channel the enthusiasm of a Borscht Belt emcee as I walked through the Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective. The audience embodied all of the clichés inherent to any conversation about “attracting a wider cross section of the public.” Except that the “we are the world” crowd was real, not some marketing consultant’s demographic fantasy. The turnout for “Basquiat” was truly multigenerational, genuinely multicultural, and completely engaged. That is what made the museum feel so astoundingly alive.

2 JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT, “IN WORD ONLY” (CHEIM & READ, NEW YORK) The energy coursing through the rooms of “Basquiat” emanated not just from the huge, reverent crowds (whose murmurs and hums made for an incredible sound track) but from the paintings themselves. Clearly, one exhibition alone could not capture the complexity of Basquiat’s work, making “In Word Only” a crucial complement. Exquisitely selected and thematically rich, this show presented Basquiat’s text-based art in the form of paintings, drawings, and notebooks. In bluesman phrases and concrete poem fragments, we could see and feel Basquiat through his visual whispers and shouts.

3 STAN DOUGLAS, INCONSOLABLE MEMORIES There were many interesting moments at the 51st Venice Biennale (Olafur Eliasson, Hussein Chalayan, Kiki Smith, Zwelethu Mthethwa, and William Kentridge), and some refreshing moments (Francesco Vezzoli), but the most rewarding moment for me was Douglas’s dazzling film, featured in “The Experience of Art,” María de Corral’s exhibition in the Italian pavilion. Douglas uses repetition to great effect in order to tell a powerful story of loss and despair that takes place in the era of the Mariel Boat Lift, when thousands of Cubans fled the country. Awash in melancholy, Inconsolable Memories hovers beautifully between fiction and reality.

4 ROBERT GOBER (MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY, NEW YORK) In the Reagan Era, there was so much bad in the world to react to that “political art” seemed a necessity, and Gober’s exhibition reminded me of how much this moment is really the ’80s all over again. What’s more, if the idea of “political art” is in need of revision some twenty years later, then this show was a step in the right direction. Gober configured the gallery into a chapel, within which one could contemplate his ongoing cogent investigation of childhood, sexuality, and transcendence through a brilliant mélange of object and image, memory and fact. As they say in the black church: “Can somebody say ‘Amen’?”

5 YOHJI YAMAMOTO “JUSTE DES VÊTEMENTS (“JUST CLOTHES,” MUSÉE DE LA MODE ET DU TEXTILE, PARIS) Yamamoto has always been one of the most compelling shape-shifters working in contemporary fashion design, his rejection of tradition having long ago assured his status as the avant-garde of the avant-garde. This career-spanning exhibition, done in collaboration with the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, presented an exhaustive look at his process and production. Ingeniously split between two sections that form a call and response between a survey and a revealing look at the designer’s influences, “Juste des vêtements” provided an intriguing model for a retrospective, both looking back and looking forward through an artist’s work.

6 “SAFE: DESIGN TAKES ON RISK” (MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK) We all fear something—and especially at this moment, when acts and events that would have only recently been unimaginable are frighteningly common. With this timely look at attempts to create a sense of safety, curator Paola Antonelli’s exhibition has the converse effect of highlighting our fears. Antonelli continually organizes shows that probe our responses to the world around us. “Safe” brilliantly encompasses social science and psychology in its presentation of indispensable designer solutions for all sorts of calamities: large and small, real and imagined.

7 BIG GROUP EXHIBITIONS I love Consumer Reports because while I can’t research every existing cappuccino maker, I am thrilled to benefit from the knowledge of someone who has. For this reason, I applaud my colleagues who curate big group exhibitions. It is a thankless task, because we viewers find it hard to consider the selections at hand rather than the selections we would (but did not) make. I respect P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center’s curatorial team for supporting this city’s local art scene with “Greater New York 2005.” I loved the big mess of it, the highs and the lows. Similarly, I am grateful to the curators at the Hayward Gallery in London for “Africa Remix,” a flawed but important survey that sought to define contemporary African art across continents and aesthetic practices.

8 THE ’60S AND ’70S Several exhibitions this year made up an interesting and compelling coda to the proliferation of surveys focusing on artists from the ’60s and ’70s. First and foremost was “The Whole World Is Rotten: Free Radicals and the Gold Coast Slave Castles of Paa Jones” with its Ghanaian fantasy coffins at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. At the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, “Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Radical Imaginary” plotted a new visual and physical geography for Black Power. And I cannot forget the courtroom drawings of Malcolm X by Tracy Sugarman in “Malcolm X: A Search for Truth” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.

9 JULIE MEHRETU (PROJECTILE, NEW YORK) A lot has been said this past year about Julie Mehretu’s work. Its importance has been both debated and acclaimed. In the midst of all this, or perhaps in spite of it, her show of drawings at the Projectile gallery was a tour de force. Though her genius has always been acknowledged, it was particularly rewarding to see it made official when Julie received a MacArthur “genius grant” this past September.

10 KANYE WEST In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina I was glued to the television, trying to digest the latest news, and felt truly angered by how quickly celebrity-filled telethons could be organized while aid for the victims proved to be so mystifyingly elusive. But during the haze of overproduced live “coverage,” I was surprised, humored, and even proud of West’s unscripted moment. Sure, he really didn’t say anything that many were not already feeling. And sure, I wish it had come out of Condi’s mouth instead. But as illustrated by Luc Tuymans’s stunning painting The Secretary of State, 2005, her mouth remains resolutely shut.

The director and chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, Thelma Golden most recently organized “Frequency,” a survey of work by emergent black artists, with Christine Y. Kim.