PRINT Summer 2016


“Black Male” (1994–95)

View of “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1994–95. From left: Robert Colescott, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from American History, 1975; Gary Simmons, Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), 1994; Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon, Rumble Young Man Rumble, 1993. Photo: Geoffrey Clements.

FOR ANY YOUNG CURATOR, putting together one’s first group exhibition is a complicated task. But when I became a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1991, the weight felt even greater because I sat with a lot of history: specifically, the history of the critique of museums in the late 1960s and early ’70s for institutional attitudes and exhibition making that excluded—or only very narrowly included—the work of black artists.

At first, I thought a revision of that history could be an effective way to uncover and really begin to move on from it. At other moments, though, I thought it best to avoid confronting that history head-on, by solely making exhibitions of the work of individual artists. But I also knew that a lot of what had brought about change in the art and museum world were thematic exhibitions of artists of color and women artists. Lowery Stokes Sims often speaks of “curatorial archaeology”—the way certain shows allow you to say, “Here are the artists you missed.” That creates an opening, establishes a precedent, and offers a path to canon revision. You can see the before-and-after effect of certain significant exhibitions—for example, David Driskell’s seminal “Two Centuries of Black American Art,”mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. That show opened a conversation that led to the inclusion of many major figures in subsequent shows.

I came into this arena in the ’90s with a ready critique of that kind of exhibition format, but I also had a deep nostalgia for it. I wanted to figure out how to make that kind of show myself, so I devised an exhibition that was about race in which not all of the artists were of color. “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” included artists across race, culture, ethnicity, and generation but united through their interrogations of black masculinity. It was my attempt to understand the trajectory of a conceptual black imagemaking, beginning with three critical artists whom I came to refer to as my Holy Trinity—David Hammons, Adrian Piper, and Robert Colescott. I then moved on to artists who were emerging at that time, such as Lorna Simpson, Gary Simmons, and Glenn Ligon, as well as artists whose work was well understood but would be presented in a new context—Leon Golub, Jeff Koons, Barkley L. Hendricks. There was also an intense public discourse then—which is the public discourse now—about black masculinity in contemporary culture.

In those early years at the Whitney, I felt I was living in many worlds. We still spoke with seriousness of uptown and downtown, the margin and the center. But I’d found a way to live comfortably between these worlds. I was interested in the long tradition of incredibly important thematic exhibitions, ranging from “A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1989 to “The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s,” which was spread across three New York museums (the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem) in 1990. I was deeply informed by many young scholars in the black cultural world who were working in cross-disciplinary ways, doing what we might broadly call criticism. There were a number of significant conferences and readers: the New Museum’s critical anthology Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures (1990); the “Black Popular Culture” conference, which Michele Wallace organized under the aegis of Dia Art Foundation and the Studio Museum in 1991; and Charles Gaines’s conference at his 1993 exhibition “The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism” at the University of California, Irvine. Hilton Als and I participated in a conversation there; he became the editor of the “Black Male”catalogue and had a significant role in helping me think about the idea of the book as a project in and of itself.

I didn’t expect that “Black Male” would be part of a larger conversation that moved out of the art world and into the wider world—which it did, almost immediately. Of course, there was no way to speak about the image of the black male in an art exhibition without speaking about what was going on politically and culturally. Many people saw this as either a beginning, in a hopeful way, or an end. It felt very much like it does today. To embrace change and to embrace the new, for some, means giving something up, something being taken.

I cannot overstate what it meant to be a twenty-seven-year-old curator, making my first exhibition at a major museum in New York City, and to have that exhibition be “Black Male.” It freed me. That freedom meant that when I returned to the Studio Museum in 2000, I could turn my attention to the institutional—to creating a different environment. There are two exhibitions that I’ve done here that felt similarly personally significant. The first was “Freestyle,” in 2001, which was my attempt to answer some of the questions posed in—and to fill in some of the spaces opened by—“Black Male.” I wondered what would happen if I made an exhibition of emerging artists as a way to question or reinvent the idea of cultural specificity in the museum. “Black Romantic: The Figurative Impulse in Contemporary African-American Art,” which we mounted in 2002, also felt that way. I’d been doing all this work deep at the center of the art world. What would happen if I made an exhibition that completely lived in a world of Black—with a big B—art and artists: uncompromised, unapologetic, uninterested in the mainstream art world? In a way, those two shows represented two of the many possibilities of black art—the neo-Conceptualist vein that bears the imprimatur of the art world, and popular, representational practices that are as broadly beloved by African Americans as they are irredeemable in the eyes of so-called high culture. Engaging these and other ideas of black art and images in conversation with one another, making their coexistence visible, dismantling the notions that underpinned so many group shows of the past, is what so much of my work at the Studio Museum has been about.

Now, as the Studio Museum approaches its fiftieth year, I hope our upcoming expansion will give this institution a sense of permanence. The new, purpose-built structure, which we are working on with Adjaye Associates and Cooper Robertson, is also a way to invest in this community. The Studio Museum’s founders were intentional in their naming of the museum, creating a mission in the name itself. In 1968, when we were founded, “in Harlem” was a deep proclamation and a prayer for this community.

My ambition beyond the Studio Museum is to work toward a sea change in leadership in our cultural institutions, specifically our museums. What I want to see, and what I hope my work can represent in a specific way, is a fundamental change in how we understand curatorial leadership. We must transform this field, and we can do that by fully embracing and nurturing a multitude of strong, significant, rigorous voices and perspectives.

When I came here as an intern in 1985, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, the director at the time, gave me a vision of her leadership in a cellular way. My sense that a career in this field was possible for me came from her example. I was then nurtured as a young curator by a group of amazing colleagues at the Whitney under the leadership of director David A. Ross, who helped me understand that curatorial voice is distinctly important. My own sense of leadership comes from a responsibility to all of that. I also think, though, that so much of this really comes down to love: I love art and I love artists. That’s at the base of what I understand leadership to be. There’s a great Arthur Ashe quote: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

For my thirtieth birthday, in 1995, Glenn Ligon made me a work in which he imagined the cover of my future memoir. It had several alternate titles, including If the Walls Could Talk and I’m Curating as Fast as I Can. We shared a profound feeling of the significance of that cultural moment. It was hard to know what would come next. The critical space “Black Male” opened up was so rich and so new, it was tactile; there was an intellectual electricity that was living within the practices of the artists we had assembled. The exhibition opened that up, and not just for the artists in it. When I do write my book, it’s going to be an homage to Adrienne Kennedy’s People Who Led to My Plays. Mine will be People Who Led to My Exhibitions. It’s quite a list.

—As told to Thomas J. Lax

Director and Chief Curator of New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem, Thelma Golden is the recipient of the 2016 Audrey Irmas Award for Curatorial Excellence.

Thomas J. Lax is Associate Curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.