On a cloudy day in late July, when the humidity was high and it was raining, I headed from Manhattan to the Bulova Corporate Center in Queens looking for ghosts.
Until 2017, the Queen’s Museum had a satellite gallery in Bulova, where artists’ exhibitions were held. The Denyse Thomasos show was one of them. A stunning abstract painter from the Caribbean and Canada, Thomas created a bold mural-sized canvas reminiscent of the architecture of floating cities, prisons and slave ships. Then, on July 20, 2012, she died suddenly of an allergic reaction during her diagnostic procedure. She was 47 years old.
Left somewhere in Bulova was the 1993 painting “Prison” purchased by the owner of the building, the Blumenfeld Development Group. I decided to find it with my colleague David Breslin, who was hosting the next Whitney Biennial. And we noticed that we were meandering through this former Art Deco jewel corridor.
I found a “prison” It is covered with a wooden frame in front of the plexiglass in one of the vestibules. As we approached the painting, its monumental scale approached us with the intense use of Thomas’ unique visual vocabulary, densely overlapping black and white lines that realized a sense of spatial distortion. For artists, these crosshatches were a way of recording time, much like a journal entry. Their focused, ligature, and rigorous application had an unpleasant effect: in order to really see the work, we had to move away from it and keep ourselves away.
“Prison” (1993), along with her first major works, “Replaced Burial / Gore’s Burial” and “Dos Amigos (Slave Ship)”, was created during the formation of the artist. It is one of the triptych paintings... ” These works encapsulate Tomasos’s scope of social, political and historical mission, and her in-depth study of the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade, the influence of immigrants, and the architecture of imprisonment. All the while, her paintings admit that it is impossible to express these histories and their aftermath by testing her ability to abstract.
As Thomasos explained in a publication of an exhibition at the Janice Larking Gallery in 2012, “I use deep cosmic lines to recreate these claustrophobic conditions, leaving no room for breathing. To capture the feeling of being trapped, he created three large black-and-white paintings of the structures used to contain the slaves, and so in the black spirit of slave ships, prisons, and burial grounds. It left a catastrophic effect .. These have become typical to me. I have begun to reconstruct and recycle those shapes in every piece. “
Tomasos lived in Philadelphia from 1990 to 1995 and taught at the Tyler School of Art during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. This accelerated the instability of the black neighborhood and caused collapse in some cities. During this time, she collected data on the proliferation of imprisoned colored races and on the study of the Eastern State Penitentiary, a Quaker experiment in prison reform that set a model for cell confinement from 1829 to 1971. .. It is based on a “prison”.
This first investigation will stimulate her ongoing investigation of prison construction and later the prison-industrial complex. “We focused on sophisticated architectural innovations and vibrant, high-tech, constructivist color schemes,” she said of her painting process. “Prisons show a complex weave of interdependence between the poor lower class and larger social and economic problems.
Tomasos paintings refer to the systems and structures that shape our world, but they are also deeply personal. The thick, opaque, and accumulated form also represents the feeling of asylum felt by his father, who died three months before going to graduate school. In fact, the “exiled burial” is believed to have been his monument, as well as the slaves held on Gore Island off the coast of Senegal before leaving for the Americas she visited during her trip. I am. She described her father as “a talented physicist and mathematician who saw him suffering from racism in Canada.” I thought my father was a compelling person, a typical diligent immigrant story, and ultimately a sacrifice of his life for the well-being and potential of his family. “
Thomas, a more than one immigrant, was born in Trinidad in 1964 and moved to Toronto as a child in 1970 and to the United States in 1987. Her grandfather, Critus Arnold Thomas, was the home of the Trinidad and Tobago House of Assembly from 1961 to 1981.
She received a bachelor’s degree in art and art history from the University of Toronto in 1987 and an MFA from the Yale University School of Art in 1989. Thomas lived in East Village with her husband, Samane Prister, and her daughter, Shan. She died too early in July 2012. She was a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey State University.
While organizing the Biennale David, I discussed the importance of mapping the connections between the artists we see and those who were not perceived as appropriate. We are now lovingly “ghosts” with Korean-born American artist and writer Theresa Hak Kyung-cha, and poet and playwright Steve Cannon, who founded the interdisciplinary gallery and magazine A Gathering. I opened the door to what I call. The tribal, and it was like a Clarion call. Others have begun to appear.
About a year ago, curators Renéevander Avoird and Sally Frater gave a keynote speech at the Art Gallery of Ontario, spending a day of lectures centered around Thomasos’s work, but I hadn’t noticed yet. My research took me to the Queen’s Museum, Tomasos’s current galler, Sheri Cassidy McIntosh, and her predecessor, Jill Weinberg Adams.
I realized that Thomasos was what I had been waiting for. Nearly 30 years ago, he was a person who captured something that could not be expressed but probably felt, that could not be expressed in words, that could not be solved, and that was unimaginable. As she said, “Overall, I’m not trying to give the audience a happy or dark experience. I’m trying to have a complex experience.”
In her striking qualities, she matches the conceptual art of David Hammons and Adrian Piper’s identity and system with the experimental abstract paintings of Sam Gilliam, Ed Clark and Jack Whitten. Helped. She laid the foundations for the artists Julie Mehretu and Ellen Gallagher, neither of whom knew her or her work.
Last May, when he finished installing Hammons’ public artwork “Day’s End” at Pier 52, he gave me a book titled “Quiet as It’s Kept”. Published in 2002 for an exhibition he curated in Vienna, it partially informs the title of the current Biennale. (The colloquial expression is also quoted from the first line of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and is the title of jazz drummer Max Roach’s 1960 album.) Ed. There were three artists: Clark, Stanley Whitney, and Thomas. Clark and Whitney eventually succeeded after many years. Few people know about Thomasos.
Somewhere along the way, I began to wonder who really was ghosting. Maybe I worked on her art because I needed it. I needed her story, and maybe I needed some of her indelible intensity she was known for. It seems impossible to know why we are attracted to what we want other than the ability to open us up. Those paintings impressed me and brought me the theme of Thomas and her work, along with their endless resonances and the uneasy truth of their astonishing existence.
Some of the indescribable themes in her art are not necessarily related to large-scale events. The most disturbing thing is that it makes me uneasy, and being quiet while it is maintained means that it wasn’t noticed. On the scale of her painting, she cannot be overlooked, weakened, or ignored even for those who did not understand who she was or what she did. I did it. Not all confinements are physical. Some of the most violent ones, the ones you are forced to negotiate daily, are misleading and racist, especially when they are intertwined.
Hammons and I have never talked about Tomasos. When I received his book, I felt a special and unique sensation, just as I first saw the image of “exiled burial.” I have visited only one slave castle on Gore Island. It was as if Tomasos was talking to me across space and time, emphasizing her argument through a series of things that initially seemed like a coincidence. And when the universe bent to show its infinite wisdom and our deep interrelationships, she was finally asked.
Adrienne Edwards is the curator and director of curator work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She is a co-curator of the 2022 Whitney Biennial.