Back in the summer of 2013, while collectors were scouring the annual art fair in Basel, Switzerland, for hot trends and up-and-coming talents, Mickalene Thomas was holed up a few blocks away in a space stuck in the 1970s.
The walls were faux-wood-paneled, the floors a combination of linoleum, wood, and carpeting, the ceiling faux copper. There was a bar with hanging lights, and furniture covered in clashing vintage fabrics. On display were paintings and photographs by Thomas and some of her artist friends, including Wangechi Mutu, Xaviera Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Duron Jackson, and Derrick Adams. There was music playing, too—hits of the period by black women such as Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, and Diana Ross. Thomas called the installation Better Days.
It was but one of the immersive environments Thomas has become known for—works that have earned her a place in museums around the world and steadily increasing prices at auction. Better Days was inspired by parties her mother Sandra Bush, a former fashion model, threw with friends to raise funds for sickle cell anemia research. “I was reimagining a particular time in my childhood,” Thomas says. “I was thinking of leisure, black families, and black life.”
The installation was the talk of Art Basel—Solange Knowles performed there, Simon de Pury DJ’d, and it became a refuge for a crowd usually resigned to conventional dealer dinners. And since it came fresh on the heels of a much praised exhibition of Thomas’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, Better Days helped cement the artist as a presence on the international art world stage.
Six years later the excitement about Thomas has not diminished. As demand for her work keeps escalating, so do the number of her exhibitions, with shows over the last few years everywhere from Paris and Brussels to Houston, Aspen, and Baltimore. Her work is in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and it has been snapped up by such major collectors as Mera and Don Rubell. Thomas is part of a wave of black female artists, including Amy Sherald and Simone Leigh, who are, after years of being sidelined, having a moment and being recognized by curators, scholars, and gallerists.
In October a painting by Thomas of Naomi Campbell, Naomi Looking Forward (2013), sold at Sotheby’s for nearly four times its estimate, fetching $700,000. Ian Alteveer, a curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, notes that “Mickalene’s work may be steeped in the history of painting and portraiture, yet there is an accessibility to everything she does—the colors, the compositions, the glitter.”
This month she will once again be the toast of Art Basel, this time in Florida, thanks to Better Nights, a project that takes Better Days and transforms it into a larger installation, one that will occupy several rooms at the Bass Museum of Art beginning December 1, during Art Basel Miami Beach, and running for nearly 10 months. “It’s something that had been percolating,” Thomas says, since she began cleaning out her mother’s house after her death in 2012. Better Nights was inspired by a Polaroid she found of her mother taken in a mirrored room in their New Jersey house. “She is such a big part of my practice.”
For officials at the Bass Museum, Better Nights is one of a series of artist commissions. “When we work with artists, the first thing we ask them is, ‘What is the dream you haven’t made happen,’ ” says Silvia Karman Cubiñá, the museum’s executive director and chief curator. What attracted Cubiñá and Leilani Lynch, a curator there, to Thomas’s work was the way she is able to create a special world. “It’s as if she wants us to step inside a painting,” Lynch says
Born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1971, Thomas and her brother were raised as Buddhist vegetarians by their single mother. Creativity was encouraged, but Thomas didn’t always want to be an artist.
In the early 1990s she moved to Portland, Oregon, in part to get away from her family as she came to terms with her sexuality. (Today Thomas identifies as queer; her partner is Racquel Chevremont, an art adviser and former model who collaborates with Thomas on special projects.) At Portland State University, Thomas started out studying prelaw and theater arts, but after spending time with artists she got back into making things.
That was in 1994. The following year she came east and earned a bachelor’s degree in painting from the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn. Two years later she received a master’s in painting from the Yale School of Art and then moved to New York. “It was definitely a different time,” Thomas recalls. “There wasn’t the banter of social media; you didn’t communicate through texting. There was a network of young artists—Kehinde Wiley, Derrick Adams, Shinique Smith—who would hang out together, go to each other’s openings, and share resources and support.”
Even before Yale, she says, she was experimenting with figurative work, particularly self-portraits, but it was a performance art class with professor Kellie Jones and a photography course in graduate school that were life-changing. That was when she started photographing her mother and herself and transforming the images into collages and paintings. Slowly she began getting noticed. In 2005 Klaus Biesenbach, then the director of MoMA PS1 in Queens, included Thomas in “Greater New York,” a high-profile survey of up-and-coming artists that takes place every five years.
“Early on, even as an emerging artist, Mickalene was formally very accomplished,” say Biesenbach, now the director of MOCA in L.A., who would go on to invite her to create work for the windows at MoMA’s restaurant. “She followed in a very determined, exploratory way her trajectory, establishing herself as one of the leading artists of her generation.” Soon after the PS1 exhibition she had gallery shows that were “back to back,” she says.
These shows were largely filled with canvases of beautiful black women—friends and lovers, women in images from once popular publications, sometimes even herself—that combined painting, photography, collage, and drawing. They are saturated with color, and many have wildly patterned backgrounds or surfaces that glitter with rhinestones or crystals. Thomas makes videos, too—of her mother and other muses—and she even designed a label for a wine bottle.
Back in 2008 she became the first artist to use Michelle Obama as a subject, creating a print of the first lady that is today in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, DC. “These shows were the beginning of the career I have today,” she says. “In fact,” she adds unapologetically, “I still feel like a rising star.”
Increasingly, people beyond the art world seem to agree. Today, in addition to having Thomas’s work hanging on your walls, it’s possible to wear her creations—she is one of an exclusive group of artists such as Alex Israel, Jenny Holzer, Richard Prince, and Yayoi Kusama who have lent their talents to commercial pursuits with fashion brands.
There are now Mickalene Thomas–designed handbags and a jacket, thanks to a recent collaboration with Dior. Last year, when the fashion house asked her to design a version of the Lady Dior handbag, Thomas crafted an arresting, colorful creation using a variety of materials and techniques, from sequins and beads to embroidery. “I enjoyed thinking about collage in a three-dimensional way,” she says.
Mark Guiducci, the editor of the art magazine Garage, which commissioned a recent collaboration between Thomas and Swarovski, notes that she has the ability to work across platforms without losing any of what makes her projects special. “Mickalene is one of the few artists,” he says, “who is able to walk into the commercial world without being commercial.”
In fact, her first Dior bag was such a success she was asked to create a second one, which was inspired by Monet’s gardens at Giverny. To go with the second bag, Thomas designed a shimmering metallic skirt and an updated edition of the classic Dior Bar Jacket that features embroidery, beading, and crocheted fabric on the sleeves and the back.
“Mickalene managed to offer a new take on these forms with her unique artistic expression using bold colors, different textures, and daring decorations that speak of a tradition that is different from Dior’s,” says Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s creative director. Chiuri says that inviting Thomas to work with Dior “broadens the horizon of what it means to be feminine in a global and international world.”
When I paid a visit to her Brooklyn studio recently, Thomas, looking casual in skinny black pants, sneakers, and a baseball cap, showed off a group of collages stacked on a table that had been commissioned for Swarovski and used the company’s crystals. There is a kind of duality evident in everything Thomas does.
While her paintings and collages are eye-popping and bold and seemingly effortless, on closer inspection they have an unexpected seriousness. At the same time that she’s delivering a message about the beauty and the empowerment of black women, her compositions reveal an intimate knowledge of art history, inspired by such masters as Manet, Matisse, Ingres, Courbet, and Romare Bearden. “She’s very rigorous about her work,” says Ian Alteveer, the Met curator. “It’s seductive while at the same time it is meant to reference the street, the city, fashion, and memory.”
Sometimes her references are subtle; sometimes they’re amusingly obvious. Thomas once recreated Manet’s famous painting Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, replacing the two white men and the naked white woman with three glamorous African-American women. “It was meant as a statement about the impact and empowerment of all women,” she says. Even her use of rhinestones and crystals has a historical precedent. She uses them not simply as bling but rather as a 21st-century version of older techniques, such as the neo-impressionist painter Georges Seurat’s use of pointillism or the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots, to create a delicate, often mosaic-like texture.
Thomas has recently begun using subjects taken from old publications; on a table in her studio is a bunch of Jet magazines. “When I was growing up it was either this or Ebony,” she says, flipping through old issues. On a trip to New Orleans she happened on some old Jet calendars that featured stunning seminude photographs of black beauties-of-the-month. “I’m not sure, but I believe they were given out to their top subscribers—or perhaps male subscribers,” she says. “Most women don’t know they ever existed.” She has scanned some of her favorites and created her own collages. “I’m recontextualizing them and making them my own,” she says.
While it could be argued that Thomas is constantly juggling high and low culture, she is also grappling with how to make her work, and art in general, as accessible as possible to audiences that may never have visited a museum before. Her immersive environments are one way she is trying to accomplish this.
Better Nights, for instance, will be made up of a series of rooms, some faux-wood-paneled and others mirrored so viewers can see themselves and become part of the installation. “This will be the first time when it is a complete immersive experience, with mirrors throughout the main performative space,” Thomas says. She has been collecting vintage fabrics to upholster the furniture, which will be in classic shapes from the 1970s. And, as with Better Days, there will be a bar and plenty of space to participate in one of the programs or simply lounge around.
Thomas hopes it will also be a place of contemplation, with books for visitors to read and artworks to take in, some by her and some by other artists. She is also working diligently with museum officials on the programming for the space; the performances will feature live music, poetry readings, and dance, along with educational offerings and local talent—all conceived to attract Miami’s diverse community.
“Art is still very much about this elitist way of thinking and being,” Thomas says, perched on a couch in her studio. As she brings up plans for Better Nights on a computer screen, she goes on: “I’m interested in breaking some of those barriers down to allow the opportunity for different demographics to engage with my work. I’m asking the museum to step out of its comfort zone. It’s about building bridges and stepping onto the other side.”
Thomas says she plans to make periodic visits to Miami during the run of the show; while she’s there she hopes to tap into the city’s various communities. “It’s about connecting with people,” she says. “We’ve gotten so far away from our roots, from the idea of museums being our cultural leaders, havens for the community, that it’s our mission to bring that back. It’s about inclusivity—making everyday people feel comfortable coming through the door.”
In this story, hair by Nai’vasha at the Wall Group. Makeup by Amily Amick.