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View of “Mickalene Thomas,” 2011. Clockwise from top left: Interior: Green and White Couch, 2011; Portrait of Tiffona, 2008; La Maison de Monet, 2011; Sandra: She’s a Beauty, 2009.

Mickalene Thomas

Lehmann Maupin

View of “Mickalene Thomas,” 2011. Clockwise from top left: Interior: Green and White Couch, 2011; Portrait of Tiffona, 2008; La Maison de Monet, 2011; Sandra: She’s a Beauty, 2009.

“We respond to beauty, its seduction and attraction, yet what that has done culturally to people that are subject to universal codes of beauty has been devastating.” So said Mickalene Thomas earlier this year, interviewed by the artist Sean Landers for Bomb magazine. She was talking about “codes of beauty” as they apply to people—to whether or not people are found beautiful, in their bodies, in their styles—but her remark seemed also to touch on a divide in American thinking about art, one that has played out quite virulently over the past thirty years. Should art be beautiful? Is its value formal and is it a world unto itself? Or is it a vehicle of identity, asking us to focus more on the people using its codes, or who are subject to its codes, than on the codes themselves? That’s simply put, of course, and the division is never that clean or complete, though from

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