Thelma Golden by Glenn Ligon

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Ligongolden Body

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.

 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.
Thank you,
Glenn Ligon

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.

TG Huge.

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.

BS Why?

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.