New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York City
March 4, 2004
The BOMBLive! Artists and Curators Series
This BOMBlive! podcast, recorded at the New School in winter 2004, features an interview with Thelma Golden by Betsy Sussler standing in for Glenn Ligon. In preparation for the interview, Ligon chose a phrase or thought corresponding to each letter of the alphabet for Golden to riff off. In the ensuing conversation, Golden and Sussler discuss African American artists, The Whitney, and Glenn Ligon’s refusal to use his Palm Pilot.
Thelma Golden is the Director and Chief Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Golden was a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where she worked for eleven years.
Glenn Ligon is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He received a B.A. from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in 1982, and survived the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in New York in 1985. His work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Walker Art Center; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,; The Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and most recently, President Obama’s collection in the White House.
Glen Ligon image: Untitled (set of 4), 1992, 25 × 7 1/4 inches. Courtesy Max Protech Gallery. From BOMB 47, Spring 1994.
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Betsy Sussler Hi, I’m Betsy Sussler, editor in chief of BOMB. I’m channeling Glenn Ligon tonight because Glenn was absolutely certain that a paper that he had to deliver to Yale was to be delivered last night. However, he was wrong. The paper that he absolutely had to deliver to Yale is being delivered tonight by Glenn Ligon. So, he has sent his introduction and his questions. They are on your seats. I’m going to start the questions rolling and then turn them over to all of you to ask the ones that most interest you. As these are the questions Glenn would have asked tonight, we’re not really missing his thoughts. As a matter-of-fact, we are gaining all of you, your participation.
Thelma is now the deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Before her association with the Studio Museum, she worked for 11 years as a curator at the Whitney Museum. In my opinion, she is one of the most well-loved, respected, talented, devoted, and brilliant curators working in America. So I am very pleased to have her with us here tonight.
Thelma Golden Thank you, Betsy.
BS You’re welcome, Thelma. Her current exhibition is called Harlem World: Metropolis as Metaphor. Now imagine, if you will, that I am Glenn Ligon. I’m really going to try to be Glenn Ligon, or rather, I’ll do my best:
Thelma and I always joke that when something dramatic happens to her it is just one more chapter for The Book, her yet-to-be-written autobiography. One year, for Thelma’s birthday, I decided to do a mock cover for The Book. The title became I’m Curating As Fast As I Can: The Thelma Golden Story, and I placed a picture of her on the front cover. The back cover had excerpts from the book, which consisted of things that Thelma always says, such as “Exactly! Exactly!” or “It was alllllll too much.” For a moment I got ambitious and was going to do a table of contents too. I started making a list of words that would sum up the topics covered in particular chapters. For instance, one chapter would be entitled “The People,” a phrase that Thelma always accompanied with a clenched-fist black-power salute. “The People” referred to the question that inevitably came up at the end of any lecture Thelma did about her exhibition program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. This question went along the lines of “What does the exhibition program have to do with the struggles of ‘The People?’” whom the questioner, invariably male, naturally felt empowered to speak for. Another chapter might be entitled “Shadow Curating,” which referred to the many artists who turned to Thelma in desperation to help them salvage misconceived, misdirected, intellectually rigor-less or just plain poorly installed presentations of their work by other curators.
For tonight’s interview, I have decided to take some of those words and phrases and make them into the questions I would ask Thelma. I took the letters of the alphabet as my guide and wrote a list of words and phrases that Thelma could riff off of as she saw fit.
In my absence, this list has been distributed to you, the audience, so that you can ask her these questions yourself. I am sorry that I cannot be here with you but I hope that you find the talk enjoyable, and I promise that Thelma and I will be on the cell phone late tonight to talk about each and every one of you, so I hope you all ask some questions.
TG Okay, first of all, the reason why Glenn is not here, which you explained in a very polite way, is because Glenn bought a PalmPilot about four years ago, and he doesn’t use it. This is an argument that we have been having for a long time, and he tells me the reason he doesn’t use it is because he doesn’t have a schedule like mine. So therefore, he doesn’t need to keep track of all these things. And this comes up because I’ll say something to him like, “Oh, it’s so and so’s birthday” and he’ll say, “Oh really?” and I say, “If you used your PalmPilot, you’d know.” Or, inevitably Glenn always asks me about when certain holidays are, holidays that come at the same time every year. Like he’ll say, “When’s Thanksgiving?” and I’ll say, “Well Glenn, if you used your PalmPilot you would know that.” So, this was one of those PalmPilot scenarios where he wished himself into thinking that this talk was last night. And then literally, what a week ago?
BS No, less. Last Friday . . .
TG Friday, Glenn gets a call from Yale and they say, “You are scheduled to speak here,” and of course, the night they think he is coming is tonight. Now, I say to Glenn, “Well, did you look in your PalmPilot?” But, just to, you know, drive home the point, he said, “No, it’s not in my PalmPilot,” and I said, “Well, Glenn, this is, like, an issue.” So, that is why Glenn’s not here. It is not anything other than Glenn’s refusal to use the PalmPilot. I just wanted to say that.
BS (laughter) He did say to me, “This is so out of the ordinary for me. I am never this flaky.”
TG And it’s true, he’s not flaky, it’s just that he doesn’t use the PalmPilot.
BS So, Glenn’s questions . . .
TG Well, they’re not questions.
BS Do we start in order?
TG Glenn told me how he wanted to do this and when he was going to be here, I sort of thought, No, I’m not going to do this. We were going to have an argument about it and discuss it. But Glenn made a series of paintings that were in a show called Coloring at the Walker Art Center about three years ago. He used these coloring books that were created in the ‘70s, mostly by black publishers, and they were alphabet coloring books that Glenn then took each letter from and equated it with a word that had something to do with the black power struggle. So in these books it said, “A is for Africa,” “C is for Cornbread.” I mean literally, and it went through the whole alphabet. Glenn did this wonderful series of paintings from that alphabet. Any time a letter would come up, we’d say, “B is for…” So, Glenn decided that we were going to do an alphabet tonight equivalent to the alphabet that he created for the drawings and paintings that became Coloring. So, you don’t have to do them in order.
I completely disagreed with this method (laughter).
BS “M is for mid-century black artists.”
TG I feel guilty all the time because many black artists from the middle of the century have yet to be adequately addressed in the canon of art history. Either they are still alive and working, but the initial contribution of their work is unknown, or they’re no longer living, and in some cases they’re completely forgotten. And often, I have this experience of getting a call from the son or daughter or lover, or whatever, of one of these artists who dies, and they ask me to come over to see this work. Inevitably, you’ll walk into an apartment and it’s like a whole career just there, not just the work, but everything: every letter of rejection from each show, every receipt from a juried exhibition. There’s a lot of work to be done in that regard, and yet there is no way that my own curatorial practice can encompass it at the level that it requires.
BS Because it’s so vast.
BS Is there someone who you ever felt compelled to do?
TG Bob Thompson. That’s how I got to that exhibition, by meeting Bob Thompson’s widow, who, unfortunately, just passed away a few weeks ago. But it’s one of those same stories.
BS That’s so amazing because he is such a seminal artist.
TG There had been no major exhibition except a survey in the mid-1970s. So, that’s how I got to that.
BS When I went to see his show, there were classes full of wonderful kids all taking notes, all making drawings of his drawings. I mean, utterly mesmerized.
So, clearly there’s a lot of work to do. Okay, “E is for each one, teach one.”
TG Each one, teach one. I don’t know what organization it was, but there was some sort of black social service organization that used that as their slogan for a mentoring program; it’s about the necessity within the black community for a kind of hands-on mentoring of young people. Their catch phrase, “Each one, teach one,” means each person teach another. Glenn and I use that phrase to talk about young artists who sometimes need a little guidance on their way toward finding their voice, not just artistically, but in their ability to operate within an art world that is complex. Whenever we get into this conversation it usually gets summed up into the “each one, teach one” mentality about how necessary it is to have these connections with each other in order to navigate a very complicated world.
BS Isn’t there a mentoring program at the Studio Museum?
TG We have a Studio Program, which is a formal program of work, but this is more informal. You know, who do you go to to find out an art dealer’s evil? You know what I mean, that kind of thing.
BS You usually hear about that kind of gossip in art schools, do you not?
TG You do, but sometimes young black artists at those schools are not embedded in the social networks that might allow that. So this creates a need to find a network that supports them.
BS “D for downtown.”
TG Oh, I’m not sure why Glenn put that there except for the fact that in the constant criticism of the transformation of the Studio Museum, usually that word is used as a pejorative to describe what my approach to our curatorial program might be.
BS Could you explain that a little? Downtown?
TG I think uptown and downtown mean very specific things. It has to do with privilege, it has to do with race, it has to do with certain attachments, perhaps, to a power structure. Uptown is not necessarily seen in the same way, so when the word is used around the Studio Museum now, it is not as a compliment or a geographical designation. It is used to describe what might be a gulf that has been crossed.
BS Because there is downtown below 14th Street and then there is downtown below 125th Street…
TG Well, uptown everything below 125th Street is downtown.
BS That was what I wanted to clarify.
TG Downtown is the world.
BS Downtown is the rest of the world. “F is for Freestyle.”
TG A couple of years ago, maybe more than that, Glenn had a survey show at the ICA in Philadelphia, and the essay I wrote in that catalogue was called “Every Night” because Glenn and I talk on the phone every night. We also talk on the phone every day; we talk on the phone a lot. And in that essay I talked about how Glenn has been very critical to my formation of almost every show I’ve ever made because usually I come up with an idea that is so ill-formed, but I talk about it so much with Glenn on the phone that sometimes it becomes something. And Freestyle was definitely that. There’s an argument between Glenn Ligon and Gary Simmons as to who came up with the title Freestyle. I thought it was Glenn. Gary says it was him. But, whatever. Freestyle was my acknowledgement that the artists I was most committed to, who, in my mind, had been emerging artists early in my career, were now all at mid-career. I was feeling that I was missing what it meant to be involved with emerging artists and I was missing what it would mean to make a show like that. And I began to tell Glenn how I felt invested in the projects of the artists I was most committed to, but it all had gotten so big and so essential. I thought, What would it be like to just go back? At the time I had also just gone back to work at the Studio Museum and I felt the museum needed that. It’s almost like we had to start somewhere, and Freestyle became the beginning again. I began looking at artists and, inevitably, I would talk to Glenn about them. Again, it wasn’t a show yet. I was just looking and I would say I saw this, and I saw that, and it became an exhibition. I didn’t imagine that it would have the important effect on the museum that it did, though I’m glad it did. However, I didn’t see that when making it. I saw it more as a personal thing that I was doing, as opposed to something for the institution.
BS Where do you start, though? You’re looking for emerging artists and you’re going to lots of studios. How do you know what studios to go to?
TG Well, first of all, I don’t go to lots of studios.
BS What do you do?
TG I listen a lot and I look at things. I would say that my most consistently right way of getting to what I might look at comes through other people, who also look at things. So, in the case of Freestyle, I started first with artists. I mean I asked every artist I was interested in who they were interested in. And that alone brought me to more than thirty or forty people. And I’d say that first round of visits was probably that many. Then I also asked people I was looking at who they were looking at. And so that’s how I got to Freestyle. Now Freestyle involved some parameters. I wanted it to be a national show, so I also went to certain places and sort of dug in other cities in a real way. But having worked at the Whitney for so long, it was sort of a Whitney process; so I really plugged back into what it would be like to look at a national way to come up with a group of great artists.
BS That’s really how we do it at BOMB. You listen, you talk to a lot of people. You have conversations. It spreads, it spreads, it spreads, and all of a sudden something exists.
TG But, you know, other people are much more thorough. I think Dan [Cameron] probably goes to, like, hundreds of studios every year. Yes, he does.
BS He’s standing in the back and he’s shaking his head no.
TG I’m just not one who does it in that way. It’s not very effective for me.
BS I want to backtrack here because two things have come up: your personal life and Harlem. So, where do you want to start? We can go for “T is for Thelma Golden, Curator vs. Thel” or we can go for “H is for Harlem.”
TG Let’s go for Harlem.
I worked at the Studio Museum for one year after I graduated from college and that was my first real experience spending time in Harlem. I was somewhat fascinated by it. My father was born and raised in Harlem and lived there basically for 40 years until he married my mother. So, I had this sense of Harlem through my father’s memory of it, as it existed up until the time he left, when he married my mother.
BS Where did he go?
TG To Queens, with my mother. So, there was Harlem in that sense for me. The Harlem of my father’s childhood, the Harlem of my grandparents’ life, and then there was the Harlem I came to know when I worked at the Studio Museum in 1988, which is a very different Harlem than the one now. When I came back to Harlem in 2000, it was in the middle of all this Harlem regeneration. Putting the name Harlem in our name was a very political act by the founders of the museum. They wanted to situate not just the museum in Harlem, but put it in the name of the museum itself. So, I’ve been invested in this idea of trying to understand Harlem in our program at the museum. And it’s not an easy thing to do, because Harlem is a very complex place and it is changing all the time. The current show is probably my only real attempt to do it within the exhibition program. Harlem World is an exhibition of 18 emerging black architects creating hypothetical projects imagining Harlem.
BS There was a talk a few years back about how the Harlem Renaissance was coming back, a new Harlem Renaissance. I don’t think it ever went away, frankly. But do you feel that that’s happened, is there some validity to that claim, or was it just a tag line for news?
TG I think it was more of a marketing device to talk about Harlem’s change, because Harlem has actually had many transitions. One change took place in the late ‘60s, when the museum was founded. After the riots in Harlem, there was this incredible effort toward rebuilding Harlem, not just around the infrastructure, but also around cultural institutions. Most of Harlem’s significant cultural institutions were founded in that moment as part of Harlem rethinking itself. So, this isn’t the first. It’s probably the most public, because it’s the one with the most money attached to it. Most of what is happening in Harlem right now is being powered by both the commercial interests that are in Harlem, the real estate interests, and by this kind of weird attachment to Harlem that comes in the form of our former president moving down the block. The effects from these elements operate to make people think about Harlem differently.
BS We’re going to wait for that personal one because now I would like to ask “P is for post-black.”
TG Post-black is another sort of Glenn and Thelma formation, though because it’s taken a life of its own Glenn disowns it completely. Before email, and when fax was sort of the only instantaneous form of written communication, Glenn and I used to send each other faxes all the time. And these faxes sometimes could be long, you know, it’d be a big long thing, or sometimes they’d be one word. Glenn’s often included little drawings and often they would be the culmination of a conversation. For example, there was this moment when Glenn was just completely obsessed with buying this particular suit and he would talk about it constantly and he’d go to Barney’s and he’d go back to his studio and then go to Barney’s again and then go back to his studio. And then one day, this little picture came through the fax machine and it was a little drawing of a suit, and on the bottom it said, “Bought it.” Others would be about someone sending him a ridiculous letter about wanting to write about his work, but it would say something so completely offensive and the fax would just be that letter with a circle around the offending phrase. Often, these faxes would take on this kind of weird abbreviation that we would get into because we talk so much, sometimes things would have to be compressed, so we have this theory: one word. Everything can be compressed into one word. So, we’ll have a conversation and if it’s going on too long, I’ll just say, “Glenn, one word.” And basically we try and sum these things up. Post-black was a “one word” that basically refers to the way in which I felt like I was constantly being asked to address this issue about black art. And I mean it from the way that black art was described as not just a physical thing, but this sort of late ‘60s approach to imagining a black aesthetic or black art practice. This would happen when I went out in the world to do lectures, it would happen with journalists—this need for everyone to define it. That need would often create these long conversations about black art. When I started looking at the artists for Freestyle, I felt that many artists, particularly Glenn’s generation, felt burdened by this thing called “black art.” They always had to talk themselves out of that in order to begin to talk about their work. So, we began to talk about how I was seeing all these artists from Freestyle who didn’t even feel they had to address this. And that would become a whole paragraph that somewhere in there was a statement that they all were very post-black art. Post-black art then got sort of shrunken into post-black, which became a way to describe any number of things. So, that became our one word. I would say, “I saw da da da” and he’d say, “Well, what was it?” and I’d say: “Post-black.”
At the time of Freestyle, post-black, in my mind, which was a bigger conversation shrunken down to the Glenn and Thelma language, became a way to think about something to put on the table, as even a way for me to describe, in terms of an institution that’s been deeply embedded in this argument, and as a way for us to even have a freedom from it. Let us say that as an institution we were now willing to exist as a place where we could talk about the complexity of black creation and the politics behind it through multiple voices and multiple strands. And that this embrace was a stance. It wasn’t a kind of art, it wasn’t a particular way of making work. It was a stance, an attitude, a vibe, a feeling, and that would be post-black. Post-black has taken on a life of its own. I’m not sure how I feel about that life, but at its essential core, it was a way to create a space to talk about things outside of the existing paradigms that had existed for even me as a curator.
BS So, let’s talk about the paradigms. Afrocentricity, black male, the community, ABC.
TG Right. Afrocentricity definitely is one of the paradigms. I made a show a couple of years ago called Black Romantic because often when I would leave New York and speak about my work in other places, particularly other museums, there would always be an artist in the audience who would get up and say something to the effect that the work I was embracing in no way embraced the needs of the community; that’s where “the people” thing comes from. You know, it’s always about the people; well, it’s not about the people. I decided to make a show about that, while also acknowledging that this was work that I absolutely could not bear to engage with personally. So, I had to create a structure to do this. I made the exhibition through an open call and sent out hundreds of flyers and requested slides, and I went through the slides and I just picked work. I had no investment in my picking. I just did it. A lot of that work embraced the notion of Afrocentricity as a real and important intellectual device. I really respect those artists because they’ve created a world for themselves that operates in a world very different from the world I exist in. But I made the show because I also felt like the high-low paradigm that is a part of talking about what art is for a community of people of African descent was an important thing to address.
BS What happened to “Black Male?”
TG Black Male was a show I made. Either Black Male was a show I made and the show I keep making, or it’s a show I’ve made and can’t ever approach again. It is amazing for me to acknowledge this . . . It’s weird enough that I don’t. But to acknowledge that, in November it will be ten years since I made Black Male. And it’s amazing to me because that seems like a very long time ago. But, it also seems like a very short time because in many ways that show feels like yesterday to me, and there is so much about it that I can recall in such precise detail; it feels like it was yesterday.
TG Because it was a very significant show that defined who I am as a curator.
BS Can you elaborate on that?
TG I’m not sure. I’m just saying that’s my reaction to it.
BS That’s what you feel. Fair enough. So, let’s get to the personal. “T is for Thelma Golden, Curator vs. Thel.”
TG I have a problem that some artists acknowledge and take deep advantage of, in that I really don’t work with artists who I can’t deal with personally. I don’t know how to focus solely on the object. The distinction between me as a curator and me as a person sort of merges. I don’t mean this in relation to making a collection show or a group show, but I’m talking about, for example, doing a survey show of someone. I need a certain amount of intellectual intimacy in order to be able to approach the work effectively. That intimacy can come in any number of forms, but it means that those two lines get crossed often. For some people that’s probably professionally problematic, but for me it seems the only way I can work.
BS Does it affect your whole way of thinking?
TG It affects the writing. Looking back on it, I found that I can’t write about anyone’s work impersonally. And Glenn was a kind of experiment for that because for a catalogue of an exhibition some time ago, I was asked to write an essay for the curator, that’s also probably when the term “Shadow Curating” came, the curator was not exactly addressing some of the issues in Glenn’s work, primarily race and sexuality. Glenn would hate me for saying this, but that’s all it’s about, right? (laughter) But the point is it would be very hard. After that, we’d need to talk about painting . . ..Those are two big things, right? And this was a little problematic for Glenn. He was like, “This is deep.” You know, like no race or sexuality, where are we? So she asked me. She thought I would do the race, sex thing.
BS The hard part.
TG Right. And then together, if you read them both side by side, you would get the whole picture. And, I resisted that because I felt like, you know, I’m not going to absolve her from her job, and ended up writing this very personal essay. That opened me to the idea that there was something that allowed me to have a voice around the work of certain artists that could only be personal. Once I embraced that, the idea seemed to operate in my writing about a lot of different people and continues to do so. It often seems to wed itself to the anecdotal, but it has to do with my approach to an artist’s work.
BS I keep thinking of Frank O’Hara, or a lot of poets who wrote about artists they were friendly with. They were writers first and foremost, that was their way. They had that kind of imagination. The personal was their way into the work as well and it’s some of the best writing on art. So, I would say, “Good. Bravo.”
TG It’s just been the way to make sense of what becomes of talking all the time. What does that become? It means that there are certain ways in which I understand certain things and that allows me to then offer them to an audience of people who are also interested in this artist in a way that might be slightly different were I to approach it by taking a step back and creating a curatorial matrix from which to understand the work.
BS Let’s skip right to “V is for that vision thing.” This is the last one and then I’m going to let you all come in and ask whatever questions you like, whether they’re on the sheet of paper or not. We have skipped the Whitney one though, so let’s do Vision and the Whitney, and then we’ll let the audience come in.
TG No. I’m not going to do both of those. That’s too much!
BS We’ll do “that vision thing” and then you all can come up. There’s a microphone right here so you can play jump-up, or say it from your seat. Either way is fine. But, let’s move on to “that vision thing.”
TG For eight of the ten years I worked at the Whitney, I worked for David Ross, and if there is one thing that David has above all else, it is vision. I believe deeply that David is a visionary. And David often talked about the way that sometimes curators were valued based on having an eye. David saw that as a very narrow approach to understanding art. He always said that you had to have “vision.” This whole issue of the eye versus vision is something that I’m constantly struggling with. Or, I shouldn’t say struggling because it is not a struggle. In my understanding of what I learned from David, I acknowledge that vision is what creates not just the context to understand the work, but to understand the context of the work, and then to create the context for the work. I think it is on those three levels that I try to imagine my own curatorial practice.
BS Sounds perfect, actually. All right, we are going to open this up to the audience. Abby, do you want to use the microphone?
Abby Goldstein How do you think you’ve influenced Glenn?
TG Well, I think after tonight he is going to use his PalmPilot. (laughter) All of my influences on Glenn are totally pedestrian, honestly. Glenn has a cleaning lady because of me. That just felt like something that needed to happen. You know, I just made it happen. What are the influences? I can’t say what they are because he would be so mortified. They all are so completely pedestrian. I have to say that I feel very privileged to have this kind of relationship with many artists as I think many curators do. It is inevitably the way in which you have to exist with artists. For me, there has been an intensity to it because it also happened at a moment when we all existed in a world with this incredible amount of presence, so we had to revert into each other all the time to make sense of it. So, I would like to think that I have had an influence on the way in which Glenn sometimes thinks about his work because often he doesn’t think about certain things. More than anything, when I go into the studio and I pull things out. I feel like that’s a big thing I do. Glenn does that, “Uchh. Don’t like it!” and I’m kind of like, “Okay, let’s take that out, and just leave it for a few days,” and then he’ll say days later, “Oh, that painting’s not so bad.” Often I hope to provide the ability to have this open dialogue because it is incredibly ongoing for us, and it can range from the absolutely ridiculous to the incredibly serious and all the things that meet in between. But, I don’t know if I could mark what he would say it is. I can’t even imagine what he would say.
Audience member Do you think there is a disconnect between the art world and communities of color?
TG I don’t think there is a disconnect. There are just a lot of different art worlds. And I think that within communities of color, there are other ways to engage with, say, the visual arts, and it doesn’t always come in the form of a museum exhibition on white walls. It can come in any number of fashions. That was some of reason I wanted to make a show like Black Romantic because all of those artists have deep relationships with either their immediate communities or their national communities, through so many other different avenues that I don’t want to say are better or worse, just different. For a long time there was a desire, even the Studio Museum had the desire, to take one model and place it in another context. I’m not sure if that’s the answer necessarily. I think that we have to support the context that exists so that while we are a museum in Harlem, and operate with certain principles attached to a museum, there are lots of other art spaces in Harlem that support artists and show art in a very different way than we do. And I think they’re all equal, one is not better or worse. They all serve different audiences because when we talk about communities of color, there are lots of different audiences in those communities. There are as many people that want to have a museum experience as there are people who want to engage with, say, art in a less value-driven situation. Context is something that you define, and we are engaged in defining our context.
Audience member “J for Bill T. Jones” and “K for Kellie Jones.”
TG Bill T. Jones is one of the many artists whom I have this intimacy with that is formed out of an ongoing conversation that sort of never ends, but perhaps culminates sometimes in a public form, with work we might do together. But more often than not, just percolates. I saw Bill’s Last Supper and Uncle Tom’s Cabin when it premiered at BAM, and it had a huge influence on the way I structured making Black Male, because Bill is very brave in his approach to what images can mean in the world as a choreographer and as a black man. And I found that Bill created a context to understand a lot of the work that I wanted to show then, and have continued to show. So Bill for me is an intellectual antecedent to much of what I think about and what I do.
Kellie Jones is a curator and art historian. She teaches in the art history department at Yale with a particular focus on African-American art and artists of African descent from the ‘70s through the present. I worked for Kellie in the late ’80s, and in my work for her, and with her, she, for me, defined a concept that art exists in the world. So, that is again moving away from the museum as the sole structure, into understanding other structures. At the time, Kellie was running a very adventuresome contemporary art program out of an extremely conservative, completely poor community arts center in Queens. And it was the most discordant environment, and out of that she created these amazing opportunities for artists and for audiences who saw things there and probably couldn’t name them, probably haven’t followed the reviews in Artforum and so on — were critical and seminal in many cases. In my work for Kellie, I realized that you create context. You don’t necessarily need the structure and imprimatur of the institution. The artist can do that. So, both Joneses remain incredibly important to me; they underscore what I think of as the world from which the ideas I work with come.
Audience member “X is for Xuly Bet.”
TG That was Glenn’s attempt to get to what I know he would put off as my obsession with fashion, which is really his as well, though he thinks mine is more intense. It’s well known. I don’t really collect art. I have no interest in it. I am always amazed. You go to these other curators’ homes and it’s like a mini-museum and I am completely uninterested. For artists who know me, this is very funny. But the thing I do have is tons and tons and tons and tons of clothes. And often I have a certain kind of curatorial approach to them. I have certain things that will never be worn but I had to have them for some larger curatorial idea. My obsession around this has to do with my interest in black designers, Patrick Kelly being one of them. He worked from 1985 to 1990, he died New Year’s Day 1990 and had collections from Fall/Spring/Summer 1984 to Summer 1990. I bought a dress of his in the winter of 1988 and from that point became completely obsessed with Patrick Kelly. Unfortunately, so many black designers like Patrick Kelly aren’t alive anymore. Xuly Bet is still alive and still making fabulous work. I came to the Patrick Kelly show because Patrick Kelly was the business and life partner of a man named Bjorn Amelan, who now is the business and life partner of Bill T. Jones. See, it’s all circular with me. This is it. This is my whole life in this list. Bill T. Jones and I met probably around 1986 or 1987 when the William H. Johnson show was traveling around and we were both invited to dinner for the William H. Johnson show. It was like 300 people, and we were the only black people. William H. Johnson, as some of you know, was a black artist who worked at mid-century and died insane. He had two bodies of work: the one he made outside of America, which were these beautiful, gorgeous landscapes, and the one he made inside of America, which were these intense works that bordered on caricature of black people. Aesthetically schizophrenic. I saw Bill at this dinner, and I of course knew who he was. When he saw me, we had to do that thing where since we were the only two, we had to pretend we knew each other, right? Because everyone assumed that. I thought it was really interesting because here was William H. Johnson’s work and basically blackness is what drove him crazy: being a black man in America, right? And here was Bill whose work was all not about that; he had turned it all into work.
Audience member (inaudible) What did you think of the exhibition Only Skin Deep at the International Center of Photography?
TG Let me own up. I was on the advisory committee for Only Skin Deep and so was involved with its formation. I thought Only Skin Deep was an incredibly important curatorial effort and its curators, Brian Wallace and Coco Fusco, were really interested in doing something that combined looking at the archive and the document with looking at art, the artist, and the art object. I thought the collision of those two things, and the space of that show, was quite amazing and informative. I found it very overwhelming though, because within that exhibition were 100 exhibitions. Every time I had encountered something I had never seen, or only seen in reproduction, I wanted more of that. I feel like it’s the kind of show that will create that. There will be a whole level of work that will come from what they unearthed, because much of that work was out and put in other contexts, right? Since they’re in these other kinds of spaces, you don’t have the opportunity to understand them as documents or evidences of our understanding of race. But then in that show you saw them so differently. I see it as an exhibition that will have an effect that will create lots of other exhibitions. There are some shows that do that and that’s a really important thing for shows to do. Sometimes, someone just has to do the initial work and that opens the door and allows for lots of other work to happen.
BS One or two more questions, anyone?
Audience member “W is for Whitney?” “B is for Biennial?”
TG The 1993 Biennial was the first big exhibition I worked on as a curator at the Whitney. Glenn was in that Biennial, along with a lot of other artists I love and admire. It’s a Biennial everyone hated forever. What was important to me––there’s so much that’s important about the ‘93 Biennial—but what was really important for me is that I worked on that Biennial with two women, Elisabeth Sussman and Lisa Phillips. In so many ways, they created a whole. Between them, one could understand the entire mode of operation of contemporary art curating. In many ways, I felt like a small piece of that puzzle because I spent so much of my time in that process learning and understanding from the two of them, who had both worked through the ’80s in very different but complementary ways. We saw the 1993 Biennial as our attempt to look back at those moments and bring them into the context of the Whitney, because we had all had a relationship to many of these ideas, yet they hadn’t entered the museum realm. Our idea was, “What happens when you look back and then bring it forward?” The ‘93 Biennial is what cured me from a lot of things. I do not read the reviews of my shows. That is because of the ’93 Biennial. I tend to avoid going down on the exhibition floor during exhibitions. That is because of the ’93 Biennial. The first time I looked back at the catalogue was like three years ago. I only looked back at it because Elisabeth Sussman told me that on the Internet it costs like $200. That was more shocking than anything. I said, "You’re kidding, Elisabeth, we could clean up. I’m sure all together we could dig up at least a hundred of them because it didn’t sell that well in its day." So, I think that the ‘93 Biennial, in many ways, was my curatorial education really on every level: my education about working with artists, my education about commissioning work, my education about understanding the museum context, my education about the notion of audience and how it operates. The ’93 Biennial was the one with Danny Martinez’s button I Can Never Imagine Wanting To Be White. About how an audience operates in the space of a museum. The ‘93 Biennial was all of those things, and I think Glenn put it on the list because he thinks it scarred me, so that often when I say things that seem to him to be curatorially problematic, he thinks I’m having a flashback moment because I’ll pull back from things that seem innocuous. I will. I’ll remember something and think “Ughh.” I know for him that’s why that was there. Glenn was represented in that show with his piece Notes on the Margin: The Black Book, his Mapplethorpe piece. In terms of our relationship, that was just critical in terms of Glenn, and Glenn’s work, and what was there. There were so many other works. Bob Gober’s Newspaper. Everything about that show was important to me.
Now, Whitney. I, for better or worse, was the first African-American curator at the Whitney. And this is something that I tried not to think about when I was there, but no one would let me forget it. I get letters from people. I would get all this mail from prisoners. The ‘93 Biennial was when I started getting prisoner mail. It got to a crescendo during Black Male. I was the prison curator. It’s because prisoners watch Charlie Rose. Literally all the letters say “I saw you on Charlie Rose,” that’s what shocked me about it. I said to Charlie, “Do you know this?” Charlie believes it’s because his show is in interview format. In prison, they won’t show shows with violence, nudity, or whatever, so they censor those shows. Charlie Rose is a show that’s allowed. Anyway, I would call Glenn and say, “I am not going to be the Whitney’s first black curator today.” And that would mean I was just going to do what I wanted, and not what the whole world thought I should do. But the truth is that I think about my time at the Whitney with great fondness. I worked with an incredible group of people. I had the amazing opportunity to work with David Ross, who, as I said, is a visionary and continues to be. I had the opportunity to work with these two women, Lisa Phillips and Elisabeth Sussman, who were both very maternal in their mentorship of me. Literally on a day to day level, I could come through for advice on everything. Anything was possible with the two of them advising me. I had an environment that, because the Whitney at that moment was open to a sense of transformation, was open to things like being the museum that was housing the ‘93 Biennial, and David Martinez’s button, and Black Male, and the Bob Thompson show, which shouldn’t be a big deal, but it was the first major survey of a mid-century African-American artist in a long time. Ultimately, my leaving the Whitney is so fraught in the public realm with controversy and all manner of rumored innuendo, but for me, that was such a small part of what was a very long moment in many ways. I joke with Lisa. What I love about the model for the New Museum is that, to me, it looks like some variation on the Breuer building. Even that building, as difficult as it is to work in, I still have to step back when I think of a show because I do think of it on those floors. I have to remember that I don’t make shows on those floors any more. Even my whole sense of the building, as it relates to who I am as a curator, is incredibly important. I’m incredibly optimistic about the Whitney’s present and near future, and their having a new director, and quite probably reclaiming their place as an important institution in the city.
Audience member Do you have any regrets?
TG Do I have any regrets that I would like to share? That has to do with “Z for Zora.” Glenn once did a talk at an arts school and one of the young artists said Glenn was talking about the context of his work in certain shows with other artists who I’m interested in. And this young artist said in a somewhat snotty way, “Oh, you must all be on Thelma’s speed dial.” So that has become another one word when I’m talking about the artists I’m interested in. Glenn calls them the “speed dial” artists. Lorna Simpson is on my speed dial. She is an artist who is incredibly important to me. I saw her work as a college student and it was my entry into conceptual practice, understanding what conceptual practice is and was at that time. In this “Thelma Golden vs. Thel,” there are no lines or borders, so when Lorna decided she wanted to have a baby, that became a project for me because as a curator you are good at organizing and planning. From day one of Lorna’s pregnancy, I was planning. We had a baby room. Regret. In this project, and in this intimacy, and in this idea that all life is art and art is life, Lorna asked me to be in the delivery room with her and Jim Casebere, her husband. I was there for Zora’s birth, something I deeply regret. Something that still traumatizes me. Something that Zora, who is now five, talks about because she realizes that it traumatized me because we talk about it so much. I regret it because it was just too deep for me. I didn’t need that experience, but again, in the no-lines between Thelma and Thel, it seemed kind of obvious. Actually, Lorna’s due date was Yom Kippur, and in my working at the Whitney under David, all Jewish holidays were everybody’s holidays, so I was home. There was a show being done of Lorna’s work, and they knew she couldn’t come; she was not going to be having the baby in Spain. She owed them 4 × 5′s of the work and needed to get into DHL that day. I went over there, we were going through all these 4 × 5′s and it was almost seamless. We went out to get something to eat and Lorna’s water broke. One minute we were going through the transparencies, and the next minute the water broke and boom we were going to the hospital and having this baby. So, I would say that that’s a regret because witnessing the birth was so intense for me. It was beautiful, it was amazing, it was terrifying.
Professionally do I have any regrets? No, I don’t. Part of it is because all of it seems as if it happens because it’s meant to. I feel sorry sometimes that I did a show like Black Male so early in my career. It didn’t give me the opportunity to practice a little before jumping out there. But, at the same time, if I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.
BS Thelma, thank you so much. You are a great interview and I want to thank all of you in the audience for coming. I also want to thank Dan Cameron for being here, and the New Museum for having us, and if you don’t know BOMB Magazine, we are an artists’ and writers’ publication. We do interviews between painters, sculptors, playwrights, novelists, and poets. Hence the idea of having an artist interview a curator. We will be doing more of these interviews and we hope to see you all then.