Mickalene Thomas MFA ’02 Is Reinventing Nudes

Recently, Mickalene Thomas MFA ’02 was featured in a New York Times Magazine profile. You can read the beginning of the profile below or by clicking this link.

In the fall of 2019, I visited Paris twice. In October, I went with my mother, a first and only visit for her. The trip was exhausting; we tried to see every sight, eat every bite, in too few days. I now think that she knew, or at least sensed, that she was dying. By the end of winter, she would be gone.

When I returned to Paris, a month after the first visit, I vowed to schedule nothing. An idle moment of social-media scrolling while standing under an awning, waiting for the rain to pass, led me to Galerie Nathalie Obadia, where the artist Mickalene Thomas was exhibiting new work. Thomas is an internationally renowned multidisciplinary artist, and I had followed her work since seeing a photo that she incorporated into a collage in 2013. It was an image of Solange Knowles, one that instantly matured the singer-songwriter, making her seem more serious — an intentional artist, not just somebody’s baby sister.

Many things about the last few months of my mother’s life feel charmed in retrospect, or heavy with symbolism, but few as much as my visit to that gallery. Thomas’s show consisted of large-scale paintings that incorporated collage, as well as her signature rhinestone detailing. The images were arranged amid an installation that evoked late 1960s or early 1970s interiors — floral upholstered stools, parquet flooring, deep-pile rugs. The paintings were based on Jet magazine’s 1970s-era “Beauties of the Month,” a pinup-​calendar variation on the publication’s more pageant-friendly “Beauties of the Week.” For my entire childhood and young adulthood, when copies of Jet were ubiquitous in Black spaces like salons and coffee tables, I had no idea these sexier calendars even existed.

Walking around the gallery, I found that two details stuck with me. One: Books by Black women were stacked in various corners, including works by Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou and Zadie Smith’s novel “On Beauty,” which I once successfully lobbied my mother’s book club to read. Two: A painting titled “February 1977” featured a woman with proportions similar to my own — which is to say, proportions similar to my mother’s, in her prime.”