Exhibit | Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête

Mickalene Thomas, Racquel Leaned Back, 2013. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“One must be of one’s time and paint what one sees,” observed French painter Édouard Manet. This ability to distill the timeless moment in the present tense is the artist’s gift to humanity. The passion to pursue this path throughout one’s life is many times inspired by a muse, but a person, place, or thing that sets the soul aflame. For artist Mickalene Thomas that inspiration is found in a private world that includes Thomas herself, her mother, her friends and lovers. From this circle, works of art have emerged, explorations of the impulse to create, innovate, and observe. A selection of these works is currently on view in Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête at Aperture Gallery, New York, through March 17, 2016.

Born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1971, Thomas began studying art at after-school programs at the Newark Museum and the Henry Street Settlement in New York. She and her mother developed an intense relationship during her teens, as her parents struggled with drug addiction, and Thomas dealt with her sexuality. While studying for her MFA from Yale Art School, Thomas began to photographer herself and her mother, a pivotal experience for her development as an artist.

Mickalene Thomas, Le leçon d’amour, 2008. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Thomas focuses on the depiction of African-American women, celebrating their beauty, power, and style, creating a visual language all her own. Drawing upon Western art history, pop art, and black culture, Thomas creates an intense, vibrant, and layered world that deconstructs and reappropriates the world we know, recreating it as the greats always do. Drawing from a swatch of rich references as varied and textured as the textiles she use in her work, Thomas draws inspiration from from 1970s black-is-beautiful images of women such as supermodel Beverly Johnson and actress Vonetta McGee; Édouard Manet’s odalisque figures; the collages of Henri Matisse and Romare Bearden; and the mise-en-scène studio portraiture of James Van Der Zee and Malick Sidibé, among others.

The result is a singular image of glamour that combines style, sensuality, and sexuality with ease and grace. Thomas lays claim to a space that the world has been waiting for. As artist Carrie Mae Weems observed, “It’s fair to say that black folks operate under a cloud of invisibility —this too is part of the work, is indeed central to [my photographs]… This invisibility—this erasure out of the complex history of our life and time—is the greatest source of my longing.”

Mickalene Thomas, Racquel #6, 2013/2015. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

It is here that Thomas takes inspiration to its final step, by paying homage and sharing space with the muses themselves. The exhibition also explores the idea of communities of inspiration in tête-à-tête, an installation of work from photographers curated directly by Thomas, including photographs by Malick Sidibé, Carrie Mae Weems, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, and LaToya Ruby Frazier.

The result is nothing short of spectacular, a gift to the world that recalls the words of James Van Der Zee, “Happiness is perfume, you can’t pour it on somebody else without getting a few drops on yourself.”


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.


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