The Deaf West and OG Spring Awakening Wendlas, Melchiors, Moritzes and Ernsts unite! Clockwise from top left: 1. OG Wendla Lea Michele with DW Wendlas Sandra Mae Frank and her ‘voice’ Katie Boeck- after Lea attended one of the performances in Beverly Hills, 2. Original Melchior Jonathan Groff with DW Melchior Austin McKenzie - at dinner with a mutual friend a couple days ago, 3. Original Ernst Gideon Glick with DW Ernst’s voice Daniel David Stewart - after Daniel attended a performance of Significant Other, 4. (throwback) Original Moritz John Gallagher Jr. w/ DW Moritz’s voice Alex Boniello - by the look of things, during the original run of SA!
Final weekend for The Detroit Institute of Arts’ “30 Americans” exhibit, a showcase of contemporary Afro American art. The exhibition features 55 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs exploring gender, political and historical identity in contemporary culture. Artists included are Barkley Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, the late Jean‐Michel Basquiat and Robert Colescott, Kehinde Wiley, Nick Cave, Mickalene Thomas, and Kara Walker.
We’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Lessons of the Whitney Museum’s “Black Male,” Two Decades Later
Thelma Golden made an intriguing admission to the crowd at the New School last night about something she did—actually, didn’t do, 20 years ago.
She claimed she had never read the reviews of Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, the groundbreaking, stereotype-busting, paradigm-shifting exhibition she organized at the Whitney Museum as a 27-year-old curator —until this year, when she recited Michael Kimmelman’s ambivalent New York Times commentary onstage at the Guggenheim. Her performance was part of a program organized by Carrie Mae Weems, who was one of the 29 male and female, black and white artists in the Whitney’s 1994 show.
Golden’s review-avoidance tactic was possible in the pre-Internet era, she reminded the audience, which the Whitney had invited to watch her, writer Hilton Als and art historian and critic Huey Copeland consider “Black Male” and its legacy on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. Not that she hadn’t gotten feedback. The questions Golden received over the last two decades could fill a book, she noted (number 1: what about black females?). She was harassed and threatened, accused (on the basis of her name) of being a Jewish woman who had no business curating black art, and was herself, like the show, indelibly linked with the word “controversial.” Golden, who in 2005 became the executive director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, just kept working, because so much work remained to be done.
That Golden was able to make such a deep impact on the cultural conversation with her very first show, the panelists noted, is a tribute to the vision of Whitney’s then-director, David Ross; to Elisabeth Sussman, whom Golden had helped organize the equally controversial 1993 Whitney Biennial; to colleagues and collaborators like Als (who wrote for the catalogue) and Glenn Ligon; and to artists including Adrian Piper, Robert Colescott, and David Hammons, three anchors of “Black Male” who had been pushing the boundaries of identity-based art long before multiculturalism became a catchword.
Lorna Simpson, Leon Golub, Lyle Ashton-Harris, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Jean-Michel Basquiat were among other voices included, along with Fred Wilson, whose headless, uniformed museum guards Golden described as a “meta-moment” linking the show to the staff and the wide audience she wanted to attract. And the audience came—given the era and the neighborhood, she could usually tell who was heading to the show when they emerged at the 77th Street subway stop.
What became of that audience is one of the unanswered questions of the panel about the exhibition’s legacy in the current moment. For while, as Golden noted, many issues at the heart of “Black Male” are now central to contemporary-art dialogue, the conversation has also moved on, to hybridity, globalism, and trans-nationalism (while multiculturalism is relegated to education departments). Even as Titus Kaphar, an heir to the “Black Male” artists, makes a Time cover ennobling the Ferguson Protestors, the role of the mainstream art world in the national conversation about race remains minimal.
Equally disappointing is the lack of progress toward a goal that might have seemed more realistic in 1994— the diversification of audiences and museum staffs. Golden is the only African American director of a major U.S. museum. Black curators are few.
Sadly, Fred Wilson’s “all too familiar crew of headless black mannequins,” as Kimmelman dubbed the 1991 piece in 1994, remains all too relevant. Two decades after “Black Male,” museum guards are usually the only people of color in the room. With a few exceptions, this goes for galleries, too.
Golden described the show as feeling like 100 years ago, and also like yesterday. The comment said it all.
Looking at the trajectory of the players in “Black Male,” there is much to celebrate. Just not the slow pace of institutional change, courage, and imagination.