SINCE ITS FOUNDING in 1968, The Studio Museum in Harlem has been identifying and nurturing talented black artists, the next big names in contemporary art. Through its exhibitions and coveted residency program, countless accomplished black artists can point to a connection with the museum as a turning point in their careers—from Fred Wilson and Kara Walker to Kehinde Wiley, Wangechi Mutu and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

The influential museum selected 28 up-and-coming artists for its “Freestyle” exhibition (April 28 to June 24, 2001)—introducing a new generation of visionaries emerging at the dawn of the new century. Titled with a musical metaphor, the legendary exhibition was curated by Thelma Golden, then-deputy director for exhibitions and programs.

freestyle - studio museumIn the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Lowery Stokes Sims, then-director of The Studio Museum, explained the motivation for project:

“At the beginning of every decade a peculiar impulse overcomes the art world: to identify a group of young, exciting artists who will emerge as the next generation of indicators and pacesetters. ‘Freestyle’ manifests that impulse. In organizing this exhibition, Thelma Golden…once again demonstrates her astute and timely sense of current creative trends in the international art world.” — Lowery Stokes Sims

Golden’s choices proved prescient. Over the past decade, many artists featured in “Freestyle” have established critically and commercially successful practices, exhibited in museums, and are represented by major galleries—Mark Bradford, Rashid Johnson, Sanford Biggers, Julie Mehretu and Clifford Owens, among them. But at the time, the work of the individual artists was almost overshadowed by the words Golden chose to describe the cohort: “post-black.”

In her introduction to the “Freestyle” catalogue, Golden said that she and her friend, the artist Glenn Ligon, had begun using the term a few years earlier:

“Our relationship is grounded in a shared love of absurd uses of language, and our conversations, both serious and silly are always full of made-up and misused words and phrases. ‘Post-black’ was shorthand for a discourse that could fill volumes. For me, to approach a conversation about ‘black art,’ ultimately meant embracing and rejecting the notion of such a thing at the same time.” — Thelma Golden

The notion presented itself at the end of the 1990s:

“Glen and I began, more and more, to see evidence of art and ideas that could only be labeled (both ironically and seriously) in this way—post-black. …It was a clarifying term that had ideological and chronological dimensions and repercussions. It was characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” — Thelma Golden

Golden commented further:

“In the beginning, there were only a few marked instances of such an outlook, but at the end of the 1990s, it seemed post-black had fully entered into the art world’s consciousness. Post-black was the new black.”
— Thelma Golden

The term and its implications sparked a conversation in the art world, the media and academia that persists today as black artists continue to break ground and embrace the freedom to explore any topic in every medium. And with the election of President Barack Obama, “post-black” has been invoked in the wider debate about the state of race, race relations and racial opportunity in America.

Golden, now director and chief curator of The Studio Museum since 2005, is an increasingly powerful force in contemporary art—grooming smart new curators and anointing the next wave of artistic talent. She extended the theme of “Freestyle” in future exhibitions featuring emerging artists, presenting “Frequency” (2005-2006), “Flow” (2008) and most recently “Fore” (2012-2013), earlier this year. CT

“Freestyle” by Christine Y. Kim, et al. (Studio Museum in Harlem, 90 pages) Published Aug. 1, 2001.

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Pages 6-7: At left, Studio of Trenton Doyle Hancock.

From the introduction, Golden on the title of the exhibit: “When I thought of some of the cultural markers that defined these practitioners, music culture prevailed. In the parlance of popular music, freestyle is a term which refers to the space where the musician (improvisation) or for the dancer (break) finds the groove and goes all out in a relentless and unbridled expression of the self.”

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Pages 10-11: Table of Contents

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Pages 24-25: Sanford Biggers | “a small world…,” 2000 (single-channel video installation with Jennifer Zackin).

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Pages 26-27: Mark S. Bradford | Detail of “Enter and Exit the New Negro,” 2000.

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Pages 48-49: Rashid Johnson | “Jonathan’s Hands,” 1998-99.

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Pages 58-59: Julie Mehretu | From top, “Untitled” (2), 2000.

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Pages 68-69: Clifford Owens | “Infidelity (from Pour Flux Leger),” 2000.