Studio Museum in Harlem

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 72 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Lawdy Mama, 1969, Studio Museum in HarlemBarkley L. Hendricks, Lawdy Mama, 1969, from the portraits show. Arresting today, must’ve been even more so when new.  To quote the wall text, “Hendricks uses the master’s tools to dismantle his house.”

UPDATE APRIL 2021: The Studio Museum in Harlem is closed as it builds a new home for itself. I’m looking forward to visiting it in its new building. It opened a small temporary gallery space, but that is closed due to the pandemic.

Studio Museum in Harlem, New YorkThe Studio Museum in Harlem harbors no small ambitions, despite its smallish space. It prints its mission statement outside its front door:

The Studio Museum in Harlem is the nexus for artists of African descent, locally, nationally and internationally and for work that has been inspired and influenced by black culture. It is a site for the dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society.

As Chief Brody says in Jaws, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

And yet, I left the Studio Museum reflecting that they do a  masterful job with the boat they’ve got.

The Museum occupies a floor and a basement and a half-floor mezzanine space, and yet, the day I visited, had seven exhibits on. Obviously size constraints meant none of them could sprawl. One consisted of just four images. Yet I felt each of them did justice to their topic.

Studio Museum in Harlem

Regarding the Figure

“Regarding the Figure,” the largest and most ambitious show, examined black portraiture. That ran from a free black portraitist in the 1700s who painted white people (there’s an adorable waifish little girl) to ’70s era posters, to contemporary pieces.  “Regarding” in the title is fundamental to the show — it’s not just about portraits but about how the black figure is viewed. It makes portraiture by blacks an act of empowerment (see Lawdy Mama, above), and sets it up in contrast to the stereotyped ways white popular culture depicts black bodies. 

Studio Museum in Harlem

The show also raises broader questions that cut across all of contemporary art about what constitutes “portraiture” anyway.  Mostly the images here depict people, as you’d expect. But in a few cases they don’t. A vase; a faceless man in a t-shirt; a photograph of an empty office, the show argues these can be “portraits” too.

I felt satisfied with the exhibit’s intelligent selections. They made sense and encompassed a breadth of times, approaches, media, and styles.  For what it’s worth, Romare Bearden’s Homage to Duke, Bessie, and Louis, from around 1980, out-jazzed the entire Jazz Museum with a single awesome collage.

Romare Bearden Collage, Studio Museum in Harlem


Other Things I Saw

The other six shows when I visited:

  • Rico Gaston’s stripey, pop-y black icons, pulsating with power and energy. A natural extension of the portrait show.

    Rico Gaston, Icons, Studio Museum in Harlem
    Rico Gaston’s mod portraits
  • “Excerpt,” looking at art employing language and words, often in unconventional ways, “as a form of resistance to traditional methods of historicizing and disseminating ideas.” The wall text goes on in that vein about “reinterpreting and redistributing mainstream language” to empower “those traditionally left out of the dominant historical rhetoric.” 

Ironic, as I consider museum-speak a supreme example of an elite jargon that excludes less privileged groups.  I suppose one could argue a case of “using the master’s tools.”

In any case, a conceptually solid, thoughtful show, and my favorite piece was a photograph by Laila Essaydi, whom I realized later had work in the Lehman College “Alien Nations” show.

Laila Essaydi in the Studio Museum in Harlem
Lalla Essaydi, Converging Territories #9, 2008
  • “Crossing 125th,” witty and empathetic street portrait photographs by Jamel Shabazz. Wonderfully Harlem.
  • “Smokehouse 1968-1970,” a slideshow (old-school, clattery, carousel slide show) retrospective of the Smokehouse group, which painted vibrant abstract outdoor murals around Harlem. A fun choice of format for the story.
  • “Harlem Postcards Spring 2017,” four images (printed as free postcards!) capturing diverse, idiosyncratic views of the neighborhood.
  • “Signature,” Graphic design from the studio museum itself (posters and brochures and such).

That last one felt weak — like they were cleaning out old files and thought “hey, people might want to see this stuff.” But if six shows out of seven are interesting, edifying, and entertaining, that’s a great track record.

Should You Go?

The Studio Museum in Harlem projects strength and confidence that it totally earns.  The portraits show drew from the museum’s own collection, indicating its deep resources. It also has a great gift shop, for anyone looking for Harlem souvenirs. My sole (or maybe at this museum “soul”) regret is that it took the Museum Project to get me to finally go there. I’m looking forward to visiting again.

With the full disclosure that I am a white, highly educated, upper-upper middle class male, I’d say that anyone with even a slight interest in modern and contemporary art will enjoy a visit to the Studio Museum in Harlem. Those concerned with the intersection of art and politics will love it. It would make a fantastic double-bill with the Shomburg Center, providing a diverse set of views onto the contemporary African American experience.

Studio Museum in Harlem

For Reference:

Address 144 W. 125th Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $7 (suggested)

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