Thelma Golden [ TED ] The brilliant playwright, Adrienne Kennedy, wrote a volume called “People Who Led to My Plays.” And if I were to write a volume, it would be called, “Artists Who Have Led My Exhibitions” because my work, in understanding art and in understanding culture, has come by following artists, by looking at what artists mean and what they do and who they are. J.J. from “Good Times,” (Applause) significant to many people of course because of “Dy-no-mite,” but perhaps more significant as the first, really, black artist on primetime TV. Jean-Michel Basquiat, important to me because [he was] the first black artist in real time that showed me the possibility of who and what I was about to enter into.
My overall project is about art — specifically, about black artists — very generally about the way in which art can change the way we think about culture and ourselves. My interest is in artists who understand and rewrite history, who think about themselves within the narrative of the larger world of art, but who have created new places for us to see and understand. I’m showing two artists here, Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker, two of many who really form for me the essential questions that I wanted to bring as a curator to the world. I was interested in the idea of why and how I could create a new story, a new narrative in art history and a new narrative in the world. And to do this, I knew that I had to see the way in which artists work, understand the artist’s studio as a laboratory, imagine, then, reinventing the museum as a think tank and looking at the exhibition as the ultimate white paper — asking questions, providing the space to look and to think about answers.
In 1994, when I was a curator at the Whitney Museum, I made an exhibition called Black Male. It looked at the intersection of race and gender in contemporary American art. It sought to express the ways in which art could provide a space for dialogue — complicated dialogue, dialogue with many, many points of entry — and how the museum could be the space for this contest of ideas. This exhibition included over 20 artists of various ages and races, but all looking at black masculinity from a very particular point of view. What was significant about this exhibition is the way in which it engaged me in my role as a curator, as a catalyst, for this dialogue. One of the things that happened very distinctly in the course of this exhibition is I was confronted with the idea of how powerful images can be in people’s understanding of themselves and each other.
I’m showing you two works, one on the right by Leon Golub, one on the left by Robert Colescott. And in the course of the exhibition — which was contentious, controversial and ultimately, for me, life-changing in my sense of what art could be — a woman came up to me on the gallery floor to express her concern about the nature of how powerful images could be and how we understood each other. And she pointed to the work on the left to tell me how problematic this image was, as it related, for her, to the idea of how black people had been represented. And she pointed to the image on the right as an example, to me, of the kind of dignity that needed to be portrayed to work against those images in the media. She then assigned these works racial identities, basically saying to me that the work on the right, clearly, was made by a black artist, the work on the left, clearly, by a white artist, when, in effect, that was the opposite case: Bob Colescott, African-American artist; Leon Golub, a white artist. The point of that for me was to say — in that space, in that moment — that I really, more than anything, wanted to understand how images could work, how images did work, and how artists provided a space bigger than one that we could imagine in our day-to-day lives to work through these images.
Fast-forward and I end up in Harlem; home for many of black America, very much the psychic heart of the black experience, really the place where the Harlem Renaissance existed. Harlem now, sort of explaining and thinking of itself in this part of the century, looking both backwards and forwards … I always say Harlem is an interesting community because, unlike many other places, it thinks of itself in the past, present and the future simultaneously; no one speaks of it just in the now. It’s always what it was and what it can be. And, in thinking about that, then my second project, the second question I ask is: Can a museum be a catalyst in a community? Can a museum house artists and allow them to be change agents as communities rethink themselves? This is Harlem, actually, on January 20th, thinking about itself in a very wonderful way.
So I work now at The Studio Museum in Harlem, thinking about exhibitions there, thinking about what it means to discover art’s possibility. Now, what does this mean to some of you? In some cases, I know that many of you are involved in cross-cultural dialogues, you’re involved in ideas of creativity and innovation. Think about the place that artists can play in that — that is the kind of incubation and advocacy that I work towards, in working with young, black artists. Think about artists, not as content providers, though they can be brilliant at that, but, again, as real catalysts.
The Studio Museum was founded in the late 60s. And I bring this up because it’s important to locate this practice in history. To look at 1968, in the incredible historic moment that it is, and think of the arc that has happened since then, to think of the possibilities that we are all privileged to stand in today and imagine that this museum that came out of a moment of great protest and one that was so much about examining the history and the legacy of important African-American artists to the history of art in this country like Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden.
And then, of course, to bring us to today. In 1975, Muhammad Ali gave a lecture at Harvard University. After his lecture, a student got up and said to him, “Give us a poem.” And Mohammed Ali said, “Me, we.” A profound statement about the individual and the community. The space in which now, in my project of discovery, of thinking about artists, of trying to define what might be black art cultural movement of the 21st century. What that might mean for cultural movements all over this moment, the “me, we” seems incredibly prescient totally important.
To this end, the specific project that has made this possible for me is a series of exhibitions, all titled with an F — Freestyle, Frequency and Flow — which have set out to discover and define the young, black artists working in this moment who I feel strongly will continue to work over the next many years. This series of exhibitions was made specifically to try and question the idea of what it would mean now, at this point in history, to see art as a catalyst; what it means now, at this point in history, as we define and redefine culture, black culture specifically in my case, but culture generally. I named this group of artists around an idea, which I put out there called post-black, really meant to define them as artists who came and start their work now, looking back at history but start in this moment, historically.
It is really in this sense of discovery that I have a new set of questions that I’m asking. This new set of questions is: What does it mean, right now, to be African-American in America? What can artwork say about this? Where can a museum exist as the place for us all to have this conversation? Really, most exciting about this is thinking about the energy and the excitement that young artists can bring. Their works for me are about, not always just simply about the aesthetic innovation that their minds imagine, that their visions create and put out there in the world, but more, perhaps, importantly, through the excitement of the community that they create as important voices that would allow us right now to understand our situation, as well as in the future. I am continually amazed by the way in which the subject of race can take itself in many places that we don’t imagine it should be. I am always amazed by the way in which artists are willing to do that in their work. It is why I look to art. It’s why I ask questions of art. It is why I make exhibitions.
Now, this exhibition, as I said, 40 young artists done over the course of eight years, and for me it’s about considering the implications. It’s considering the implications of what this generation has to say to the rest of us. It’s considering what it means for these artists to be both out in the world as their work travels, but in their communities as people who are seeing and thinking about the issues that face us. It’s also about thinking about the creative spirit and nurturing it, and imagining, particularly in urban America, about the nurturing of the spirit.
Now, where, perhaps, does this end up right now? For me, it is about re-imagining this cultural discourse in an international context. So the last iteration of this project has been called Flow, with the idea now of creating a real network of artists around the world; really looking, not so much from Harlem and out, but looking across, and Flow looked at artists all born on the continent of Africa. And as many of us think about that continent and think about what if means to us all in the 21st century, I have begun that looking through artists, through artworks, and imagining what they can tell us about the future, what they tell us about our future, and what they create in their sense of offering us this great possibility of watching that continent emerge as part of our bigger dialogue. So, what do I discover
When I look at artworks? What do I think about when I think about art? I feel like the privilege I’ve had as a curator is not just the discovery of new works, the discovery of exciting works. But, really, it has been what I’ve discovered about myself and what I can offer in the space of an exhibition, to talk about beauty, to talk about power, to talk about ourselves, and to talk and speak to each other. That’s what makes me get up every day and want to think about this generation of black artists and artists around the world.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Bird on Money, 1981 – Jean-Michel Basquiat