Studio Museum in Harlem

Today the intern group headed uptown to 125th street and the Studio Museum in Harlem.  Since I spent my last year of grad school deeply steeped in African American art via a Harlem Renaissance Seminar and TAing for African American Art History,  I was really excited to see the museum.  125th Street is the main street of Harlem; the Apollo Theater is on 125th, and it seems as though it is a location where the community congregates.  Harlem is actually fairly pretty, architecturally; lots of lovely old brownstones.  The Studio Museum is located on 125th and is a primarily contemporary institution focused on the nurturing and display of artists of African descent.  The museum also has a really famous residency program and has an annual high school program based on the photography of James Van der Zee.

The museum currently has an exhibit of work by the British-Jamaican artist Hurvin Anderson, which provides a formal analysis of the medium of painting while also covering the Jamaican community in London.  The work deals heavily with issues of visual memory as well.

The permanent collection is represented in several areas.  A collection called “Small Things” is a really wonderful display of objects from the collection that are smaller in size.  This exhibit has some real gems, such as a wonderful collages by Wangechi Mutu, a works by Eldzier Cortor and Romare Bearden, and a hilarious smashed piggy bank installation by David Hammons.  A nearby exhibition focuses on works which historically fall into the “craft” category, including works made in a primitive style and works that focus on actual crafts such as knitting and woodworking.  A downstairs permanent collection display called Black and Blue draws from works that are primarily black or blue.  This formal study of course takes on a metaphorical meaning in the context of the Studio Museum–black is obvious, blue is for the blues, etc.

The Studio Museum got its name because it was envisioned as a place for new black artists to work (studio) and grow.  This program matured into the artist-in-residency program.  Each year three artists are chosen and given space to work, a living stipend, and a show at the end of their tenure.  Well known artists have emerged from this program, such as David Hammons and Wangechi Mutu.  This year’s artists are Adam Pendleton, Dawit L. Petros, and Khalif Kelly.  Pendleton is an untrained artist from Virginia who works a lot with language and mirrors and plays upon our conceptions of how language is used in art.  Petros works a lot with color and ideas of reducing life into color, which results in a series of minimalist style works.  Kelly was by far my favorite artist: his works are giant beautiful colorful fauvist canvases painted in a pixellated, early-video game style that tell the story of two characters on a life-changing journey.  I really loved these works; they are whimsical and really steeped in art historical knowledge and an awareness of modern day graphics and imagery.  I’ve remarked lately how impressed and pleased I am by developments made in “high” media–painting and sculpture–as opposed to new media such as video and sound.  Kelly once again proves that some of the most exciting art produced today is being made in the most traditional of forms.

The high school program is also a yearly program where local high school students are taught about the work of James Van Der Zee, a photographer who lived in and photographed Harlem for sixty years.  He was also a prominent photographer of subjects during the Harlem Renaissance.  The high school students are then given a camera and taught photography, and their projects are exhibited at the end of their year-long program.  I was actually really impressed by some of the work displayed by these students: they captured their subjects really sensitively and even broached some historically difficult topics, such as issues of beauty and hair in black culture and issues of the queer black community.

We were given a tour of the museum by the assistant curator.  Evidently Thelma Golden, the museum’s director and a celebrity in the contemporary art world, usually gives the tour but she was off doing fund-raising stuff.  Uber-sad, it would have been incredible to meet her.  Regardless we had a great question and answer session at the end of the tour with the assistant curator and the head of the PR department.  The discussion was extremely interesting and covered everything from the museum’s decision to focus on the entire diaspora as opposed to only African American artists to the museum’s attempt to maintain neutrality despite its being a museum for the display of work pertaining to the African diasporic experience.  Two-thumbs up for the Studio Museum, especially their artist-in-residence program.

After our tour Theresa and I headed on a journey to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to see Aaron Douglas’ Aspects of Negro Life series.  The work consists of four murals that were commissioned for the then-Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library (now Schomburg Center) and now they hang out in the Schomburg Center’s reading room.  These are works I have seen a lot over the past year, so I really wanted to see them in person.  I have to admit, actually seeing the work made me fearful for their well-being.  The paint seems to be fading in many of the canvases, and some of the areas are even a little splotchy.  i’m glad I finally saw the works in person but I hope that they are being well-preserved.  Fingers crossed.

After stopping by a shaved ice carts to get a mango snow cone (these little carts are all over the city, I figured I’d give one a try), I headed home to eat my leftover pizza from last night (still delicious) and to read my book/relax in preparation for meeting some old family friends at Nobu 57.  That was a fabulous meal, but you’ll have to wait for the next post for pictures and description!

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