Mickalene Thomas’s Loving, Lusty Gaze on the Black Female Form

Listen to This Article

Audio Recording by Audm

To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.

“We low hum of satisfaction. We is is is is is is is is
touch, touch, shine, a little taste. You’re gonna
give us the love we need.”
— Morgan Parker, from “We Don’t Know When We Were Opened (Or, The Origin of the Universe) after Mickalene Thomas”

In the fall of 2019, I visited Paris twice. In October, I went with my mother, a first and only visit for her. The trip was exhausting; we tried to see every sight, eat every bite, in too few days. I now think that she knew, or at least sensed, that she was dying. By the end of winter, she would be gone.

When I returned to Paris, a month after the first visit, I vowed to schedule nothing. An idle moment of social-media scrolling while standing under an awning, waiting for the rain to pass, led me to Galerie Nathalie Obadia, where the artist Mickalene Thomas was exhibiting new work. Thomas is an internationally renowned multidisciplinary artist, and I had followed her work since seeing a photo that she incorporated into a collage in 2013. It was an image of Solange Knowles, one that instantly matured the singer-songwriter, making her seem more serious — an intentional artist, not just somebody’s baby sister.

Many things about the last few months of my mother’s life feel charmed in retrospect, or heavy with symbolism, but few as much as my visit to that gallery. Thomas’s show consisted of large-scale paintings that incorporated collage, as well as her signature rhinestone detailing. The images were arranged amid an installation that evoked late 1960s or early 1970s interiors — floral upholstered stools, parquet flooring, deep-pile rugs. The paintings were based on Jet magazine’s 1970s-era “Beauties of the Month,” a pinup-​calendar variation on the publication’s more pageant-friendly “Beauties of the Week.” For my entire childhood and young adulthood, when copies of Jet were ubiquitous in Black spaces like salons and coffee tables, I had no idea these sexier calendars even existed.

Walking around the gallery, I found that two details stuck with me. One: Books by Black women were stacked in various corners, including works by Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou and Zadie Smith’s novel “On Beauty,” which I once successfully lobbied my mother’s book club to read. Two: A painting titled “February 1977” featured a woman with proportions similar to my own — which is to say, proportions similar to my mother’s, in her prime.

“February 1977,” 2019.Credit…Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

Thomas, a master of the nude form and erotic suggestion, had obscured the woman’s right breast with a grayscale pixelated blob, but the way the woman sat, with her knee pulled up close to her left breast, suggested a B cup at most. The round of the upper thigh on her other leg, which extended out toward the viewer, was plump and familiar; those thighs most likely had to do some negotiating when she walked. A large, light brown curve of flesh interrupted the lower quadrant of the painting — presumably the underside of the opposite thigh, blown up in size and overlayed where a shin should have been. This zoomed-in segment not only highlighted the part of the model’s body she might have been complimented on the most (by Black people, at least) but also pointed to Thomas’s own gaze, the feature that elicited the artist’s attention.

Over the past two decades, Thomas, who is 50, has garnered acclaim for multiple modes of creating. There are her photographs, usually staged within meticulously designed installations. Then there are the collages she makes, most often from her photographs, in which proportions may be skewed, eyes cut out and replaced, whole bodies transformed. Finally, the paintings, each of which might take as its reference a photo or a collage. Many artists shoot reference photos for their paintings, but few have committed to photography such that the photos have an artistic reputation and commercial viability of their own.

I would argue that we are on the cusp of an even broader appreciation of Thomas’s genius with craft — one spurred both by the world’s increasing appreciation for the work of Black artists and by Thomas’s own clearsighted vision. But in that gallery in Paris, it was her loving, lusty, multifaceted gaze on the Black female form that spurred me to text a picture of a sexy painting to my mama. No context needed. We knew what we had.

It took a full day for me to ask Thomas about her interest in breasts, despite the fact that her studio was full of images of topless women. We were at a restaurant by the water in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, and she was sitting with her back to the East River, the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges on either side of her. When Thomas speaks, you rarely get the sense that she has not considered a question before, not already formulated a cogent response, but breasts, in our conversations, were an exception. “I think it’s such a freedom to see women’s breasts out, you know?” she said. “Because we have to keep them covered all the time. And I love the composition of displaying breasts in my work.” She compared her interest to a preoccupation of the artist Barkley L. Hendricks, whose paintings exemplify a kind of enduring Black cool. Hendricks was a feet guy; Thomas remembered him snapping photos of women’s shoes at parties. “Women and shoes,” he once told her. “Make sure you do that right in your paintings.”

Breasts could tell you things about a woman — whether she’d had children, whether her weight had fluctuated, whether she preferred to wear a bra. Bared breasts are also political; I thought of women in places like Nigeria and South Africa who have, since the colonial era, used topless protest as a way to shame their oppressors. European and African art have featured the nude female form for centuries, but who was doing most of the looking, and under what circumstances? In much of Thomas’s work, Black women, many of them queer, bear their bodies for her, a queer Black woman. Her renderings of them have helped her become a formidable player in the art world, one whose works sell in the seven figures at auction.

Thomas ordered a matcha, lamenting that the turmeric latte had been discontinued. She seemed relaxed for someone under multiple deadlines. She had committed to spending this fall showing new work, in four different cities around the globe, with the gallery Lévy Gorvy. There was progress yet to be made on several of the pieces and narrowing windows for international shipping. A world tour like this is rare, I was told by one of the gallery’s founders, Dominque Lévy. It speaks to Thomas’s confidence that it is happening at all. Before the start of the pandemic, Lévy, an early collector of Thomas’s work, reached out to her about a single show in New York. That conversation evolved to encompass a show in New York, then another in London, then Paris, then Hong Kong — a suite titled “Mickalene Thomas: Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” With the world locked down, and Thomas and her family staying at their home in Connecticut, she and her production manager, Jeff Vreeland, spent time figuring out how to adapt their process to working in two different locations, as opposed to together in Thomas’s Brooklyn studio. Then Thomas simply proceeded with making the art as if circumstances would transpire in her favor.

Thomas at work in her studio. Credit…Widline Cadet for The New York Times

The New York leg opened in September on three stories of Lévy Gorvy’s Upper East Side gallery, featuring work that was being finalized when I met Thomas in August. The thought of her Jet Beauties traversing the globe to be admired delighted me. Unlike the photos Thomas shoots herself, the Beauties had an original context and purpose, which was to titillate largely male consumers. “We did a lot of research to try to find out who these women were, and there’s, like, nothing,” Thomas told me. In the absence of biographical information, she was engaging with what they represented as artifacts of Black culture and ideals of Black beauty and desire.

Thomas’s approach to pleasure, which undergirds so much of her oeuvre, is more complex than it gets credit for. It’s not simply about shifting the gaze from one pair of eyeballs to another. It’s about shifting the idea of what feels good, what looks good, to one in which Black queer femme desire can be the baseline, not an aberration. In the world of fine art, “we don’t even have language for how we communicate about pleasure like that,” Thomas’s friend Xaviera Simmons, a conceptual and visual artist, told me. “Many people want to go around that, instead of going in and feeling the heartbeat of what that is.”

In “Rumble,” a collage Thomas completed in 2005, two female figures clad in floral prints wrestle each other, though only one woman’s Afroed head can be seen. She bites a knee — presumably her opponent’s but maybe her own; the limbs are a confusing yet suggestive tangle — and wraps a leg around her opponent’s leg, pinning her. The headless woman, losing this fight, is purple-skinned. It is the biting of the knee that feels most subversive; the Afroed woman looks triumphant, hungry, ready to devour. Other works from the series, “Brawlin’ Spitfire,” feature women whose facial expressions teeter between agony and ecstasy, teeth bared, or biting again — an exploration of pleasure in which staid notions of dominance and submission, tenderness and strength, are rendered useless.

“Rumble,” 2005.Credit…Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

The title of Thomas’s new series refers to Freud, whose pleasure principle — which posits that humans tend to avoid pain and focus on gratifying their needs — drives the id, that portion of the psyche that, among other things, is the source of our libidos. “There’s a tremendous form of play in Mickalene’s work,” Carrie Mae Weems, the celebrated photographer whom Thomas names as the catalyst for her deciding to pursue art, told me. “And yet they are deadly serious.” The show’s title also nods to Janet Jackson’s 1987 hit, which opens with the line: “You might think I’m crazy, but I’m serious/It’s better you know now.” Of course.

The first time Thomas felt truly comfortable photographing nudity for her work was when she photographed her mother in the mid-aughts. Sandra Bush, who died in 2012, wore a red negligee with a deep open neck and a wide black belt. At some point she raised her hand for a pose, inadvertently freeing a nipple in the process. “I went to go fix it, and she was just like, ‘Girl, let it be,’” Thomas told me. “ ‘Just take the picture.’” It felt, Thomas said, as though Bush was “giving me permission — that it was OK, that this too is acceptable.”

Bush — dubbed Mama Bush in Thomas’s prolific artistic investigations of her — was tall, glamorous and bodily aware in the way of a born model, despite the fact that a career in that profession eluded her. The photograph, “Madame Mama Bush,” and Thomas’s painting “Portrait of Madame Mama Bush #1,” each suggest a timeless kind of beauty without glossing over the impact of time. The way her breasts flatten and spread, the scars pocking her shins, everything illuminated by the sheen of moisturizer — Thomas’s models are often glossy — all enhance her aura of confident sensuality.

For Thomas, who came out at 16 to her grandmother, and shortly thereafter to her mother, Bush was an early source of her interest in and anxiety about femininity, glamour and desirability. Daughters take the measure of their mothers, then consider their own beauty, their own futures. “I look more like her now,” Thomas told me. “But when I was younger, I didn’t.” Growing up in Camden, N.J., she had a cousin who better favored her mother, and when the three of them went out, people would confuse who belonged to whom. How to contend with a self that does not mirror your very first mirror, your mother?

“Lounging, Standing, Looking,” featuring Thomas’s mother, Sandra Bush, 2003.Credit…Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

Thomas was born in 1971, during the Black Arts and Black Power and Pan-Africanism movements and the rise of Blaxploitation films and disco. She grew up during the crack era and the rise of neoliberalism. These historical touchpoints, when Black women were called queens of a dubious variety (Nubian queen, disco queen, welfare queen), permeate her work. She has one older brother and three younger half brothers, children of her father, with whom she does not have a relationship. “He is a stranger,” she told me with finality. “Not a stranger I want in my life.” But her father’s mother was one of Thomas’s favorite people growing up, a constant source of support who took Thomas in when Sandra Bush struggled with addiction. During the times when Thomas did live with her mother, they stayed in northern New Jersey, in East Orange — not far from Camden by miles but a world away in terms of what felt possible. “We’d go back with all of these gifts and stories,” Thomas remembers, and her cousins would run to the car, eager to see what she had brought or learned from living so close to New York.

“Camden’s not an easy place to break from,” Thomas, who goes by Mickey with her friends and family, told me. “I took the first opportunity to get out without hesitation.” She dropped out of high school at 17 and followed a girlfriend home to Portland, Ore. The girlfriend was five years older than her and Filipina; they met while working at a restaurant, where Thomas bused tables and the girlfriend was a hostess. In Portland, they lived with the girlfriend’s parents — “we were on the D.L.,” Thomas said with a laugh — and Thomas finished high school. She initially thought she wanted to pursue art therapy, or maybe interior design, but a fateful early-1990s viewing of Carrie Mae Weems’s “Kitchen Table Series” — in which Weems plays, and plays with, different roles of Black womanhood in the traditionally gendered family space — put her on the path to art school. She returned to the East Coast and enrolled at Pratt for her B.F.A. There was another reason to move back, too: She was ready, she said, “not to be in conversations and when people talked about family, for me not to talk about it.” Being closer to home meant she might be able to work on her relationship with her mother.

Though she was inspired by Weems, Thomas initially stuck to painting and abstraction. It was a course requirement for her M.F.A. at Yale that put her behind the camera, where she began photographing Mama Bush. It helped to bring them closer. Thomas also used the camera to investigate herself. A series of paintings and photos in which she appears as Quanikah, a hyper-femme alter-ego, show her trying on ways of being: the Mary J. Blige type, with blond wig; an around-the-way girl with a braided bob; a girlie girl with long acrylic nails and flower clips in her hair. It was an experiment with performance in the tradition of Weems and Cindy Sherman, but it was also the beginning of what would become a long conversation about adornment, presentation and perception.

In another set of paintings, Thomas used her own body as a model. This began with “Origin of the Universe, Part 1,” a piece making reference to Gustave Courbet’s famous 1866 painting “L’Origine du Monde,” a study of a model’s vulva and lower torso. In contrast to the original, Thomas’s figure has brown skin, but her goal wasn’t merely the trick of swapping one hue for another. She applied rhinestones where pubic hair would be and along the folds and crevices of the vulva and inner thighs, so the stones pool and glitter down onto the rumpled sheets beneath — almost like stars, but also suggesting fluid. For all its glitter, it is an altogether more realistic examination of female anatomy in relation to desire, in part because it feels less tidy, its contours less controlled.

Historically, the use of materials like rhinestones in fine art was considered unsophisticated. Thomas has made them her signature by taking them seriously. “When you think of someone like Caravaggio or Hopper, you’re thinking about the light,” she says. “So for me, what is a light source? I’m playing with a different type of light source.” Her use of craft materials for their shine reminds me of African American quilts, like the kind made famous by the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Ala., which utilize fabric scraps to striking textural effect. It also reminds me of my mother and aunties, all of whom liked to shine when stepping out for the night — a nod to a different kind of mastery.

Detail of a work in progress.Credit…Widline Cadet for The New York Times
Boxes of Swarovski crystal rhinestones in Thomas’s studio.Credit…Widline Cadet for The New York Times

“She’s always been very good at taking humble materials and imbuing them with this kind of nobility,” the artist Kehinde Wiley, her former Yale classmate and a close friend, told me. “And a part of it has to do with just the self-assured sass that comes with it. You know, I don’t know if it’s sass or cockiness, but it’s this kind of attitude that comes from knowing your own value.”

Thomas’s studio is a bright space with admirable square footage on the northeast edge of Clinton Hill, in Brooklyn, the same neighborhood where she lives. When I met her there for the first time, it was 8 a.m., and her 9-year-old daughter, Junya, was finishing a bagel with pink cream cheese before heading out to summer camp. At the same time, Thomas’s partner and muse, Racquel Chevremont, was seeing her two children from a previous marriage off for the day from Manhattan, where she lives during the week. Thomas wore black Maison Margiela/Reebok collaboration sneakers and layers of black clothing in various textures — pleated loosefitting pants, sculpted neoprene top, a nylon hat over her shoulder-length locs, the sides faded low. The sum total was a look she described to me as “mostly androgynous.”

Thomas commenced walking around the studio. This was, ostensibly, to show me around, but I soon learned that she is a mover, peripatetic in her approach to making art and managing her studio team. “It’s almost like a dance, I think,” she said. “Or a choreographer, where you do something and then you engage and then you step back.” Newer Jet Beauties — 2021 meditations on the work I saw in Paris — were hung on the walls in various stages. Thomas flipped through booklets that showed the progress made on each piece, from mostly white canvases to near-completion.

Thomas’s studio in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. Credit…Widline Cadet for The New York Times

Thomas considers herself a painter, but it is sometimes hard to tell which sort of work is which — elements of painting and collage, in particular, bleed into one another. That’s not an accident. Recently, Thomas has been thinking about how she can trouble our understanding of what makes a painting. “I’m thinking of Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, at the same time while thinking of Picasso and Matisse and Andy Warhol and all of these different ways that they’ve painted, and how you can bring that in,” she said. From afar, the paintings looked layered, as if you could run your hand across them and feel the textures of different applied pieces, like a collage; in reality, the elements are all on one painted plane.

This is innovative play, but it also speaks to Thomas’s deliberate thinking regarding both her subjects and the materials she uses. You can see this deliberation in Thomas’s approach to depicting her partner, Chevremont — a former model turned collector and curator who made a name for herself in the art world on acquisitions committees for institutions like the Studio Museum and by hosting salons to bridge the gap between Black would-be collectors and artists. Thomas first proposed to photograph Chevremont at the tail end of another shoot, while the installation was still up and hair and makeup still on the clock. Their relationship was then so new that it wasn’t public knowledge. It would take several years of photo shoots before Thomas would ever paint Chevremont; instead, she would make collages, which — unlike the paintings, whose scale and complexity usually require assistance — Thomas creates alone. Most of them she did not share; she “wanted to have them for myself for a while,” she told me. Painting was also another level of interpretation — rendering Chevremont in oil or acrylic would have meant she was ready to communicate the way she truly saw Chevremont to others.

Before her recent turn toward archival images, Thomas was known for the way her works stood in conversation with, and sometimes in opposition to, European stalwarts like Courbet and Manet. Looking to inspiration from sources like Jet forces critics to set aside these more familiar comparisons. Weems sees this new body of work as Thomas’s declaring that “you don’t need European modernism in order to build your practice; you can build your practice where you live.”

“Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires,” 2012.Credit…Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

The Jet images are closer to the pop-culture consciousness and could therefore run the risk of seeming too familiar, with little room for discovery. In practice, the opposite is true. Thomas’s New York show and the artist Lorna Simpson’s show “Everrrything,” which is currently up at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles, have made use of Jet’s pinup calendars, and I counted more than five of the same archival Beauties on display. But their approaches diverge so much that what could feel like an awkward overlap — famous Black female artists with too-similar source material — instead becomes an enlightening conversation. In the source photo, the June 1977 Beauty has plump cheeks, long wavy hair, D-cup breasts and a plant — a literal bush — covering her bush. Simpson’s collage, part of a set called “The meaning of power and physical world,” adds texture via a Siberian-tiger print in place of the model’s skin. It keeps the source photo’s original daylight cityscape background, as well as the plant, with all its demure kitsch. The animal-pelt overlay is applied in such a way that we are made aware of the cutting and pasting involved, the imprecise use of scissors, the shadow at the edges.

Where Simpson’s collage feels devoted to the 1970s archival source — shag carpet, animal print — the model in Thomas’s painting, “June 1977,” seems to live in multiple times at once. There’s digital-era pixelation over the potted plant; a black-and-white nature print in the background that suggests an older landscape; bright painted panels that suggest pop art or cartoons; and then, returning us to the ’70s, a wood-grain quality to the painted half of the figure. The more I look at the two images, the less they seem to have in common and the more exhilarated I feel. Together, they prove what every Black artist already knows: A shared vernacular can go only so far.

‘June 1977,’ 2021Credit…Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

Subject matter can be a trap; wanting to focus on what an artwork represents at the expense of how it was created obscures what particular, idiosyncratic creative epiphanies brought the work into being. As the depth and breadth of more Black artists’ work becomes widely celebrated, it will perhaps become impossible for reviewers to be so singularly pulled into what, if anything, a work by a Black artist means in relation to Blackness writ large.

During the past decade, Thomas’s profile has increased by leaps. There was her 2012 solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, which felt like a midcareer retrospective, no matter her youth at the time. There was the shoot with Solange Knowles, and there was “Better Days,” her splashy multiday immersive installation at Basel Switzerland. She created a cover image for Time magazine, a collage tribute to the transgender rights activist Marsha P. Johnson. Thomas has embarked on a fashion-photography career, shooting celebrities like Jessica Chastain, Cardi B and Barry Jenkins (for a profile I wrote for this magazine). She has enough pop-culture clout to have received a shout-out in a song from the Roots rapper Black Thought (“I’m a stroke of genius like Mickalene Thomas is”). Her joint birthday parties with the artist Derrick Adams are known for the A-list art-world figures who attend. And she has broken her own auction records again and again — most recently with the painting “Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit,” in which she alternates the heavy application of paint with the flat to striking effect. In it, Chevremont wears purple and turquoise open-toe heels, heels Thomas painted with Barkley Hendricks in mind. The piece sold for $1.83 million.

“Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit,” 2016.Credit…Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

Thomas is cleareyed about the place she would like to inhabit in the art world, so much so that she told me there’s a number she hopes to reach for her work at auction. She’s frank about why: so that she might continue to support her studio practice and so that she can get to a place where she doesn’t have to make as many artworks each year. Blame my own literary-world brainwashing, but for a second I was taken aback that she kept her eyes so squarely on a monetary prize. Then I remembered my own mother, who firmly believed that asking questions about who gets paid what and why was the only reason she survived corporate America. George Wells, who advises Thomas on business matters, told me that he anticipates her work to be selling for at least $5 million in the next five years.

Nearly everyone I spoke with about Thomas mentioned the fact that she has no domestic gallery representation as a testament to her self-assuredness, her savvy. Three years ago, Thomas left Lehmann Maupin, her longtime gallery, in favor of operating like an independent music artist. By way of explaining her thoughts about ownership, Thomas described to me an icebreaker she often uses when she teaches seminars to art students. She asks them a seemingly simple question: Where did the notion of sharing proceeds 50-50 with your gallery come from? “Half the class will be like, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, but why?’” What follows is the sort of conversation about art and money and longevity that Thomas wishes she’d had as a student.

In her book “A Very Easy Death,” Simone de Beauvoir describes witnessing her mother’s rapid decline, her beauty fading fast as she approaches death. “The sight of my mother’s nakedness had jarred me,” she writes. “No body existed less for me: None existed more.”

In her 2012 short film, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” Thomas documented Mama Bush in her final days. “All you have to realize is, enjoy the time with this person as if it’s their last, with love,” Thomas remembers thinking. “Forget all your [expletive]. Look at them as a human being.” Bush, starkly diminished by illness, recounts her own history in the film, including her years of addiction, the abuse she suffered at the hands of Thomas’s father and her conversion to Buddhism. Thomas showed “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman” at her 2012 Brooklyn Museum exhibition, just days before Bush would die. It strikes me as such a gift for both of them: Bush being able to share her final thoughts about life with her daughter, and Thomas asking the kinds of vital questions that might, if left unasked, exacerbate the sorrow a person feels after such a loss.

Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas in July.Credit…Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont for The New York Times

Thomas remembers pacing the museum halls at the opening, nervous about sharing this part of her story with the world. “I used it to fuel me to do things, but I never talked about it,” she told me. “It wasn’t something that I felt like I needed to, to define who I was. And I still feel that way.” The things an artist endures while growing up certainly don’t define who they are, but in the case of Thomas, the good and the bad of those years seem to have fueled a particular kind of tenacity and an irrepressible urge to do things her way.

“Maybe it comes with turning 50,” she said. “I don’t know. But I think I realized that I only have one life.”

Angela Flournoy is the author of the novel “The Turner House.” She has received fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Academy in Berlin. Her last profile for the magazine was of the director Barry Jenkins, in which she discussed his use of prolonged close-ups to create intimacy on camera.

Related Articles

Back to top button