The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

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FEB 2019 Issue

God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin

Richard Avedon, James Baldwin, writer, Harlem, New York, 1945. © The Richard Avedon Foundation. Courtesy David Zwirner

New York
David Zwirner
January 10 – February 16, 2019

The sound of James Baldwin’s voice greets visitors first. It originates from a Victrola record player, unceremoniously placed on the floor in the back of the first room, which plays a 1932 recording on vinyl of Baldwin singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” The presence of his voice, generated via the superior quality of an analogue recording, reminds us of Baldwin’s singularity in a visceral way and suggests that there is an authentic version of Baldwin to be uncovered. Such a reading, however, like the iconic 1920s Victrola logo featuring a dog who appears to mistake the record for his master, is a bit of misdirection. As Nina Sun Eidsheim writes in The Race of Sound, a “voice’s source is not the singer; it is the listener.” In this way, God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin is about listening and pedagogy. Through his curation, Hilton Als teaches us how to attend to Baldwin, moving us toward a new theorization of portraiture.

The first room of Als’s exhibit hits all the biographical high notes, but it also articulates several theses on what constitutes a person. Though we do see several representations of Baldwin’s face (Richard Avedon’s photographs and Beauford Delaney’s painting), Als is especially invested in presenting several alternative mappings of Baldwin. There are the things that Baldwin did—sing, doodle, write—the places that he traveled, and the people that he encountered; each of which provides its own set of entanglements for us to think about Baldwin. Excerpts from his writings and interviews infuse the exhibit as wall text, presenting bits of a Baldwin we may know, while also leaving space for us to envision another, or several Baldwins, rooted in his proximity to Als. Place might seem self-explanatory, especially since the first room is entitled “A Walker in the City,” but Als also suggests ways that these geographies might have been situated within Baldwin’s imagination. This includes Harlem and Paris, of course, but also the South and its scenes of lynching represented by Cameron Rowland’s sculptures and archival photography (in 2000, Als contributed an essay to the catalog Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.) Als also summons Baldwin by presenting him as a point within several different networks. There is his family, his collaborations with Avedon (who he met at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and with whom he subsequently published Nothing Personal in 1964) and Delaney, his letters to Bill, his elementary school teacher, and most evocatively, Marlene Dumas’s series of portraits “Baldwin and,” which positions Als among a line of those who influenced and have been influenced by Baldwin. In presenting these theses, Als performs a version of Nietzsche’s famous statement that there is no doer behind the deed. Baldwin remains ephemeral, but Als (and portraiture) gives us sets of constellations that we can use to produce our own vision of Baldwin.

Beauford Delaney, Dark Rapture (James Baldwin), 1941. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY and David Zwirner.

It is, however, important to remember that one of these points of triangulation is Als himself. In Eidsheim’sreminder that the voice points us toward the listener, this exhibit is not just about Baldwin, but about Als teaching us how to listen. In the first room this is most present in the aesthetic resonances between Glenn Ligon’s Stranger # 73(2013) which coats text from Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” with coal dust rendering them an undulating field of blackness, a sea of pigment and a feast of textures, and James Welling’s Untitled 1981 black and white abstract photographs, whose sensual content morphs, but suggests waves of blackness. Both suggest opacity and the rich textures of blackness, which we might also take to be another thesis for the exhibit. Als seems to imply as much with the accompanying Baldwin quote: “Beauford and I would walk together through the streets of New York City… The reality of his seeing caused me to begin to see […] because Beauford caused me to see it, the very colors underwent a most disturbing and salutary change. The brown leaf on the black asphalt, for example—what colors were these, really?… And though black had been described to be as the absence of light, it became very clear to me that if this were true we would have never been able to see the color.”

What Als is moving us toward in the next part of the exhibition is the question of how to see blackness outside of projection—something that actually circulates contra to its title “Colonialism.” The works that Als selected, which includes works by Kara Walker, John Edmonds, Ja’Tovia Gary, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and more from Ligon, are especially notable for the ways that they exceed Baldwin’s own writings and statements on sexuality, queerness, and gender. Legacy and words meet in contradiction, further offering testament to the new kind of portrait that Als presents. In this section, Baldwin as figure is abstract and fragmented; he is presented as an imagined interlocutor. Als suggests that these are possible avenues that Baldwin might have taken had he been able to fulfill all of his artistic inclinations. I think, however, that Als’s assembling of them in one space offers insight into how to produce a portrait of a voice, rather than a person. Multiplicity is assured, as is contradiction, but above all it is about learning to listen.


Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

All Issues