My Artist Ghost – The New York Times

On a cloudy day in late July, thick with moisture and soothing drizzle, I set off from Manhattan toward the Bulova Corporate Center in Queens in search of my ghost.

Until 2017, the Queens Museum had a satellite gallery at Bulova and organized artist exhibitions there. Denyse Thomasos’ show was one of them. Thomasos is a brilliant abstract painter from the Caribbean and Canada and made bold canvases in murals that evoked an architecture of floating cities, prisons and slave ships. Then in 2012, on July 20, she died suddenly of an allergic reaction during a diagnostic procedure. She was 47.

Left behind by Bulova was a 1993 painting, “Prison,” purchased by Blumenfeld Development Group, the owner of the building, and I was determined to find it with my colleague, David Breslin, with whom I organized the upcoming Whitney Biennale. . And then we found ourselves meandering through the hallways of this once Art Deco gem.

We found “Jail” clad in a wooden frame with plexiglass front in one of the vestibules. As we approached the painting, its monumental scale came over us with Thomasos’ distinct visual encyclopedia, an intense use of closely overlapping black and white lines that achieved a sense of spatial distortion. For the artist, these hatchings were a means of recording time, like journal entries. Their concentrated, ligated, and rigorous application had a shocking effect: in order to truly see the work, we had to step away from it, to distance ourselves.

“Jail” (1993) is one in a triptych of paintings made in the artist’s formative year along with “Displaced Burial / Burial at Gorée”, the first of her great works, and “Dos Amigos (Slave Boat). ” These works encapsulate the series of Thomasos’ social, political, and historical missions and her intense research into the middle passage of the transatlantic slave trade, the effects of immigration, and the architecture of the prison. All the while, her paintings recognize the impossibility of ever being able to represent these stories and their aftermath, by testing the ability of abstraction to convey them.

As Thomasos explained in 2012 in a publication for an exhibition at the Janice Laking Gallery: “I used lines in the deep space to recreate these claustrophobic conditions, leaving no room to breathe. To capture the feeling of confinement, I created three large black-and-white paintings of the structures used to contain slaves – leaving such catastrophic effects on the black psyche: the slave ship, the prison, and the burial site … These became archetypal to me. all my works. “

Thomasos lived in Philadelphia from 1990-1995 while teaching at the Tyler School of Art at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, which accelerated insecurity in black neighborhoods and instigated their collapse in several cities. During this time, she collected data on the sharp rise in incarcerated people of color, as well as research into the Eastern State Penitentiary, a Quaker experiment in penal reform that set the model for solitary confinement from 1829 to 1971, and on which her painting “Prison” is based.

This initial exploration would inspire her ongoing study of prison architecture and later the industrial prison complex. “I noticed the sleek architectural innovations and the vibrant, high-tech, constructivist color scheme,” she said of her painting process. “The prisons indicate the complex web of interdependence between the poor underclass and major social and economic issues, which I translate into my interwoven lines.”

While Thomasos’ paintings refer to the systems and structures that shape our world, they are also deeply personal. The thick, opaque and accumulating forms also refer to the feeling of exile that her father felt, who died three months before she went to post-secondary school. In fact, “Displaced Burial” is believed to have been a memorial to him as much as to the slaves who were housed on Gorée Island off Senegal before their departures to America, where she had visited during her travels. She described her father as “a brilliant physicist and mathematician whom I saw suffering from racism in Canada. I thought my father was a convincing character, a typical immigrant story about hard work and ultimately about sacrificing one’s own life for the well-being and potential of his family. ”

Thomasos was a two-time immigrant and was born in Trinidad in 1964, moving with his family to Toronto as a child in 1970 and to the United States in 1987. Her grandfather, Clytus Arnold Thomasos, was the first and longest-serving black speaker in House in Trinidad and Tobago. Parliament, from 1961 to 1981.

She received a BA in Art and Art History from the University of Toronto in 1987 and an MFA from the Yale University School of Art in 1989. Thomasos lived in the East Village with her husband, Samein Priester, and their daughter, Syann, until her untimely death. in July 2012. She was a professor at Rutgers, State University of New Jersey.

While organizing the biennial, David and I had discussed the importance of mapping the connections between artists we saw and individuals who had not received the recognition they deserved. We opened the door to what we now lovingly describe as our “ghosts” with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an American artist and author of South Korean birth, as well as Steve Cannon, the poet and playwright who founded the interdisciplinary gallery and magazine A Gathering of the Tribes, and it was as if a call was going out. Others began to appear.

About a year ago, curators Renée van der Avoird and Sally Frater invited me to give a keynote address at the Art Gallery of Ontario for a day of lectures organized around Thomasos’ work that I was still unaware of.

My research brought me to the Queens Museum, to Thomasos’ current gallery owner, Shelli Cassidy-McIntosh, and her predecessor, Jill Weinberg Adams.

I realized that Thomasos was the one I have been waiting for – the one who almost 30 years ago viscerally captured the unspeakable, the insoluble, the unthinkable, the one that can not be represented, but perhaps only felt. As she said: “Overall, I do not try to give the audience a happy experience or a dark experience. I try to give a complex experience.”

Among her distinctive qualities, she helped bring David Hammons and Adrian Piper’s identity and system question conceptual art into line with the experimental abstract painting of Sam Gilliam, Ed Clark, and Jack Whitten. She laid the groundwork for artists Julie Mehretu and Ellen Gallagher, though neither of them knew about her or her work.

As if to quell any doubts I might have had, in May last year, when we finished installing Hammons’ public artwork “Day’s End” on Pier 52, he gave me a book entitled “Quiet as It’s Kept.” Published in 2002 for an exhibition he curated in Vienna, it has in part given the current biennial title. (The language of conversation is also taken from the first line of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and is the title of jazz drummer Max Roach’s 1960 album.) There were three artists on the Vienna show – Ed Clark, Stanley Whitney and Thomasos. Clark and Whitney eventually did well, after many years; few know of Thomasos.

Somewhere along the way, I started to question who was actually joking. Maybe I struggled with her art because I needed it. I needed her story, and maybe I needed some of the indelible violence she was known for. It seems impossible to know why we are attracted to the things we come to desire, apart from their ability to open us up. These paintings touched me, delivering Thomasos and the themes of her work to me with the disturbing truth of their infinite resonance and astonishing presence.

Some of the indescribable themes in her art do not always relate to large-scale events. I would say that the most disturbing, the one that moors me – quietly as it is kept – is what it means to have been unnoticed. In the scope of her paintings, she made herself unable to be overlooked, undermined, or ignored, even by those who could not comprehend who she was or what she was doing. Not all confinements are physical. Some of the most violent, the ones you are forced to negotiate on a daily basis, are misogynistic and racist, especially in cases where they intertwine.

Sir. Hammons and I had never talked about Thomasos before. I felt the same special and peculiar feeling when I received his book as I did when I first saw a picture of “Displaced Burial.” I’ve only ever visited a slave castle – the very one on Gorée Island. It was as if Thomasos spoke to me across time and space, supporting her argument through the series of what at first seemed like coincidences – and as the universe swung to show its boundless wisdom and our deep interrelationship, she became finally heard.

Adrienne Edwards is curator and director of curatorial affairs at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She is the co-curator of the Whitney Biennale in 2022.

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