Mickalene Thomas - photo courtesy the artist

Why Mickalene Thomas is so hot right now

With a show at The Broad, countless awards, and glowing press profiles, it's all snapping into focus for one of our favourite artists.

There’s a revealing interview with Mickalene Thomas in our new book Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys in which she outlines her journey into the art world, what art means to her today, and how she overcomes the professional and personal challenges that arise from her work.

The interview, one of ten with prominent artists of colour, is a fascinating insight into the practice of this groundbreaking contemporary artist who, since the publication of her Phaidon monograph in November 2021, has only gone from strength to strength.

Mickalene Thomas puff rough

Born in Camden, NJ in 1971, Thomas’s work focuses on black, female representation, pulling together both classical tropes and African American aesthetics. In her multi-faceted work, she has hugely contributed to the way in which racial diversity is represented within contemporary art.

This year has been the most rewarding – and most rewarded - in her significant trajectory as an artist.

2024 saw the sweeping exhibition Mickalene Thomas: All About Love - spanning 80 works over twenty years of her practice - open at The Broad, Los Angeles to ecstatic reviews from critics, and an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the public.

The show will travel to the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia later in the year, after which it will hop the Atlantic to open at the Hayward Gallery in London in early 2025.

“Mickalene’s driving force is that she starts where she grew up — in Camden, N.J., with her mother, with her lovers and with her friends,” said Ed Schad, a curator at the Broad in a glowing profile of Thomas in the New York Times.

“She was a slow and steady build — she was never a one-hit wonder,” Isolde Brielmaier, deputy director of the New Museum, New York,” also says in the Times piece. “She’s remained true to making Black women visible — amplifying their presence and their voices.”

Mickalene Thomas puff rough Mickalene Thomas: Jet Blue #11, 2021

Already a Tony nominated artist, Thomas has been the recipient of numerous other art world and society awards this year.

She was presented with the Vanguard Award at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s annual Center Gala earlier this month (May) in recognition of her advocacy and commitment to intersecting complexities of Black and female identity within the Western canon.

This was in addition to other 2024 awards including: the Gordon Parks Foundation Award; Creative Capital Wild Futures: Art, Culture, Impact Award; and the New Museum Artist Award.

These, in turn, were added to a recent roll call that includes Hirshhorn Artist X Artist New York Gala honoree (2023); the Pratt Institute Legends Award (2022); Rema Hort Mann Foundation 25th Anniversary honoree (2022); Artistic Impact Award, Newark Museum (2022); Glass House 15th Anniversary Artist of the Year (2022) to name just a few of many.

Mickalene Thomas puff rough Mickalene Thomas: Left Behind, 2021

Recognition has also come from the art market expert and serial entrepreneur Magnus Resch, who, in picking his favourite Artspace editions earlier this month, called Thomas’s Broad show “a landmark mid-career show for an artist already well-known to many, who creates art that both carries on many conventions while upsetting many others.”

Commenting on Phaidon and Artspace’s limited-edition Mickalene Thomas collages, Jet Blue #11 and Left Behind (both 2021), Resch said: “Both exemplify her style perfectly. Composed of diverse materials including hand-cut inkjet prints, pigment-printed silk fragments, and hand-applied acrylic pochoir, these works trigger memories of mid-century erotica, as well as much earlier styles of intimately portraiture, to produce something entirely new.”

In the forthcoming book Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys Thomas is asked about a number of elements key to her practice, including her formative exposure to art during after-school programs at the Newark Museum of Art, though it wasn’t until her early twenties that she “really gravitated toward a creative practice,” she tells interviewer Mat Smith.

“Growing up in New Jersey and experiencing New York’s art scene had a significant impact on my artistic journey, but studying as an undergraduate in Portland, Oregon, was the turning point. There, I surrounded myself with a community of creatives who really inspired me. I vividly remember the transformative experience of walking into this exhibition by Carrie Mae Weems at the Portland Art Museum. For the first time, contemporary art in a museum reflected who I was. That was the moment I realized I wanted to become an artist.”

Mickalene Thomas puff rough

She is also asked about the role of art in society to which she says: “Art serves as a means of self-expression through unique perspectives and experiences that challenge societal norms while celebrating the human condition in all its nuances. Art is a powerful vehicle to create impact. When it comes to my work, the way we relate to each other and the need for self-representation within histories and broader narratives is at the core of what I do, providing platforms of validation and empowerment. Creating new visual storytelling around the complexities of Blackness forces us to understand how we inevitably coexist.”

And, reflecting on her achievements to date, Thomas also reveals how her own attitudes to her work have changed over time, and as her renown has grown.

“I don’t put so much pressure on myself anymore and I only make art that makes me happy and is fun to make," she says. "Managing my ever-growing studio is key to my practice, but spending time with my work is something that I will never give up. After so many years, my favourite part of making art is still just sitting in front of it for a long time, looking at the complexities. Discovering new ways of seeing my own work allows me to make concrete critical decisions and execute them.”

Check out Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys, our Mickalene Thomas monograph; and take a look at her two Phaidon and Artspace editions Jet Blue #11 and Left Behind (both 2021).