This issue of Colorful Canvas Files is brought to you by Art Maven and Cultural Pioneer, Thelma Golden. You may not recognize hers as a household name, but her impact on our society is virtually universal. While it may appear that modern art is too abstract, or a diversion for the affluent, the institutions that display it profoundly influence our world. After all, society is really just a product of its institutions. Enter, Thelma Golden. The term “driving force” doesn’t quite epitomize her role in the art world. Visual/Cultural Vanguard may be more like it. Her uncompromising passion for art and collaboration with emerging innovative artists has put her on a first name basis in the global art scene.
Inspired by a distinguished curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City – a fierce sista by the name of Lowery Sims – Thelma destiny was revealed. “I think I, in going to museums as a young child, really realized that someone did that. I didn’t have a name for it, but it was clear that somebody put those things up, somewhere,” Golden once recalled to the Los Angeles Times. “As soon as it became clear to me what that job was, that was the job I wanted.” This revelation was made at the tender age of 12. As such, the Queens native began her legendary journey.
As a senior at New Lincoln High School, her genius was nurtured as an apprentice at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and refined after graduating from Smith College in 1987 when Thelma received a curatorial position at the Studio Museum in Harlem. One year later, she became curator at the world-renowned Whitney Museum of American Art after rising through the ranks of the eminent institution.
As one can imagine, Golden’s contribution to the Whitney was met with controversy, as well as success. What else can one expect for a fearless Black Woman in a world dominated by rigid European modernists? Although Golden was involved in multiple exhibits and events, she gained major notoriety with “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” an exhibition that garnered praise and criticism from both sides of the simulated color line. The exhibit (which also showed at UCLA’s Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center) was an ironic one: Artists of color tell stories of oppression through freedom of expression.
“Black Male” showcased works by 29 artists (African American men, women, Latinos and Asian, and European) chosen by Golden to explore current notions of Black manhood. The multi-faceted exhibition was deemed thought provoking to say the least. Amidst a storm of condemnation Golden stood by her exhibition, and her artistic integrity. Remaining calm, cool and collected, she was once reported as saying, “There is very little that people can say that can shock me.”
Thelma Golden’s ‘iconicity’ stems from not only her vision and brilliance, but from her steadfast rejection of society’s compulsion to pigeonhole, marginalize and oversimplify nearly every aspect of African American culture. In fact, Golden coined a term to illustrate this concept: “Post-Black.”
“[Post-black] was a clarifying term that had ideological and chronological dimensions and repercussions. It was characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact, deeply interested, in defining complex notions of blackness.”
Visionaries think big; possessing astounding foresight as well as the ingenuity that enables them to rise to the inevitable adversities which seek to thwart progress. Golden described her quest for excellence best in an interview with the Village Voice when she said, “I feel very strongly that there should be a museum for African American art and for artists of African descent that is sophisticated and intellectually formed in very profound ways.” Thelma Golden is breaking the barriers of rigid archetypes while fostering innate understanding between art and evolution. Fierce indeed.
Currently, Thelma Golden is the Director and Chief Curator of Harlem’s Studio Museum. In addition, she is an international lecturer, guest curator and writer, serving on various boards and international art prize committees. Ms. Golden is also juror for most public art commissioned in New York City and abroad. On December 12, she will join a panel discussion that examines the impact of the global art scene on Modernism at the School of Visual Arts.