After the Alice Neel show I curated closed in 2017, David Zwirner asked me what I’d like to do next. I immediately said James Baldwin, for some reasons that were clear to me and some that revealed themselves only when I began to meet with artists and see their work. I wanted to give Baldwin his body back, to reclaim him for myself and many others as the maverick queer artist that drew us to him in the first place. It’s difficult to visualize those feelings—complex, almost nonverbal feelings—and, as it turns out, difficult to get the right mix that further articulates those expressions of thought and feeling. But I think what we have here in this show, “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin” (on view through February 16), is exactly as I wanted, which is to say a myriad portrait of a significant figure. And as everyone knows, when an artist is making a portrait, they are also making a portrait of themselves.
So to a very great extent, this is not a group show but, I hope, a new and valuable way of showing artists who are interested in exhibiting aspects of themselves, their thinking in relation to their times and the history that made them. Baldwin certainly helped make me, and in recent years I have been disturbed by the conversations around his work—largely, shall we say, heteronormative conversations that elevate the imitator and plunge the so-called liberal into a very comforting cold bath laced with guilt and remorse. These are reflexes, not thoughts, really, and so in order to help give Baldwin himself, I thought we had to start from the beginning. The first part of the exhibition is rooted in biography, and the second part is about metaphor: artists making the art Baldwin could not make himself.
Let’s begin with his father, David Baldwin, who is a significant figure in a lot of James Baldwin’s most emotional and personal texts. Indeed, he said in his book about movies, The Devil Finds Work, that he had written both too much and too little about this man who was not his biographical father, this man who marginalized his eldest adopted son by calling him ugly and treating him with scorn. How to make art out of that—because all art grows out of love or need? How to deal with David Baldwin and the legacy of ugliness that he passed on to his son, who, thank God, drew a line between accepting his father’s scorn and then trying to remake a body that was somewhat free of that?
Well, there was Beauford Delaney and Richard Avedon, friends he was attracted to, in part because they wanted to see him. But still the problem with David Baldwin persisted until, really, Cameron Rowland’s piece Norfolk Southern Georgia, 2007 (pictured in the below installation view), came in. It’s a piece that evokes many things. Cameron wrote for the text that goes along with the piece:
Relay rail is rail that has been removed from its original line and resold. Relay rail was first sold by railroad companies to mining companies for pit railways. Steel rail is made using coal and iron ore. In the late 1860s, the Alabama and Chattanooga railroad; the Georgia and Alabama railroad; the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad; and the Macon and Brunswick Railroad were constructed using convict lease labor. By 1895, all of these lines had been consolidated into the southern railway, which built hubs in Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Atlanta.
When I saw the rails, I was able to see David Baldwin, a native of Georgia, and to see, too, what the South had made of him and how religion was a way of condemning the white world that said his blackness was ugly. For most of his adult life, David Baldwin was a Baptist minister. As a man, Baldwin said he didn’t understand what his father must have seen growing up in Georgia, the horror of lynchings or willed segregation, forced labor, until he went South himself.
Many years ago, I wrote an essay for a book about photographs of lynching in America. People actually sent postcards and collected this horror, and the project was so upsetting that I didn’t keep a copy of the book for myself. I felt it was important, though, for us to see in this show what David Baldwin had seen, and the lynching photographs that we show display something devastating that affects the mind in profound ways: a black man about to be lynched. The images are about the preparation of a holocaust, in effect. And when David Baldwin left Georgia and Baldwin’s mother, Berdis, left Maryland, they were fleeing the kind of world where Cameron’s piece was a given, not an exception.
Continuing along that wall in the gallery, we see Baldwin falling in love for the first time, and that was with his teacher, Orilla Miller, whom he called Bill. He was maybe ten when they met, and for a number of years—indeed, for the rest of his life—Bill Miller was an important figure because she never lied to him, he said, and she never exercised the prerogatives and cruelties Baldwin associated with whiteness. And it was because Bill responded to humans as they wanted to present themselves, Baldwin said, that he never really became a racist. He knew there was something beyond the color of one’s skin, that behavior, in fact, defines so much of how we act in the world.
One thing I loved discovering in my research was how when Baldwin went to California to give a speech for the Congress of Racial Equality in 1962 or so, Bill and her husband, Evan, were in the balcony. By this time her former prized and much beloved student was famous, and after he finished his speech, he was chatting with Bill and Evan and was about to be carried away when Baldwin said, “That’s my teacher.” And Bill said to him during his talk, “If the segregationists don’t get you, the integrationists will.” It’s a story that silences me with its declaration of love on both sides, a kind of version of Romeo and Juliet. Because when you love, the point is you’ve found someone who is willing to tell you the truth so you can learn.
The bridge joining the two points of the show together is a latrine filled with stones I collected from Baldwin’s final home in Saint-Paul de Vence. Since the show is a kind of collective enterprise, I wanted us to see the world where Baldwin lived and died, and from where we are resurrecting him. The stones are from his terrace, where he had his welcome table, the point of entry for guest and friends, where he would sit and drink and talk with people he loved. The stones were a kind of ghostly evocation in real substance of his life the way that Cameron’s rails are an evocation of his father’s past and Marlene Dumas’s extraordinary portraits of the men in Baldwin’s life an evocation of those family members that he made and found for himself, his found family.
Skipping along those tones mentally and emotionally, we’ve left the world of biography, in fact, and we enter the universe of pure metaphor. Growing up and as an artist, Baldwin had a great interest in masks, specifically the masks of blackness and maleness, the various roles we appropriate or condemn the better to define ourselves. In one of his last pieces of writing, he talked about the various projections that Michael Jackson, for instance, had to withstand and survive if he did not internalize what America deemed ugly, which is to say his blackness and his maleness. In Anthony Barboza’s extraordinary image from 1980, we have Jackson’s real pre–Michael Jackson face, the face God made for him and he did not make for himself. His internal life disfigured his body and his face in order to find some approximation of it in front of the camera and in front of the world, and it’s such a gift to have Barboza’s portrait before those decisions were made, and to see his extraordinary vulnerability and the beauty of his real face.
But what is a real face? Diane Arbus, the great philosopher and dissembler of reality in photography, tackles the question in her portrait of a young black boy sitting in Washington Square Park. She made this extraordinary portrait about a young person involved in the process of self-invention, who has penciled in eyebrows, parted and patted down hair. And between the two, between this boy and Michael Jackson, who is more real or more fake: Jackson with his “natural” or Arbus’s figure with his shifting between maleness and femaleness? The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and I think when we try to define ourselves, the truth is always somewhere in the middle. That’s one of the beautiful things about photography and portraiture: it’s not a fixed ideal, and it’s not a fixed image. It makes us think, and it makes us go further back into the recesses of our own mind to understand ideas about the truth.
I would say the truth lies somewhere in the middle for Baldwin, too. He had a number of shortcomings, the most obvious of which was his relationship to women. Even though he had grown up and had several female lovers before he went to France, it’s not clear what his relationship was to women other than Bill Miller and his mother. Baldwin’s strongest work, I think, was about the curtains and chains and beds that connected men, sometimes white men to black men and, even more powerfully, black men to one another.
In any case, Baldwin ends his 1961 Esquire piece about Ingmar Bergman by describing the kind of film scenario he himself would record if he had the means. Baldwin always wanted to be a filmmaker, too, and it is uncanny to read this description because it is exactly the film Kara Walker in 8 Possible Beginnings, which plays on one of the two very powerful walls dominated by film in the last room, a room that’s also dominated by women and gay men who tell the stories in mediums Baldwin would have loved to achieve something in. We have Glenn Ligon’s comic book drawings, which are really an extension of the Arbus and Barboza photographs, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s beautiful Nyado: The Thing Around Her Neck, from 2011. Crosby’s piece is a clarification of ideas about miscegenation that Baldwin couldn’t get right in his novels Another Country and Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone.
Part of the joy of “God Made My Face” is discovering what the show is for you. But one last thing. I want to direct your attention to Ja’Tovia Gary’s extraordinary film An Ecstatic Experience, from 2015. Here we are back in the church that helped make Baldwin—and the violence of America that helped make him, too. In this film, the actress Ruby Dee recites a story about the experience of living on a plantation. This text is a record that Gary took from Fannie Moore, a slave whose story was recorded and preserved by the Federal Writers’ Project in the Library of Congress. This is the story of faith, belief, and disillusionment that Baldwin told himself as a former member of the church and as someone who believed in the ecstatic experience of transformation.
To some extent, our exhibition ends with a note I wanted to sound at the beginning, pictures of men of color and other queer men on the piers in the city Baldwin grew up and cruised in. He was a walker, like most gay men at that time. It was a way to not be alone and to connect with others. The photographs I’m referring to are by Alvin Baltrop, a man of color who paid attention in the seventies and eighties to a group of bodies on the piers before they were bought up, Disneyfied, cleaned up. His camera told us a lot about those lives that would be forgotten otherwise. As Arbus said, it’s an extraordinary amount of attention to give, to see with a camera. I love that Alvin Baltrop gave these men attention and that the photographs are a kind of remembrance. Baldwin had fled New York by the time these guys were on the piers, but he said in an interview with Margaret Mead, “I’ll never be able to shake the dust of this town off my feet.”
Toward the end of his life, Baldwin gave an interview to Richard Goldstein in which he said he never felt part of a tribe or a group, but it was his job to witness. And I think that meant ultimately to record his feelings and thoughts about his life and about queerness and everything in between. And he never got around to making that definitive work. It’s my hope that with this exhibition, with this group and tribe of artists, we were able to do that for him.
Hilton Als began contributing to The New Yorker in 1989, writing pieces for Talk of the Town. He became a staff writer in 1994, a theater critic in 2002, and chief theater critic in 2013. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, a George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, the American Academy’s Berlin Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his work at The New Yorker in 2017. He is the author of the critically acclaimed White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of a Lambda Literary Award in 2014. A professor at Columbia University’s writing program, he lives in New York City. Read his Art of the Essay interview.
All images taken from “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin,” on view at David Zwirner through February 16. Listen to Hilton Als’s conversation about Baldwin with Thelma Golden on Dialogues, a podcast from David Zwirner.